Two working parents plus three active kids equals five people in need of healthy dinners every evening at our house. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking meals, but I don’t love getting home at 5:45 after facilitating a workshop and trying to get a nutritious, timely dinner on the table. A couple weeks ago I realized how much dinners were getting me down and I was starting to sound like a nag.

“I’ve asked you twice now to set the table.”

“Can’t you just chop up some carrots? Is that really too much to ask?”


I thought about what I really wanted from my family. When I got clear, it was simple. I wanted them to stop what they were doing and offer to help even for a few minutes during the dinner rush. If one person chops the salad veggies while another sautés the onions and garlic, we can take the many-hands-light-work approach to dinner. So I posted a sign, which I’m famous for doing (my kids still remind me of the wipe-til-it’s-clean sign in the bathroom when they were young).

The sign is the lead image you see on my kitchen cabinet: Between the hours of 5:30 and 7:00, you are welcome to ask, ‘How can I help?’ These four words have been known to increase happiness for all.

So far it’s working. It’s explicit about the time of day, has a gambit for what to say and ends with a purpose statement (if mama happy, everyone happy). My family walks in the kitchen, sees the sign and remembers to offer, How can I help?

I connect my home leadership experiments to work often and vice versa. I learned the word ‘gambit’ when I did my cooperative learning training with Kagan. It means something done or said to get a desired result. While I have many examples of success with gambits in the classroom, it also applies to leadership work. When I was working with an elementary PLC, I noticed they had parallel talk about instructional strategies but rarely interacted and questioned each other. In our second meeting together, I brought an 8 1/2 x 11 paper that read, “What do you mean by that?”

I said, “We throw around many terms in education like direct instruction, guided reading, shared writing, formative assessment, but if we don’t take the time to understand what another person means, it’s more difficult to collaborate. At some point in today’s meeting I want us to try saying, ‘What do you mean by that?’ to a colleague. It may feel a little awkward and stilted this time, but let’s give it a go.”

Terry was the first to try it after Kara said, “Let’s tie in the social skills” when he asked, “What do you mean by that?” Kara paused and then articulated how she teaches her students to thank each other after sharing their ideas to build community. After the meeting, the team agreed it had been a very productive hour.

While you may not be in a position to request gambits of others, you certainly can build your own gambit list. These are statements and questions I find myself repeating:

*Say more about that.

*What do you mean by that?

*What can I do to make your life more wonderful? (I learned this one from the father of Compassionate Communication, Marshall Rosenberg.)

*What if…

*And of course, How can I help?




In every initial meeting with a teacher new to coaching, I tell them that our conversations are confidential. I explain that I don’t share anecdotes from their classroom or how they are doing with their supervisor–it’s not my role. I encourage them to invite their principals into the work in a way that fits best for them.

Rereading Marzano and Simm’s Research and Theory chapter from their book, Coaching Classsroom Instruction, I was struck again by the truth in this passage.

“Nancy Adler (2006) confirmed the importance of a nonevaluative coaching relationship in which both parties agree to keep the content of coaching sessions confidential. She explained, ‘The privacy of coaching sessions makes it easier…to say, I’m not certain…I just don’t know…Privacy and supportive advocacy legitimize moments of not knowing. Premature certainty and commitment extinguish innovative possibilities.’ (p.243). Finally, Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston (2002) suggest that ‘should an employer have performance concerns about a staff member, these concerns are best communicated directly outside the coaching process. Coaching should never be about ‘fixing’ another person.’ (p.97).”–Research and Theory Chapter, page 9.

Legitimizing moments of not knowing is so important to this work. I worked with a teacher I’ll call Callie. Callie was a mid-career teacher who had that class. You know that class, right? The class that challenges every fiber of your being and empties out your teaching bag of tricks by week three of the school year. We began working together on reading, but it quickly became apparent that we needed to address the management because the students weren’t independent for more than five minutes at a time. By our third meeting Callie admitted she was feeling like her behavior management was ineffective and that she wasn’t reaching her ELL students. “Some days,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what to do.”

That was a turning point in our work. Because she felt safe being vulnerable we were able to make some significant changes. I introduced her to two vocabulary strategies for her learners that were new to English. We ordered a few bilingual books that supported the students during independent reading time. And we reminded ourselves of Behavior Management 101: How often was she positively noticing the students as compared to redirects? Was she using a brain break before the minilesson to get wiggles out? Was she keeping her minilesson short to match their attention spans? Were her directions clear? Was she varying the pacing of her teaching and even the tone of her voice to keep kids engaged?

It’s not that administrators can’t evaluate and coach educators, some do it quite masterfully, but having those two roles separate leads to effective coaching relationships. As Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Working in a district that values opportunities to be vulnerable is such a gift.


Starbucks Bears Give Evaluations Perspective


Seven years ago a colleague and I got this feedback from a participant in our writing scoring workshop:

Suggestions For Improvement
I now understand why there are funding cuts in our district. The fact that our taxpayers’ money is spent on Starbucks bears for your decorations is infuriating. I was distracted the entire time thinking about your selfish and pointless spending. I will not recommend this class or these presenters to anyone!

Yes, once upon a time my coaching colleague had a large collection of Starbucks bears that her family and friends gifted her each time a new one came out. The day before our presentation she said, “I’ll bring my bears tomorrow and we can set one at each table. Teachers work so hard, maybe it’ll bring a smile after our long days.” Those bears did bring some smiles, but they also brought an out-of-nowhere slam. When participants don’t come with positive presuppositions or willingness to ask questions, sometimes it results in toxic evaluation comments.

I often share my Starbucks bear story with coaches who are reading their course evaluations for the first times. Some of them are like me. I can read 99 positive comments, but the one disgruntled one leaves me stewing, “What could I have done to make it better?” While I’m glad that I constantly seek improvement, I also need to make sure I’m not too hard on myself.

Here are some things to consider with class evaluations:

1. What did most people think?

In this case it really is important to focus on the majority. Did they walk away with inspiration? New ideas?

2. Is the critical feedback within your control?

I’ve had people complain about the temperature of the room, the parking, my outfit (I’m not kidding), the other participants, the time of the day, month, and year…the list goes on. If those things are within my control, I need to consider it, if not, I need to breathe and let it go.

3. Is the feedback reliable or just plain mean?

While the anonymous nature of our web-based educator evaluation can give me honest feedback, it can also be destructive and demotivating. Not everyone lives by the T.H.I.N.K. acronym (Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary and Kind?). A couple years ago I was reading harsh words about new things I was trying in professional development. For awhile I felt anxious about experimenting and trying different approaches. Then I realized maybe I needed a break from reading those less-than-accepting evaluations. Asking for exit slips from teachers at the end of the professional development was giving me far better information than the anonymous circuit where some people–not all, but some–sought power by being critical and sometimes cruel.

4. Is it funny? Or will it be funny like Starbucks Bears in seven years?

I look back on things I thought were going to be debilitating when I was 16, 21 or 32. And now? A lot of them are pretty funny stories (and GREAT writing fodder). If I can remind myself that whatever is hard in the moment will probably become a good, and possibly funny story, I gain a healthy perspective and don’t take myself or my circumstances too seriously.

5. Who will listen?

I have an amazing team. Coaches in my district listen and have empathy for each other. I have several people I can go to if I get slammed in evaluations. They help me determine if it’s important to consider or if it’s important to release. Find that person or colleague that you can debrief your feedback with. Find someone who really knows how to listen (not make it about them with statements like “I know just what you mean, one time I…”) and not minimize (“That’s nothing, I…”). What a gift to be able to ask someone, “Can I have a moment? Will you listen?”

6. Are you willing to change?

There are a couple classes that my colleagues and I have down. Our content is necessary, our delivery is appropriately inquiry-based for adults and our pacing is succinct. I rarely even download comments from those classes. It’s like over-revising a piece of writing, there comes a time when it’s OK to say, “This is right and good as is.” If I’m not willing to change parts of my class or course, there’s really no need for me to read the feedback.

We did end up using those Starbucks bears again and began with this disclaimer, “Please know that these bears are the personal property of our colleague. They do not represent mishandling of professional development funds. They are simply here to remind us to smile.” One woman laughed out loud and said, “Why would anyone ever think you’d buy those for a class?” And we chuckled and said, “You’d be surprised.”

*The image is not an official Starbucks Bear, but this teddy’s expression was so perfect I had to capture it.


Why Conferring Notes?

Recently a teacher told me she wanted to focus our coaching work on conferring and in particular on improving her writing conferring notes.

“Why?” I asked.

She paused, “Well, I mean if I have better records then I’m conferring better.”

“How do you see notes helping you do that?”

“I’ll be able to remember what I talked about with students for one and I’ll be able to see trends. Plus I’ll have evidence for reporting to parents and anecdotal notes.”

