Hello, I hope you’re doing well. We had a big storm here overnight, and it’s still very windy but not as bad, and raining. I’m usually pretty good about going to the gym when I don’t have an early work start, but not today; I don’t mind snow and cold but I draw the line at wind and rain. Instead I did Wordle and Bardle, and then I got hooked on a live feed of big passenger jets landing in 70mph winds at Heathrow. So, a productive morning so far.
The power is out at our house and although we have a generator, the internet is spotty. And I’m on a loaner laptop because mine is broken, so I’m not able to bring up my archive of draft Coaching Letters. This one is going to be pretty short, then, and linkless. Instead, here are some not-completely-random thoughts about the work being done AFTER districts create their Portrait of a Graduate (or similar construct using different language).
To paraphrase Churchill, creating the Portrait of the Graduate is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, it is just the end of the beginning. Creating the PoG, because it takes so much work, tends to take on the features of a goal in itself. It is hard to keep in mind that the completion is not the goal. I would go so far as to say that we over-think the creation of the PoG (it would save a lot of time and effort if there was a state model that districts could adapt to meet their needs rather than always starting from scratch) and under-think its implementation—meaning that we have the distribution of effort exactly backwards. Districts who have done a smart job of leveraging their PoG use it as the basis for a lot of work over several years to ensure the realization of the vision represented by the PoG. Here’s what comes to mind:
- For all the desirable traits listed in the PoG, where are they actually taught? I got into a Twitter war the other week. I’m going to spare you all the details, but the tweets that made me sad were the ones that said, and I’m quoting here but there were many similar, “I crossed the country twice with a U-Haul and stopped at truck stops along the way and I never got Covid!”. The faulty thinking in this statement includes, as I’m sure you can see, the idea that my story is representative of all stories and therefore if it didn’t happen to me it’s clearly bogus (what my friend Rose calls n of 1 stories); and the idea that just because I made a bad decision and got away with it means it was a good decision (what Annie Duke calls resulting—she uses the example of someone who drives home after too many drinks—just because they didn’t kill anyone doesn’t make it a good decision); and a complete failure to grasp probability and statistics. So, for every district that says that students are going to be critical thinkers, where exactly is that in the curriculum? Seriously, where?
- If it’s not in the curriculum, how are you going to guarantee it? For example, many PoG statements include language about collaboration and teamwork. Are you going to specify that in the curriculum? Some practices, such as Peter Liljedahl’s Thinking Classroom and Next Gen Science, necessitate collaboration. And there are many elective classes and extra-curriculars that involve students working in groups or teams. Great—are all students guaranteed that experience? Because relying on individual teachers to incorporate true collaboration (as opposed to students sitting in groups working on the same assignment) is not sufficient to ensure that all students acquire the skills of collaboration. I am not even sure that putting students in collaborative groups is enough; I think we should be explicitly teaching what makes a productive team. Come to think of it, we should be teaching that to our teachers and leaders as well—see this article from the New York Times about Google’s research into teamwork.
- What instructional practices do we expect teachers to enact? In our book (The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders), we make a big deal of developing a district definition of high quality instruction, which should be in line with the Portrait of a Graduate, but should also incorporate instructional practices with the best research base for improving achievement of all students, but particularly traditionally under-served students. The meta-analysis of formative assessment, “Inside the Black Box”, published well over 20 years ago in the Kappan, includes the assertion: “Many of these studies arrive at another important conclusion: that improved formative assessment helps low achievers more than other students and so reduces the range of achievement while raising achievement overall.” I am no longer surprised, but still shocked, that so many educators seem to think that formative assessment is about checks for understanding and exit slips. I have a Google doc with a ton of resources on formative assessment that I would normally link to here (internet not working right this second), but you can always email me if you want it. And if you want a head start on an instructional framework that might form the foundation of a district instructional model, you should look at our (Partners for Educational Leadership) Accelerating Learning Framework, which you can find on our website.
- What capacity do we need to build in teachers, coaches, and leaders, in order to enact all this? Again, no longer surprised when leaders are overly optimistic about the answer to this question. We use language like “launch”, “roll-out” and “buy-in” (I’m working on a list of words I want to ban, which I started in Killingly in December), as if these are what matter most in shifting instructional practice. We tend to transmit to teachers what we want them to do. (There’s a line in, I think, a Ball and Cohen article: teachers do not change their practice like they change their socks.) We tend to be very poor at providing them the time and space to get clarity, make meaning, ask questions, talk to each other, plan together, try things out—that’s not even counting the time it takes for teachers to understand what it is they’re being asked to do. I think it takes years to get good at most or all instructional practices—I think teaching is the most complex activity required in any profession—and I think we should start planning for that.
- How can you better leverage your coaches? This is a whole Coaching Letter by itself… Props to the districts we are working with right now to do a better job of this. And love and respect to coaches everywhere…
- What is the plan to do all this? Because not only do you need a plan to achieve your PoG, you need a plan to plan. I know that everyone is under enormous pressure right now and I certainly don’t want to add to that, so can I just make some suggestions? Don’t think in terms of making presentations and planning meetings—in fact, ditch anything that smacks of a transmission model and start thinking about conversations; they take up less time, are easier to convene, and therefore can happen more quickly and are more efficient. Don’t talk about doing more, talk about doing less; the teacher evaluation document, for example, already describes a library’s worth of teaching practices—which ones are you going to focus on? Don’t think in terms of school years, because educators are so conditioned to think about school years as separate from each other (last year was cooperative learning and next year is writer’s workshop); instead, chart a course and stick to it forever, while understanding and communicating that you’re going to be trying things out and making course corrections along the way. But somebody needs to be the holder of all this thinking—preferably someone with a very large whiteboard and lots of markers.
- Where do people go to find out what’s happening? I’ve become a big fan of Google sites—easy to use, easy to update—but if not that, it should be easy for teachers, especially, to find the latest information. I love when superintendents post short video updates. And it should be safe for people to ask questions—see the last Coaching Letter (was it the last one? Maybe the one before that) on psychological safety.
- When are you going to do this work? Pretty sure that you’re not going to get it done in a few PD days. I wrote an article for ASCD on what leaders can do to alleviate teacher stress, and the line that got the most positive response was about stopping talking about deadlines and instead talking about sequence. One of the reasons school improvement plans tend to be so useless is that the timelines are so unrealistic—you can’t predict how long things are going to take, and often you can’t even predict everything you need to do or what you’re going to have to deal with. I wish I could remember who said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. I believe that Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. And Eisenhower and Churchill both said, on several occasions, that plans are useless but planning is everything.
My best hope is that this Coaching Letter provides a kind of process guide for educators, but especially senior leaders, who are in the process of building strategy to realize their PoG. But I am sure it is imperfect—let’s think of it as a prototype—so I would appreciate your feedback. I’m going to queue this up for delivery now, but I’m not sure when you’re going to get it—let’s hope it’s today! And let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices