PSD70 Learning Coach Program

A Parkland School Division Blog Site

It’s All About the Relationships

I’ve been thinking about June and the expectations I had for it.  I honestly felt that even though I had become increasingly busy in my role since Christmas, this would gradually wane as June began and continue through the end of the year.  I was wrong.  I actually felt busier than I ever had!  Granted, this was partly due to Muir Lake’s Innovation Week, but for the most part, my time was spent in classrooms doing everything from modeling reading comprehension strategies to working with teachers on how to effectively transition their classes for next year.  I was really quite (pleasantly) surprised and then it hit me when I was at a retirement party for one of our PSD teachers.  This teacher started her speech by saying, “It’s all about the relationships.”  It’s definitely not the first time I heard her say this, but it came at the right time that night.  I realized that it’s not just the dedication and openness of the teachers at my schools that has contributed to my full schedule even as the school year winds down (although that’s definitely part of it), it truly is the relationships.  In September, I was new to one of my schools and although I’ve always been welcomed and utilized, time has definitely contributed to the trust and positive relationships with the staff.  Makes me wonder what next September will bring!


Summer…Rest, Rejuvenate and Take Some Time to do …Nothing.

It’s June.  The sun shines warmly this week as schools across Parkland School Division push through the final exciting last days before summer holidays officially begin.  Provincial Achievement tests, fun days, field trips and farewells are all on the agenda.  Students and teachers alike are looking forward to long lazy summer days.  For me, summer is a wonderful time of year.  I love the promise of rest and rejuvenation that summer represents.  It brings with it relaxed, casual days and time to reconnect with family and friends.  A time to do…nothing, if that is what pleases you.  By nothing, I mean just hanging out with no agenda, no goals, nothing planned, just being in that moment.  It’s funny how often, with our very busy lives, we feel so guilty just doing…nothing.  Interestingly enough, I read recently that neuroscientists actually have said that some of the greatest thinking happens when we are in fact doing nothing.   “By intentionally disconnecting from deliberate, goal-focused, conscious thinking, we give our brains a chance to “clear the cache”) — and instead, engage in a process called ‘integration’. This has something to do with letting the brain access disparate information stored in our memory in a natural way. The unfolding of new connections without effort often leading to insights and creativity that far surpasses that which may come from deliberate problem solving.”(Eileen Chadnick 2014).  It is no secret that teaching is a busy profession and as a learning coach, I often support teachers when they are feeling overwhelmed because of the sheer business of their day to day lives.  The idea of taking some time to “clear the cache or de-clutter” our brains has some definite merit, especially when the school year is coming to a close and we have a little time to devote to this idea.  In conversations that I am having with staff this week, as we talk about summer plans, I am encouraging everyone that I talk to take a little time just to do nothing and see what result may come from such an endeavor.  I am actually looking forward to touching base with everyone in September to see how “doing nothing” went.  As for myself, I definitely plan on trying this out and am hoping that I will become more creative and perhaps even more enlightened!  Have a wonderful summer and take a little time to just do…nothing!

Change is Messy Work

In the book, The Art of Coaching by Elena Aguilar, she defines the “trans” in “transformation” as meaning “across, on the other side of, beyond – where we are going is unknown and yet to be defined”.   Our role as learning coaches is to support change, and more often than not the result of this change is not always clear to us.  When we take steps to change, we are walking into the unknown and this can be very uncomfortable, not only for the teacher we are working with, but for us as coaches as well.  In my many coaching conversations with teachers, I have found that there is an overwhelming want to make changes in order to provide a caring, learning rich, fair, yet equitable environment that supports the many individual needs that they are faced with; but the million dollar question is how?  Well, as Mrs. Kelly Wilkins, our own Deputy Superintendent often says, “this is messy work”.   I smile as I think about Kelly saying this because it is so true!  I honestly believe that this is a great way to describe our work as coaches….messy.  The wonderful thing about messy is that it can be freeing, exciting and fun, especially if we are willing to let go of our preconceptions about how we think things should look or be, and be willing to dream….risk….yes, fail and try again.  I have personally found that the messiest work is when I am digging in and doing some really deep coaching, and the funny thing is, the messiest work has been the most rewarding work.  It is in the midst of the messiest work that I have been challenged, stretched and empowered.  It is in the midst of this messy work that I have seen the most growth in myself and my collaborative teaching partner at the time.  Through these messy coaching experiences I have learned the following:

  • Messy work takes trust.  A solid foundation of trust makes the messiest work less scary because we are not alone.
  • Messy work takes time.  In order to make meaningful changes there has to be a clear understanding of exactly where we are and where we want to go.  This takes time to observe, reflect, dream, plan, try, reflect, tweak, and try again.
  • Messy work takes mindful observation.  If you do not have a clear picture of “now”, it is difficult to work towards “tomorrow”.
  • Messy work takes asking difficult questions of ourselves and others.  We cannot have a clear understanding about ourselves as teachers and about our work if we do not ask difficult questions.  Difficult questions guide us to see situations from other perspectives and challenge us to try something new.
  • Messy work takes stamina.  Try and try again – taking the risk to try something new is a huge step in creating change.  When the first step is a big nose dive, picking ourselves up and trying something else is another huge step in the right direction.
  • Messy work takes practice.  Let’s face it, when we try something new, it at times may look ugly at first.  Practice makes perfection.
  • Messy work takes celebration.  Making significant changes can be a long process and at times frustrating.  Celebrating each step in the right direction motivates everyone to keep going.

Arnold Bennett is quoted as saying “Any change, even a change for the better is always accomplished by drawbacks and discomforts.”  In coaching situations where I am feeling uncomfortable because I myself cannot clearly see the end result, I try to be mindful that it is the process that is most powerful, and this allows me to take the focus off of the end result and just enjoy rolling up my sleeves, digging my hands in deeper and getting good and messy.

What is my mindset??? A reflection.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Anne Davis

When thinking about my own personal and professional growth as a Learning Coach this year, I immediately think about the book “Mindset” by Carol Dwek.  When I first began to read Carol’s book early on in the school year, I was amazed at how simplistic and yet profound the whole idea of one’s “mindset” is, and how it affects so much of who we are and how we meet life’s challenges.  In Carol’s book, I learned that mindsets are beliefs about ourselves and our most basic qualities.  When a person has a fixed mindset, they believe that the most basic qualities such as intelligence, talents and personality are carved in stone and are unchangeable.  When a person has a growth mindset, they believe that these most basic traits can be cultivated throughout their lives, through dedication, hard work and resiliency.

I was very excited about this book, because I felt that it fit closely into my own belief system about teaching and learning.  As I began to read Carol’s book, I was especially confident in my own “growth mindset”.  I saw myself as a risk taker, someone who embraced flexibility, growth and change.  I was also very confident in my role as a Learning Coach – that collaborative partner that would support my colleagues with their own professional growth this year.

As the year progressed however, I came to the stark realization that in some ways my mindset was in fact fixed.  This especially came to light whenever I was placed in a situation that was completely out of my comfort zone.  The ironic thing is that this happened often in my new role as Learning Coach, causing me a great deal of anxiety.  Because of this, I really had no choice but to stop and take an honest look at what was causing me anxiety during these times and why.  Being able to honestly recognize my own fixed mindset was both a humbling and freeing experience.  Like many others, I am my own worst critic.  When things got challenging for me in my role as Learning Coach, my first response was to feel frustrated with what I felt like were my own shortcomings.  This put me into a very fixed mindset.  It took real effort at times to change my own thinking by taking a step back and being very deliberate with my own self-talk and self-reflection, so that I was able to honestly see things through the “growth mindset lens”.

Carol Dwek states in her book, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.” Once I was able to look at these times of anxiety through the growth mindset, honestly looking at what was happening and critically thinking about what changes I needed to make, I felt so much more resilient.  My anxiety lessoned and I felt freer to take risks and make mistakes, looking at these as opportunities for growth.  This process also gave me a deeper understanding of what others go through when they hit that fixed mindset wall.  In order to be successful in supporting learning and growth, I honestly believe that I need to meet students and colleagues where they are at in their learning journey.  Reading Carol’s book gave me the understanding of what a fixed mindset is and how to support others in moving towards a growth mindset.  My own challenges allowed me to understand and empathize with others when they felt this same anxiety and frustration when working outside of their comfort zone.  As I reflect back to the many learning opportunities that I have had this year, I smile when I think about the successes and smile even more when I think about the challenges.  It may have not always been pretty or perfect, but I am confident that relationships were built and learning did take place.

Restoring Discipline

More and more often, the conversations I have with teachers about supporting children with challenging behaviours are turning to the question of discipline. Prevention – through universally designed lessons, conversations which build understanding, mentoring, and other structures of support – is obviously preferable to reactive discipline, but often we are forced to play “catch up”, disciplining children for incidents that have already occurred.