In the past I might’ve quickly agreed to the professional goal of improving conferring notes because it’s something I believe can enhance conferring. Having a better appreciation for what it takes to change professional habits, I want to make sure teachers have reasons why they want to do it. Sometimes teachers who don’t really have a purpose will take conferring notes while I’m coaching them and then drop it when we wrap up the coaching cycle. Here’s a list of reasons teachers tell me makes investing time on improving conferring notes worthwhile.

1. “Writing it down helps me remember.”

2. “I am more accountable to the students.” This is so true. If I tell a student I’m going to check back with them tomorrow. I need a note reminding me to do it.

3. “I can document what students said even if they didn’t get it down in writing yet.” Speaking and listening is a huge part of writing. When I capture students’ storytelling, I’m validating this work.

4. “I notice trends of the students I’m meeting with more and less often.”

5. “Conferring notes are extremely handy for a note home to families about progress and narratives on report cards.”

6. “In my evaluation, I used my conferring notes as another piece of evidence of student growth.”

7. “I plan instruction based on my notes.”

8. “I quote my kids accurately so I can share their thoughts with peers.”

As a coach, reasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 are a fit for me. In addition I’d add:

9. Conferring notes give me a way to talk specifically about students with the teachers. Especially for teachers who have difficulty taking a strengths-based approach with writers.

10. They are my own record of the types of conferences I’m having so I can see patterns emerge and make sure I’m modeling a variety when I co-confer.

11. They provide another way to model best practices for teachers.

Here is the form I use from the Cafe menu and a sample conferring note from a classroom where I work as a coach:

2 Sisters Writing Conferring Form

Grade One
5/6/14 Kai
Ben (Character) Ben falls off his skateboard (Trouble) Detailed pictures, incl labels. Touch/tell. “Ben is an adventure boy. After school he gets on his skateboard.” Asked for spell help: adventure and skateboard. Using word wall.

Next steps: Encourage Kai to stretch sounds on his own, add some words to personal dictionary?

Kai was writing a realistic fiction series about his character, Ben. In a few minutes I noted many of his first-grade strengths (touch/tell, labeled drawings, independence with word wall) as well as possible next steps to work on. When teachers read over my notes they are often surprised by how little I write. I jot, shorten and quote what students tell me. It provides me with exactly what I need the next time I connect with Kai and his teacher.

How do your writing conferring notes benefit your practice?


Good Women


Last August I was in a restroom that had this quote above the door. I copied it down and it’s been a marvelous mantra for me.

Here’s to good women
May we know them
May we be them
May we raise them

Have a wonderful weekend.




Two weeks ago I started doing the SAT Question of the Day with my iPhone app. My son Jamin, a junior in high school, has been in AP and SAT testing mode and I wanted to connect with what he’s experiencing. Most days I get them correct (Yesss!), but some days I need to use the “hint” button to help me. Just knowing the hint button exists makes me feels better. In many classrooms, coaches play the role of the hint or tip button. Many of us have the opportunity to see teaching and learning in multiple grades and classrooms within the same day so we amass tips as we learn from the best.

Here are three I learned and shared this week:

*Trying to increase your positive noticing? Here’s a tip. When monitoring your ratio of positive comments to redirects, it can be helpful to place pennies in the lefthand pocket and move them to the righthand pocket as you positively notice a particular student. It’s not something you would use very often, but can work in the beginning to establish a new habit.

*Looking to shorten minilessons? Here’s a tip. If teachers pose a question such as, “What might be a good name for our cranky character?” and call on a few students, that eats up precious minilesson time for a fairly insignificant detail. Instead, try a chorus response where students respond at the same time in a regular speaking voice. A teacher catches 2-3 responses, the students all had a chance to share and the minilesson moves on. If you missed this April post from the Two Writing Teachers blog regarding mini lessons, it was a good one:

Top Ten Ways to Minilessons

Another classic is Shari Frost’s Choice Literacy, “Putting the Mini Back in Minilessons.”

Put the Mini Back in

*Working to help a writer find a topic? Here’s a tip. When I approach a student who is searching for a topic by sharpening his pencil, using the restroom and peeling crayons, I find this is a good starter question.

Me: Are you more an outside kid or an inside kid?
Kid: Inside kid.
Me: What do you like to do right when you get home?
Kid: Play XBox.
Me: Besides playing XBox, because those can be harder experiences to write about, what do you do?
Kid: Shrugs.
Me: If I could see you at your house, what would I see you doing?
Kid: Shrugs. Playing legos.
Me: Seriously? I love legos. Have you ever thought about writing about that?

Another good one is, “If you could be somewhere else right now, where would you be?”

*And completely unrelated to coaching, did you know that if you cover guacamole with about a half inch of water it will provide a barrier to the air and keep it from turning brown? I love great tips!

