Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney.

My presentation explored key concepts that, in my experience, underpin the use of coaching in schools. I drew together insights from my reading, research, practical and personal experience of coaching in schools, with a particular focus on the organisational conditions necessary for coaching, and the effects of coaching on individuals and schools. I interrogated the complex interlocking elements that schools need to balance when working to build a coaching culture, including contexttrust, rapportway of being, differentiation, holonomy and semantic space.

Here is my slide deck.

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Pause

Bigurda Trail by Deborah Netolicky

walking alone on the Bigurda Trail last week (Kalbarri, Western Australia)

Last year I worked with a coach. During one of our first conversations, he said, “It sounds like what you need is to pause.”

That sounded right.

“Yes!” I said. “I do pause, though. I often pause, see where I’m at, re-assess, and make a new list for what to do next.”

My coach’s wry smile stopped me. He said, “That’s an active pause, but I think you’re talking about the need for a non-active pause.”

A non-active pause? An actual pause where nothing happens but the act of pausing? I wondered what that looked like. I had spent so long working on habits and systems for efficiency and productivity that I struggled to consider the why and what this kind of pausing.

My coach emailed me the goal of ‘finding pause and energy’ after our conversation. He additionally suggested the following actions.

  1. Take moments through the course of the day to pause and just be present—not think about what’s just happened or anticipate the next step.
  2. Identify and prioritise some opportunities to just ‘be’ with husband and friends—put some energy back into those aspects of life.
  3. Identify what ‘energises’ in work and outside—perhaps identify moments in the past (at various stages) when you felt most energised.

He also sent me Adam Fraser’s framework for finding the ‘third space’ and a link to this youtube clip on ‘the third space’ (the micro transition between one activity or role and the next).

Ok, I thought. I can work on pausing. I immediately changed the mini-blackboard message in my office from ‘start now’ to ‘pause, breathe, be’. It reminded me about finding pauses in my day, but the challenge was actually taking them!

Yoga has always helped me tap into ways to be present. Last year, I began flotation tank floating, which showed me the power of sensory deprivation, of unplugging from sounds, sights and from the feeling that at every moment I should be doing something useful and productive.

Yet while I could schedule gym sessions and floats, I still found it difficult to find small ways each day to tune in to pausing or being present.

At the beginning of this year I talked to a friend whose motto for ordering coffee was to ‘have it there’. That is, when he orders coffee from a café, he takes the time to sit and enjoy it there, before moving on to the next part of his day. I wondered about the impact of ‘have it there’, instead of ‘drink it on the run’, or ‘multi-task to save time’, or ‘have it while driving or engaging with a computer or device’.

I committed this year to eating lunch away from my desk. When I’m feeling under pressure I tend to eat and work, but I decided it was important that I find 15-40 minutes per day to sit, alone or with colleagues, and mindfully eat something. I have broken that commitment twice only so far this year. I told colleagues about my lunch promise, so they have helped to keep me accountable. More than once someone has walked past my office and either invited me to sit with them, or asked, “You’re not eating lunch at your desk, are you?” So I have ended up with a little lunchtime community, as well as a pause in my day.

I have also tried to find a few minutes each day to breathe mindfully. Sometimes I find these minutes at work, sometimes at home, and sometimes just before I go to sleep. On occasion I turn off the music in my car and drive in silence. I go to the gym three times per week and try to find other activity on other days, with varying degrees of success. I have been floating in flotation tanks about every 6 weeks.

Despite my attempts at finding pause, and my focus on light-ness, I finished Term 1 feeling rushed and frantic. Last week I took leave from work, during the school holidays. During the week I tried to focus on slow, deliberate living focused on relationships and experiences, rather than goals and actions.

I read fiction in the sun. I walked. Contemplated. Embraced stillness and movement. I stayed out of social media discussions about education. I didn’t write. I didn’t read for work. I gave myself permission to eat a nutritious breakfast, and to sit and enjoy it. I played board games and had long conversations with my husband and children. I spent time outside, in nature, and alone. I hung out with friends and family. I enjoyed going to the gym and having a leisurely coffee afterwards, looking out over the ocean.

Pausing is difficult but what is even more difficult is prioritising it as important rather than ‘nice to have’. What seems so possible during a holiday is challenging to bring into the busyness of everyday working-parenting-living life.

Where do you, or where could you, find a pause in your day, your week, your month?

Coaching concepts: My CoachEd. Seminar keynote

On Friday I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote and speaking on a panel at the Perth CoachEd. Seminar, hosted by GROWTH Coaching International.

In my keynote, I talked about theoretical underpinnings that have shaped my work in coaching. These include reasons to pursue a coaching culture in schools, such as the aim of a growth-focused culture of continuous improvement in which members are self-directed, self-efficacious and agentic. This means that coaching needs to be separated out from evaluative or performance review processes and not be used as a deficit model aimed to ‘fix’ or improve teachers. The metaphor of the stagecoach reminds us that coaching is about getting the coachee from where they currently are to where they want to be (not to where the coach wants them to be, and not to where management wants them to be).

I discussed those things needed for effective coaching conversations, like relational trust and rapport. I also spoke about ways of thinking about organisational conditions of coaching such as the need for organisational trust (e.g. that the leadership team aren’t going to corrupt the intention of coaching or undermine the confidentiality of the coaching relationship); holonomy which theorises each member of the organisation as simultaneously an individual and a part of the collective; and semantic space where coaching becomes a ‘way we talk around here’.

A question that arose was: Does introducing coaching to an organisation change the culture of that organisation, or does an organisation need particular pre-existing conditions in order for coaching to work there? I would argue that both are true, and that context is what matters. Schools need to look to and start from their own contexts. They can ask: Where are our staff, students and community at? What do we want from coaching? How do we move towards a coaching culture in a way that best suits our community and our needs?

Importantly, coaching is not a stand-alone solution or silver bullet. In my school we have worked towards a differentiated model of in-house professional learning in which staff have voice and choice in taking advantage of a process that most suits their career stage and needs. These options include different types of coaching by different types of coaches, but also more advisory, mentor-style relationships, and also collaborative groups that run like PLCs or journal clubs.

I also spoke about the interaction between coaching and identity, and that coaching can be a less formal approach or become a way of being. Both being a coach and being coached can influence a person’s beliefs and practices.

Below I share my slide deck.

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Professional learning and collaboration: Where have they Gonski and where are we going?

On Monday the Gonski 2.0 review panel report, entitled Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, was released. This was a much-anticipated second report on the Australian education system, written by David Gonski and colleagues. I have many conflicting responses to much of the report and its comments about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and reporting. I would hazard a guess that many Australian educators feel more aligned with the first Gonski report, which focused on equitable redistribution of ‘needs-based sector-blind’ funding, as opposed to this one with its focus on individualisation of learning, increased measurement, and a ‘what works’ agenda for ‘maximum impact’.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will avoid the multiple elephants in the Gonski 2.0 room and focus on aspects of Chapter 3 of the report, and its focus on teacher collaboration and professional learning. Partly, this chapter is relevant to my role, and it felt particularly relevant on Monday when the report was released, because that was a staff professional development day at my school, one which I had organised.

What Gonski 2.0 says about professional learning and collaboration

The Gonski 2.0 report outlines what research literature has been saying for some time: that teachers need to meaningfully collaborate, and that schools need to provide a growth-focused professional learning environment in which teachers can interrogate and improve their practice, based on knowing research and knowing their students. On the theme of professional learning and collaboration, the Gonski 2.0 report singles out as particularly effective modes of collaboration: peer observation and feedback, coaching, mentoring, team teaching and joint research projects. These have all been foci of my school, to which many of my blog posts will attest.

