What English Muffin Pizzas Taught Me About Sincerity

IMG_0998“My skills, if you’re wondering, include making English muffin pizzas, microwaving hot chocolate and dipping English muffin pizzas into hot chocolate.” – Comedian, Mike Birbiglia

In my early twenties I was making dinner for my in-laws when their friends (I’ll call them Ed and Myrtle) dropped by at supper time. I’d purchased two bags of English Muffins on my way home from work which I toasted, painted with leftover spaghetti sauce, plunked some pepperoni rounds and sprinkles of mozzarella cheese on top and–voila!–dinner was served.

We sat down and passed the English muffin pizzas around.

“Oh my!” said Myrtle. “These are scrumptious.”

“They sure are,” agreed Ed. “Nice job, Heather.”

I mumbled embarrassed, “I usually cook full meals, but it was a busy day and–”

“Oh, but the way you made these, it’s just great. You’ll have to give me the recipe.”

“Well, there’s really no recipe, you just–”

“Ed, aren’t you glad we stopped by so we could have these delicious pizzas?”

“I sure am,” he said.

“These are just wonderful. You are a great cook. I don’t think I could make these like you.”

While I knew Myrtle was being kind and I appreciated her compliments, I also know that those English Muffin Pizzas were not all that. Myrtle’s lesson stays with me when I’m in classrooms.

When I comment on classroom environment, instruction or student work I think about sincerity, specificity and repeatability.

“Sincerity is about immediacy, spontaneity, spur-of-the moment responses that well up from your genuine self.” (Wiki How “Be Sincere”)

I never plan ahead what I’ll say to a teacher and I don’t always have the best words, but my comments come from a genuine place. That might sound like, “I appreciated the way you said, ‘I’m not going to call on anyone until everyone has had at least ten seconds of think time,’ that really gave everyone a chance to consider the question, not just the quick thinkers.”

I also want to be specific. At times I’m tempted to say, “That was a wonderful lesson,” but I push myself to think about the specifics of effective instruction that I witnessed. “After you finished the minilesson, I noticed you invited anyone who didn’t understand the task to stay at the carpet with you. It showed that you understand that not everyone gets directions the first time and was a positive way to revisit the task.”

With a focus on being sincere and specific, I want to make sure I’m noticing important aspects of instruction–the things worth repeating. Although the autumn bulletin board is darn cute, I’m going to comment on the student writing that shows how the students are beginning to use evidence to support their ideas. It’s easy to respond to the visual and obvious in the classroom, but what students know and are able to do is a more important focus for a coach.

What have English muffin pizzas taught you? Or perhaps what other tips do you have related to sincerity, specificity and repeatability?


Get Sleep


Sleep well. Think well.–John Medina

I made a mistake on Friday. I came home after a full-to-bursting week and popped open a caffeinated beverage that I believed would perk me up and propel me through the evening. It did. I continued to spin and whirl and get more done (though now I’m not sure what that all was). Even though I knew that any caffeine after 2:00 pm keeps me awake, I was so depleted from the week that I thought


Going to bed at 10:30, I watched 11:30, 12:30 and 1:30 roll by. Wide awake. It wasn’t any different. Note to self: when breaking the sleep code, my body will respond predictably.

It’s getting colder as we near the end of October. Our bodies want to stay in bed longer. For many of us it’s dark when we wake. “Hibernate,” our natural rhythms whisper.

I haven’t been listening.

From the sound of it many of my colleagues are in the same place. “I’m exhausted,” I hear. “I need to get more sleep.”

So I rewatched this video on sleep:
John Medina’s Video on Sleep

And then this slideshow:
10 Ways to Sleep Better

I reflect on how I “know” these facts, but it doesn’t mean I’m adhering to the advice. So I’m recommitting to no caffeine after 2:00 pm, a regular bedtime, a quiet book to ease me to sleep (excited to start Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert tonight) and more time to sleep. We’ll often encourage the people around us to “grab another cup of coffee” or “indulge in a glass of wine tonight,” but we rarely wish them more and better sleep.

So I’m starting with you. Get more and better sleep tonight and all this week. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.


Living Up to a Name


A young woman whooshed past us as we exited the lobby of our hotel. Her high ponytail bobbed as she jogged to her car in the parking lot. As she pulled away we saw the circle of Jimmy John’s gourmet sandwiches in her window.