Although I have been using the Collaborative Problem Solving model for some time to prevent and address challenging behaviours, there are points at which I have found the model to offer me insufficient tools. This is by no means a reflection on the value of CPS for individuals, but a recognition that at times CPS is not able to address the concerns of others “around” an incident (parents, other children, teachers etc.) when they have been seriously harmed by a behaviour.

While CPS is necessarily an individual approach, Restorative Justice practices can offer us an opportunity to address the needs of others who have been harmed by a particular action. These processes, when used in schools, are called “restorative discipline” and usually take the form of a conferencing circle where all those affected by an incident participate. Questions are asked which help the child to recognise the impact his or her actions have had on others, and those impacted are given an opportunity to suggest how the child might make restitution and repair the damaged relationships. Some examples of questions that can be asked are; “What were you thinking about at the time of the incident?” “What have you thought about since?” “Who was harmed by this?” “What needs to happen to make things right?” There are often times when the harm cannot be completely alleviated, but in all cases the focus is on how to make the situation “as right as possible,” given that we cannot change the past.

Punishment rarely assists others around an incident to feel better about the harm that was done to them – for example, the forced apology, or a three day suspension from which a child frequently returns angry. It also often has a ripple effect, where the punished child feels blameful of others and can often become vengeful rather than developing accountability. Most importantly however, punishment can damage relationships with adults and with the community. The fewer positive, trusting, and consistent relationships that a child has in his or her life, the more likely that child is to be at risk for self-harm, risky behaviour, and aggression or violence, or at risk to have these behaviours escalate.

Embedding restorative circle processes as a part of classroom routines is not an overnight solution. Children are often unfamiliar with these type of practices and (as Dr. Ross Greene extensively notes in his books on CPS) are often very unused to being listened to. They are uncomfortable and unsure in discipline proceedings that do not follow the pattern we have become accustomed to:  one-on-one, in an office, directive rather than investigative, top-down etc. We need to be intentional in teaching students how to participate in circle conferencing if we have chosen to use this approach.

While not all children or teachers are ready to use circle processes, we can ensure that our discipline practices are restorative, regardless of what form they will take. We need to be honest in evaluating whether our discipline policies are a net loss or gain to our communities, both within the school and outside it.

Here are some excellent resources to support us in the process…  (Dr. Greene’s School Discipline Survey) (“Restorative Justice: It’s Elementary” video) (“Teach Kids a Lesson… Or Help Them Learn?” article)

The Teacher’s Guide to Restorative Classroom Discipline (I am happy to send this PDF to anyone interested)


Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Whether I am reading about leadership practices, teaching for success, parenting, or marriage the theme relationship is forthcoming in all.  The many articles focused on coaching have not been an exception.

At our recent cohort meeting two events encouraged me to write this post: first, a colleague asked for some thoughts regarding building relationships when introduced to a new site, second, I shared a recent conversation that has made me really thinking about how patient we need to be with relationships.

I had a colleague who I deeply admire and respect professionally and personally initiate a conversation.  I recognize that this person has not accessed my role as a learning coach however we have conversations and will share thinking openly and critically on educational topics.  This person shared why they have not “accessed” my role as of yet:  they identified they have no experience working collaboratively in the classroom and do not know if they have the skills or the time.  There is perhaps some uncertainty regarding trust for lack of a better word that there will not be judgement ( this is my inference it was not stated).  Initially I did not know what to say but have really taken some time think about this.

How brave to identify to my face the reason for caution.  Too often, we as coaches, try to figure out what we can do differently or new to open the doors and  encourage staff to access.  I stop in every classroom and I take every opportunity to engage in conversation with staff and try to respect when colleagues need to process.  I do have to admit that I have a new appreciation.  I am going to really look at this person as needing “think time” much like we offer students who need to process information a bit longer than others.  Ha, a bit of differentiation to support building this relationship.

Differentiation is not only for the classroom.  Working respectfully with our colleagues means differentiating the work we do with each person.  So I go back to the beginning of this post – all of our relationships- take time, energy, reflection, trust, and ultimately differentiation.

So for those of you who like myself are working in schools where you are the new face and the learning coach – I have no answers or sure to work strategies other than – take time, listen, recognize that each person is unique with a history, fears, insecurity, strengths and habits.  Ultimately, this year is about building a new type of relationship with staff – a partner in practice.

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