Professional collaboration in action

At my school, Monday was in many ways an embodiment of professional learning married with professional collaboration. Our staff day began with the principal’s address, which referenced the just-released Gonski 2.0 report’s findings. We then embarked upon a day of elevating the voices of staff within our organisation through discussion with, learning from, and collaborating alongside, one another.

A panel presentation shared the voices of four staff from different arenas in the school, in a discussion of how our 2018 strategic priorities are being embedded in various school contexts.

A two-hour block was set aside for TeachMeet style sessions, in which teachers ran practical workshops for each other. Teachers chose the sessions they attended. Topics were based on the AITSL Standards and our core business of teaching and learning. These were practical, practitioner-run sessions that harnessed the internal expertise and generosity of teachers at our school. Topics offered included:

  • Teaching literacy across the school: the big picture and practical strategies
  • Auditory, visual and sensory processing disorders: What they are and what to do as a classroom teacher
  • OneNote Classroom for teaching, learning and collaboration
  • Team teaching and collaborative pedagogies in action
  • Online assessment and feedback
  • Pedagogical frameworks for inquiry and project-based learning across the school
  • A roundtable on Indigenous pathways

Most sessions required collaboration in the planning of these sessions, as they were run by multiple participants from different sub-schools and a variety of faculties. Staff presenting and participating made connections across areas, seeing the similarities in each other’s’ work and recognising one another’s expertise. The feedback from these sessions has been resoundingly positive. The afternoon was then spent collaborating in teams.

This is a snapshot example of the kind of professional collaboration and learning happening in Australian schools and among Australian education communities. My school, like most, has additional collaborative mechanisms. Ours include differentiated professional learning pathways, coaching for professional growth, and professional learning communities focused on using student data to inform teaching practice.

Letting teachers focus on teaching

As the Gonski 2.0 report points out, however, teachers are weighed down by administrivia and tasks additional to their teaching load. The report notes that “submissions to the Review argued that teachers want to focus on teaching” (p.60) and suggests that schools will need to rethink “time use and work practices … where the average teacher is often burdened with administrative tasks and finds little time to develop new teaching skills,” for instance by “considering different and innovative ways to free up teacher time, for example using more paid paraprofessionals and other non-teaching personnel, including trained volunteers, to assist with non-teaching tasks such as lunchtime or assembly supervision or administrative tasks” (p.57).

As teachers are asked to increasingly use data, be aware of research, collaborate, and engage in ongoing professional learning, workload remains an issue. Collaboration and professional learning take time. Professional learning, in particular, often happens in teachers’ own time, and using their own funds. Time and resourcing are important considerations influencing to what extent teachers are able to collaborate and participate in effective professional learning.

Taking time to take stock

seeing the wood from the trees (source: pixabay.com)

It is the last day of term. The last day of first semester in Australia. And for me the last day of the first semester of full-time work in seven years, since the birth of my first child.

I spent much of the day pondering a couple of coaching style questions:

  1. As you reflect on the last six months in your role at work, what are some celebrations?; and
  2. Fast forward to the end of the year. What are the things you ideally see as having been achieved, and of what might you need to be mindful in order to get there?

Today I posed these to a couple of people with whom I work closely, and also to myself. These questions are a deliberate tool for looking back and looking forward. They use the aspects of mediative questions recommended by Cognitive Coaching:

  • Plural forms (What are some celebrations …?);
  • Positive presuppositions – the assumption that the person has been successful and has the capacity to reflect on their success (As you reflect …);
  • Tentative language (Of what might you need to be mindful …?); and
  • Open-ended (What are the …?, rather than, Have you …?).

Asking these questions on the last day of first semester was a mechanism for pausing to take stock. Schools move at a cracking pace, and those working in schools are often racing to keep up. Stopping to look back over our shoulder at how far we have come, and in what direction, can help us to realise what we have (or perhaps haven’t) achieved. It can help to anchor us in reality, to consider possibilities, and to re-orient us as we move into the future. I remember doing this from time to time during my PhD: looking back, wondering how I’d come so far, and remembering that it was just by taking one little step at a time.