“Well, I guess what they say on their commercials is true,” my husband said.

Jimmy John’s Commercial

For the uninitiated, Jimmy John’s is a business that claims “freaky fast delivery” for their gourmet sandwiches. Seeing the worker hustling from her delivery back to the next sandwich order impressed me and made me think that maybe there is some truth to their advertising.

Flash forward to an initial meeting with a beginning-career teacher new to our district. “Rita” was instantly comfortable talking instruction and jumped right in with her concerns about a small group of readers in her room. We decided that when I was in the building the next day I’d pop in and observe these particular readers. This was when I saw her expression change.

“So, you need to know something about me. I’m a little worried about having you in the room while I’m teaching. I know you’ll just be here to support me, but it still makes me nervous. I worry about being judged and I’ve heard you are an exceptional teacher.”

She paused and I waited.

“And I’m just worried that you’re going to think I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I nodded and smiled, “Your concerns are completely understandable. I’ve heard the same thing from very confident veteran teachers. My role is all about improving student learning so I’m super focused on the kids and their growth. I can tell you that I won’t be judging you and your teaching, but more than my words, I hope my behavior speaks for itself.”

Each time I enter a classroom I expect what I say and do to align with my tag lines:

*All teachers deserve to work with a coach
*Trust, safety and good communication are foundational elements of coaching relationships
*Improving student learning is the beginning, middle and end of our coaching work

From the official website I read, “Jimmy John’s employees are the ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They want to be the best. They don’t mind doing whatever it takes to get the job done…Jimmy John’s wants only the best for the best.”

Thank you unknown Jimmy John’s employee with the ponytail for reminding me I want to be the best coach for the best students and their teachers.

What are your tag lines? How do they manifest in your life and work?


When People Are Talking While You Are Presenting


I love to ask presenters about the adult behaviors that bother them most during professional development. One of the top replies is, “When people are talking and it’s not time to talk.”

Oh, yes. I agree. Audience talking can really impact a presentation, especially for the facilitator. Don’t we want to be able to focus and give our best? It can distract the participants. Often the people around the talker/s wish they would stop. Talking during the presentation can also shift the tone away from professionalism to something else.

But audience chatter is also a great source of information and brings up some important questions:

• Was there a norm set from the beginning? My norms list includes “equity in communication” and I explain this by saying, “I am going to keep you very active today. Sometimes we’ll share out whole group, sometimes small groups, sometimes partners. There will be times to listen and work independently and I’ll ask you to respect the learning styles of those around you who need voices off in order to concentrate.”

• Have you built in enough time for people to talk to each other throughout the presentation? If you haven’t, their talking may be a sign that they need to process before they can take in more information. Think about giving some opportunity to reflect for about every ten minutes of content.

• Did you start talking before everyone had transitioned from an activity? Transitioning adults back from fruitful conversations is very difficult. I have a very pleasant chime that I use. About 30 seconds is needed for a large group to wrap up. I also use a simple hand-up gesture to let folks know it’s time to come back together. Whatever I use for transition, I wait until the talking has stopped before I begin.

• Is there a more important conversation that needs to take place? Once a staff member received a text during my presentation that a teacher’s husband had been badly injured in an accident and was being rushed to the hospital. When the group began whispering, I offered up a turn and talk and then checked in with them. They stepped outside the room and to figure out how they’d help with meals and childcare. Two teachers left and the rest returned after about ten minutes and while still concerned were ready to participate again.

For the sake of conversation though, let’s say that you have set norms and you have built in time to talk and there isn’t a more important conversation needing to take place. This happened recently to two coaches I know. One coach said, “The staff had their video viewing forms, we’d established their watch-fors and when the video began, the group in the back–why is it always the group in the back?–starting talking. I moved closer to them using proximity and they kept talking. I waited to see if they’d stop and they didn’t.”

What did she do? She stopped the video and addressed it directly, “Since we’ve made a commitment to watch and learn from this video, I’m going to ask if you are talking to please stop. If you need to step out to continue a conversation please do that. I’m going to start the video from the beginning again.” The group stopped talking, picked up their forms and got back on task. The coach disliked being put in that position, but later some of the other teachers thanked her for her professionalism and addressing the norms.

Another coach said he had a group that was talking while we was reading a short picture book aloud to set context for the discussion about minilessons. He got to a natural stopping place and said, “I noticed there is some conversation while I’m reading so I’m going to pause here to give a short turn and talk. Then when we come back we’ll finish up the rest of the book.” When the turn and talk was over, everyone listened for the remainder of the book.