What tips have you been learning and sharing this week?


Coaching in Focus


More than once my third-grade students chose wide topics for their first research projects.

“Cats,” I remember Natasha saying.
“Is there a breed of cat you can focus on? Or is there a specific question you’d like to research?” I asked.
“No,” she’d said. “Just Cats.”
“As you read, I bet you’ll find a way to narrow that topic and make it smaller.”

After the students spent two workshops frontloading reading about their topics, Natasha approached me and said, “I think cats is too big. I’m going to just write about tricks they can learn.”

Some coaches report similar experiences in their new roles. They are given wide goals like “improve literacy” without a coaching model or a specific focus. Although everyone has the best intentions, a coach may spend time on projects here and there keeping very busy. I reflect on the quote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau. Coaches who struggle to answer that question, “What are we busy about?” need to narrow their topic so they know how to prioritize their time and energy. If the goal is effective and sustainable work, a focus is a must.

It may come as a surprise that I’ve found it’s less important which focus is chosen and more important that the focus is clear, clearly communicated and consistent. There are many right ways to start. When Natasha chose Cat Tricks as her narrowed topic, she was able to set aside books and websites on Big Cats, Breeds and Kittens. Similarly, when coaches are given or chart their direction with a staff, they can determine when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

Different Foci

One coach who works in a middle school spends 50% of his time with first- and second-year teachers. He’s in their classrooms daily. The other half of his job is helping support small-group reading instruction, particularly in intermediate grades. The principal and staff know this and are able to view his calendar so they know the work is happening.

Another K-6 coach I know works with two grade levels per quarter (and only one in the last quarter). She’s at their weekly team meetings looking at their data and focuses her time in those classrooms specifically on opinion/argumentative writing and independent reading and conferring. While she isn’t in all eight classrooms each week, she coaches more heavily in some and sets up team observations for others. The sixth-grade teachers know she’s not available for day-to-day coaching for them this quarter because she’s intensely focused on kindergarten.

My focus this year has been on writing. We chose this focus because we were all over the map in terms of the content of writing, how writing was being taught and even the amount of time spent on writing each day. As part of building our common language, we’ve got a new resource and are increasing our understanding of the Common Core State Standards. With 13 elementary schools to cover, our coaching staff couldn’t do deep work with that many teachers so we started with half of the schools. Each quarter I’ve worked with a different batch of teachers (about 6-8) to work with their unique strengths and challenges around writing instruction.

Three different coaches with three different foci, but all of us have narrowed topics that help us know who we work with, how we work together and what we are reaching for.

How To Focus

When I asked one coach about her focus this year she replied exhausted, “All of the above.” She was helping all teachers with anything to do with literacy, creating a school book room, doing bus duty before and after school, running a parent group, coordinating assessments and frequently filling in when the assistant principal was absent. When I asked her how much time she was spending with teachers and students directly impacting instruction she said it was less than a third of her day. This is what she thought she’d been hired for, yet it was a small fraction of her job. As a first-year coach working with a principal new to having a coach, this is very common. If you find yourself in this position, the good news is you probably know what is good work, great work and the work that really doesn’t need your expertise. It’s the perfect time to start asking the question, “What are we going to be busy about next year?”


What do staff surveys say about what teachers need to grow professionally next year?
Does the school data* support that need?
What conclusions do teachers draw with they look at their data?
What does the principal see as needs during observations and walk-throughs?
And what do you, as the coach, see as the most pressing needs?

*When I use the word data I am not talking about numbers from large-scale assessments. I’m talking about running records, student work samples, conferring notes, exit slips, district assessments and more. The link below is a great post from two smart women who I feel lucky to know as friends and colleagues talking about the important issues we deal with concerning data. Check it out.

Blog Post: It’s Not the Assessment–It’s How You Use It

What are you going to be busy about next year?


Coach to Coach Workshop Registration


Virtual friends, old friends and new friends will have an opportunity to meet and learn together at the upcoming Coach to Coach Workshop on the 14th and 15th of August, 2014 designed for teacher leaders, first-year coaches, experienced coaches and administrators interested in growing their coaching skills and programs.

The cost of the workshop is $285 per person for two days at the Doubletree by Hilton on Olympia’s Percival Landing. If you’d like to make a reservation to stay, contact the hotel directly. Here are additional workshop details:

Workshop Details

Click here if you’d like to register


Within walking distance of the conference there are many things to see and do like

the Hands-On Children’s Museum,







the Farmer’s Market,














plus parks




and the waterfront.