My own reflections were around a shift in perceptions of my role between the beginning of the year and now. Mine is a new role to the school—Dean of Research and Pedagogy—and in January it felt a bit nebulous. A fuzzy outline of a role. A job description yet to come to life.

I initially spent a lot of time teasing out the crux of what this role was about; its strategy, its deliverables, and how I might gauge my progress in fulfilling its mandate. Looking back at my initial strategic and operational planning is gratifying; most of it has come to life, becoming breath in my work and in the life of the school, on which I can now build.

One of the indicators of how my role has evolved in this short time is the increasing list of those from across the school—from the classroom to the boardroom—who are approaching me for support in their area. I’m especially pleased at some of the unexpected impacts of my work.

Reflecting takes time, but it’s time worth carving out. I was recently reminded that my one word for 2017 was meant to be ‘nourish’. I have lost track of that along the way this year, but am hoping to regain some capacity for nourishment in this coming week when I’m with my family on a South-East Asian island for some time together and some time out.

Semantic space: ‘How we talk around here’

I’ve been thinking about talking and talking about talking. Last month I published this piece on my school’s blog about why and how we approach professional conversations as an organisation. The pictured infographic is one I designed to distil our school approach to professional conversations. While deceptively simple, it is the result of a lot of research, practice, and writing, over time. In that blog post, I talk about why we use Cognitive Coaching as a coaching model for developing a collaborative professional learning culture, but also when we might deliberately use consulting, collaborating, or evaluating as ways of talking. Rather than adopting deficit models of conversation aimed to fix or tell teachers, we base our professional conversations on a belief in the capacity of everyone in our community to grow and improve.

At the Australian National Coaching Conference in Melbourne last month, I was immersed in talking about coaching, and talking with coaches. I was delighted to be on a conference panel with Christian van Niewerburgh, Rachel Lofthouse, and Alex Guedes, discussing coaching in education research. One of the points I made was around the use of terminology within a community like the one in the conference room. 400 educators and coaches were all talking about coaching at the conference, but not necessarily with the same understanding of what ‘coaching’ means.

As Scott Millman points out in his blog, many of the conference attendees had what Christian van Niewerburgh calls a ‘coaching way of being’. A conversation with them is a coaching conversation. These individuals actively and intensely listen, paraphrase, pause, and ask thoughtful questions designed more for the benefit of the talker than the listener. These aren’t conversations where the other person is waiting for their turn to say their piece or pushing a personal agenda; they are ones in which the listener serves the talker via thoughtful and deliberate ways of talking and ways of being in conversation.

At the conference, Rachel Lofthouse talked about Kemmis and Heikkenen’s (2012) notion of a semantic space. I enjoyed this way of thinking about an organisation. Semantics is about linguistic meaning; the logic of language. In organisations I imagine a semantic space is about ‘how we talk around here’, the meanings of words, the way communication happens. Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014) define semantic space as one of professional dialogue, constituting tone, choice of words, routines of dialogue, and balance of participation in conversation. Semantic space interacts with organisional structures, physical spaces, and relationships.

Harvard academics and developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001) say that our places of work are places in which certain forms of speech are promoted or encouraged, and places where other ways of talking are discouraged or made impossible. What kinds of talk are promoted in our schools? Which are limited or suppressed?

Can it ever be ‘just’ semantics? No. The words we use, the way we talk, and the way we interpret language are vital to our work, especially in education. Members of high-functioning teams, for instance, respectfully challenge one another in order to find the best ways forward. Something Rachel Lofthouse said in her conference keynote stuck with me: “Don’t talk less and work more. The talk is the work. So talk well, talk productively, talk to learn.” The way we talk can influence the way we think and the way we behave. In any organisation it’s important to figure out and work on ‘how we talk around here’ as well as why we talk, when we talk, what we talk about, and how we want to talk.