What is similar in both of these scenarios is that the coaches addressed the talking and in one case made an explicit request and the other gave an opportunity for an outlet. They didn’t call anyone out, embarrass, or “should” the group. They skillfully facilitated a group of adults to try to meet learning needs.

My motto is “stay curious” and I employ it often when people are talking while I’m presenting. I wonder what is going on in their personal and professional lives. There have been times that I’ve checked in with them later and my intuition that something challenging was happening was confirmed. I’m curious if I’ve set the appropriate tone and expectations. I wonder too how it’s affecting other people—maybe this is just a “me” thing. Each time I’ve addressed it, I’ve been glad that I did. It’s uncomfortable, but in the long run most people appreciate a facilitator that sets professional norms and creates a comfortable path to follow them.

What other strategies do you use when adults are talking during a listening time? Are there other professional development behaviors you’d like to see addressed on the blog as well?


When You Are Coaching Together


An opportunity bloomed this autumn allowing my son Jamin and I to travel to the east coast and do our first college campus tour. From the time he was a toddler, Jamin forecasted weather for both real and imaginary climates so it didn’t surprise us when atmospheric sciences became his future learning focus. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the top colleges for students interested in pursuing atmospheric sciences. We were at MIT this past Friday when the undergraduate admissions dean said, “Here at MIT we have a saying that if you are doing homework alone, you are doing it wrong.”

I loved the spirit of creativity and collaboration I saw through MIT’s philosophy, their physical buildings and their hacks (practical jokes) and it got me to thinking about my own work.

“If you are coaching alone, you are doing it wrong.”

Yep. That’s true. My first year as a coach in my district I was the first (and only) elementary instructional coach. I was arriving early to work and staying late. There was no one to problem-solve with or edit my whole-district emails. I didn’t have a colleague to take apart standards and dig in for meaning. No one was there when I said, “So what I’m really curious about is…”

The late Don Graves said, “If you have even one colleague with whom you can share ideas, readings and questions, you can draw from that enough energy to maintain your motivation and ability to grow professionally.” I found that “even one colleague” in Megan, the secondary instructional coach at the time. We started out by saying things like, “Can I get your perspective on something?” or “Will you look over what I’ve written and tell me the main point that comes across?” Even though she worked with big kids and I worked with little ones, we agreed that “good instruction is good instruction” no matter the grade. She gave me the motivation and ability to grow that first year as a coach.

A lot has changed in seven years. I now have officemates who listen when I say, “So what I’m really curious about is…” Our K-12 coaching team is nineteen strong and we meet every week for 90 minutes. I have colleagues outside of my district too who give me ideas and shape my perspectives. Turning it around I can confidently say, “When you are coaching together, you are doing it right.”

Who is your “even one colleague”? How do you collaborate in the work of coaching?


Read-Alouds Impact Grown-Ups Too


We often talk about the right book at the right time for our students, and it’s also true for adults.

A couple weeks ago I read “Ralph Tells a Story” by Abby Hanlon to several different groups of teachers as I opened my writing professional development. The story is about a young boy, Ralph, who doesn’t see himself as a writer. Sure, his best friend Daisy writes hundreds of stories, but he can’t think of one. So he does many things to avoid writing. At one particular share session he is asked to share his writing and something amazing happens. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Get. The. Book.

A colleague, Jackie, asked if she could borrow the book after our class and I was happy to loan her my copy. The next day she wrote this to me, “I have a ‘Ralph’ in my classroom and I realized what at times may look like stubborness, or an unwillingness to even try, might actually be something far more vulnerable and utterly painful. Until that moment, I had not really seen his pain. So thank you for sharing Ralph’s story with us yesterday. I’m sure it made me see this writer more clearly.”

The next day she sent me an update of what happened after she read the book aloud.

“My ‘Ralph’ sat up front and I could hear him whisper aloud ‘That’s me!’ And I knew it was true. Everyone definitely felt a connection. I shared with them that even grown-ups (including me) have those ‘Ralph moments.'”

Putting books that matter and make a difference into teachers’ hands is one of the best parts of my job. I choose carefully and share purposefully. This link will take you to an ever-growing board I’m keeping on these types of texts.


What types of books do you love that impact adults?