References

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S. and Heikkinen, H.L.T. (2012). Practice architectures and teacher induction. In: H.L.T. Heikkinen, H. Jokinen, and P. Tynjälä, eds. Peer-group mentoring (PGM): peer group mentoring for teachers’ professional development. London: Routledge, 144–170.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in england: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

Trust and support teachers: My New Voice Scholarship panel speech

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel of ACEL New Voice Scholars (list of awardees here) at the Melbourne Convention Centre. As a representative of new Australian voices in educational leadership research, I spoke in front of an auditorium of 1200 educators in response to the provocation: ‘If you could wave a magic wand, how would you transform education?’

The following is a version of that speech (I tend to go off the cuff a bit, so it’s not identical). It is based on this think piece I wrote for the ACEL Perspectives publication which is more measured and referenced, and less rhetoric-laden than my speech. I’ve added links to other blog posts to this post, as feedback from those at the conference has been that they would like to know more about the school professional learning model about which I spoke.

Thank you to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders for offering me the platform-soapbox-orangecrate from which to speak passionately about what I think is important for leaders, teachers and students in our schools.

*                                                      *                                                      *

(Hello etc. …)

I am an English teacher by trade and have spent the last 17 years teaching and leading in schools in Australia and the UK. Most recently I have been leading a strategic project that developed a whole-school coaching model at my school, designed to do a number of things, including:

  • Improve teacher classroom practice;
  • Develop teachers’ capacities for reflection;
  • Depersonalise and open classrooms;
  • Develop a common language of practice; and
  • Improve the quality of professional conversation.

This intervention was strategically aligned, so it was top down in terms of being aligned with the strategic vision of the school, initiated by the principal and supported by the school board. But it was also middle out and bottom up, as the model was developed by teams of teachers, led by me. We took a deliberately slow process of prototyping, piloting, iterating and refining this context-specific intervention.

At the same time, while also parenting two small children, I completed a PhD in which I asked what it is that makes professional learning transformational and how school leaders can best lead professional learning for teachers.

(It was at this point that I said something like, “My doctorate was conferred in April, so if you see me around the conference, you can call me Dr Deb” which has resulted in everyone from the MC to delegates calling me ‘Dr Deb’ ever since!)

As someone who bestrides educational practice and research, I don’t believe there is a silver bullet or magic wand that can transform education, but I do believe we can work to positively influence it.

Two things we can focus on, in order to positively impact on our students’ learning, are the trust and growth of teachers.

At my school, we have developed a model for teacher growth that uses Cognitive Coaching, non-inferential lesson data, and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, to help teachers reflect on and grow their practice.

Non-inferential lesson data—that is, data that is, as much as possible, non-judgemental and informational—and shared standards of teaching, help our teachers to develop the depth and precision of their reflections on practice, while Cognitive Coaching helps teachers to surface their own thinking about how they can improve. Cognitive Coaching is not about solution-providing or advice-giving, but about mediating the thinking of teachers and helping them to find their own solutions to problems of practice, based on a belief in their internal capacity to do so. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam: teachers know their own classroom and their own students best.

My PhD found that coaching, among other things, can transform teachers’ beliefs and practices. It also found that school leaders have an important part to play in leading the learning of teachers.

We need to avoid those policies and practices that pit teachers and schools against one another (such as merit pay), that promote competition and commodification, or that focus on external metrics, performative measures, rewards or punishments. These are all things that demotivate, de-professionalise and demean our profession.

To support teacher professional growth and improvement in practice, we need to focus on trusting teachers to be professionals with the capacity to grow. We need to properly support their growth through context-specific interventions for which we provide adequate training, sufficient time, appropriate resources, and processes to systematically review our effectiveness.

In this way, within our own schools, we can heighten teachers’ self-awareness, self-efficacy and collaborative expertise and positively influence student learning.