Breaking the Fourth Wall


My daughter was explaining that some of the performances at LeakyCon 2013 (the national Harry Potter fandom convention this summer) broke the fourth wall. I had a blank look on my face.

“You know, when they say things like ‘let me walk down stage and talk with the audience about this.’ They are purposefully breaking the invisible boundary between fiction and realism.”

As I did some research to understand the concept better, it turns out that a few movies on my top 100 list break the fourth wall. In the foreign film Amelie, for example, the main character looks into the camera and explains that she likes to find little details in movies that others overlook. My teenage watch-watch-and-rewatch film, Sixteen Candles, has Anthony Michael Hall look straight at us and say, “This is getting good.” Even in Father of the Bride, Steve Martin opens the movie at the wedding reception explaining to us how it all began.

The next day when I was coaching a teacher who was in the middle of a reviewing expectations for conferring a student said, “This stuff is getting really old.” The teacher and I totally broke character and laughed with each other and agreed it was. In addition to laughing together, she’s also saying things like, “I feel like I’m missing something. Is there anything you would add, Mrs. Rader?” or “I’m going to hit pause for a moment. Mrs. Rader, can you think of another way to say that?” or “I’m thinking of changing our original plan based on their responses,” right there in front of the kids. Of course she’s not breaking the wall between fiction and realism, she’s breaking the wall between lone decision-making and decision-making with feedback.

Breaking the fourth wall in coaching takes time. It’s rare that it happens the first week or two that I’m in a class. It also takes a solidness with the other three walls. When a teacher has a handle on the content, knowledge of the students and the art of teaching, he/she opens up to consider the fourth wall of feedback. John Hattie’s quote, “The most simple prescription for improving education must be dollops of feedback.” In Hattie’s research ‘dollops of feedback’ was in relationship to studying students and teachers, but in my experience the same powerful truth holds with teachers learning together. There are many times that coach-to-teacher feedback is exactly what’s needed, but the most powerful feedback is teacher to coach.

Some examples:
“I don’t know where to go next.”
“I’m not sure this is meeting my expectations.”
“Is this getting at the teaching point/standard?”
“What is a different way to present this concept?”
“We need to stop and reteach.”

In these moments when we break the fourth wall, our learning is alive and kicking.

When do you break the fourth wall? What power does it hold for you?


Being On

It was the second week of school and I was about to leave one of the four classrooms I was coaching in when the teacher admitted to me, “I feel like when you’re in here I need to be on.”

I didn’t know exactly how to take the comment. You’re welcome? I’m sorry?

It’s not until I reread Joellen Killion’s piece in Teachers Teaching Teachers called, “Are You Coaching Heavy or Light?”that I got a different perspective. Killion wrote, “I am asking coaches to shift from being liked and appreciated to making a difference.”

In all honesty I want both: I want to be liked and appreciated AND I want to make a difference. I want to improve student learning and be invited out for beverages on Friday like any other staff member. But if I had to choose one? Deep breath. I’d rather make a difference.

Why? For years I’ve committed to transporting my three children to my school district. As long as I was spending that much time focused on education, I wanted my children to benefit. In one class I’d envision my inquisitive and accurate son in the boys I met. In another room, I’d picture both my wise, old-soul daughter and my social, organized youngest in the girls with whom I worked. I’d ask myself, “What do I want for my own children? What do all children deserve?” And I would go about collaborating with teachers to make changes to benefit all learners. When it took more time or patience or resources or communication than I thought I had in me, I’d picture my kids. It was worth it.

I’ve been mulling over what “being on” means. Word nerd that I am, I even looked it up to deepen my reflection. It said, “On: physical contact with, supported by a surface.” Many teachers aren’t accustomed to having the ongoing physical presence of another adult educator in the classroom. One teacher put it this way, “If there’s another adult in the room, I’m either being evaluated, being helped by a parent…or I’m in trouble.” But teachers who work with coaches aren’t in trouble, they are being supported to make the most of curriculum and instruction for improving learning for kids. And that standard of the isolated I-close-my-door-and-do-what-I-do teacher is changing.

I asked friends what they thought “being on” meant. They told me, “Being on means being prepared, being present, being at your best.” Aren’t these are the same things I expect of myself when I enter a colleague’s classroom? They are. So I’ve decided to embrace it. I’ve posted a note that sits next to my computer that says simply, “Be ON.”

What does “being on” mean to you?