Hard Skills and the Slippery Slope

Hard Skills and the Slippery Slope

Today I am thinking about hard and soft skills in teaching and how I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope.

Let me explain…

I have done professional development and coaching of teachers (and their coaches and leaders) for a decade and a half.  I have seen a lot.  Correction: I have seen it ALL!

Most of my work is with some of the most struggling schools in each state in the U.S. The districts and schools come to me because they aren’t getting the results they want, despite a lot of energy and time spent on the job.  Sometimes people are under-motivated, feeling the results of really bad leadership or they’re just not a good fit for the hard job of being a teacher.

But most of the time, they need help because they can’t pull themselves off of the trajectory toward failure.  They need a lifeline or help or whatever you want to call it.

When I go to schools and I suggest that they try something (like simplifying their morning routine or sorting their kids for reading instruction), the first question they ask is: Okay, how do I do that?

That question right there (How do I do that?) is a question that begs for a HARD SKILL response.  In other words, most teachers are asking to be taught a SKILL to help them improve their performance or that of their students.  Hands down, teachers want to learn to do things.  They don’t just want to talk about them, feel good about talking about them or ruminate on big ideas.

They want answers and solutions.  They’re looking for hard skills that will help them get better results.

Here’s where the slippery slope comes in.

I speak at a lot of conferences and lately I’ve noticed a bunch of sessions (maybe half?) on the conference dockets are about what I would consider SOFT SKILLS.  I see sessions on equity in the classroom, building resilient kids…or my latest favorite buzz word (gag!) student efficacy.  First off (and I promise I won’t go off on a tangent about this!), I don’t even know what those words really mean.  Or more specifically, these words mean things that encompass so many things that they don’t have much meaning at all!

Do I believe in building resilient kids?  Of course I do!

Do I believe in equity in the classroom?  Of course I do!

Do I believe in student efficacy (feeling like they can get the job done)? Of course I do!

But…I don’t believe that resiliency, equity and efficacy (soft skills) are won through soft skill work of the teacher.  I think they’re won through the teacher’s hard skills…the hard skills that the teacher uses each day that ensures that kids master the most important content. (A few examples of hard skills off the top of my head: how to set up a flawless management system, how to redirect students off-task, how to lesson plan for a killer lesson, how to teach vocabulary so that students internalize the words, how to break down your student data and make smart decisions. You get the idea.)

So, I actually think we do a disservice to teachers by getting them pumped up about the soft skills stuff without arming them with the hard skills.  After all, when the conference session is done or the professional development session is over, they are left with this: either they have the skill to do what they need to do tomorrow, or they don’t.

In my 15+ years of doing this work, I have never had a teacher ask me, “How do I build resiliency in my students?” or “How do I create a spirit of equity in my classroom?”  Nope.  The questions are much more practical and skill-focused.  Teachers want to get BETTER at BEING great teachers…not just talking about being better teaches.

There is no amount of pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session that is going to cover for a lack of skill.

Actually, let’s flip that: No pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session can outshine a teacher with excellently honed hard teaching skills.

The sooner we admit that excellent teaching comes down to the teacher being really good at certain things, then the REAL party starts.  Until then, we’re hunting and pecking for superficial fix-its.

And we are better than that.

P.S.  If you liked the vibe of this, then you probably want to check this and this out.

Teacher Q & A: I Keep Running Out of Time to Finish My Lessons…Help!

Teacher Q & A: I Keep Running Out of Time to Finish My Lessons…Help!

Question:I keep running out of time to finish my lessons each day. This means that the next day I have to finish up what was left over and then try to finish the day’s lessons. I am getting more and more behind and I am feeling very overwhelmed.  Help!

Answer: Oh gosh…I totally relate to what you are saying.  This is a really common issue – and it’s solvable!

Here are several things that have worked for me and many other teachers.  They are super simple, but if you do them religiously everyday, you’ll see the long-term effect!  Here you go:

Step 1: During lesson planning, note how long you want each component of your lesson to take.

For example,

  • Introduction to new science concept – 3 minutes
  • Watch youtube video of process – 2 minutes
  • Read Chapter 7 with students in partner + take notes – 25 minutes

I find that I tend to overtalk during lessons (shocker!) and this keeps me focused on how long I want each section of the lesson to take.  I find that the lesson gets out of whack time-wise in the smallest moments…and those moments add up!

Step 2: Keep a timer while you teach.

I find that I lose myself in the lesson.  That’s a great thing, but can also be a time killer and time waster!  So, I keep a timer and set it for each portion of the lesson. This keeps me from thinking that I have a ton more time than I actually have! If the timer buzzes and I am still teaching, I will rely on the next step…

Step 3: Note for each portion of your lesson what you absolutely HAVE to teach and what would BE NICE.

During my lesson planning I determine what I absolutely HAVE to teach (what is required for the most important skills to be mastered) and what can be dumped if I am running short of time.  I don’t make a habit of it, but I give myself a little ‘out’ when I need it.  The real deal is that not every moment of the lesson is the most crucial and by determining what the fluff is from the most important skill work, I can prioritize as I need to.

You’ll see that a lot of what I do to manage my time takes place in lesson planning.  I find that the more detailed I am in my planning, the better pacing I have during the lesson and less content that I fold over into the next day.

If you liked this post, then you’d probably really like this book I’ve written on the same topic, too!

Question on Sharing a New Direction with Staff {Principal}

Question on Sharing a New Direction with Staff {Principal}

I received this question from a Facebook principal friend of mine:  Hey Jill! I’m a  principal who is about to embark on a new adventure with my staff. My hope is to create an atmosphere of professional growth from peer observations, feedback and administrative observations. I’m going to begin with a staff meeting that shows where we have some improvement needs. Any suggestions or words of wisdom before I roll this out?

Here was my response: My best advice is to give very specific examples of what needs changing and why. Bad example: We need to be more collaborative. Good example: We need to stop correcting papers and having side convos during our team meetings. Instead, I would like you to take notes in your team notebook and rotate the team lead responsibilities every week so that we use our time wisely and are on the same page with implementing new ideas. When you want them to stop doing something, be sure to give them a behavior to replace it with. Break a leg!

*Updated* Priority Skills: Behavior Management

*Updated* Priority Skills: Behavior Management

As many folks know, I am in the process of writing my fifth book!  It’s about instructional coaching…tentatively titled “How to Coach Teachers to Teach (Almost) Anything” – – – I mean, it’s not like it’s going to be published by Yale or anything, right?  ????

One of the things that I wanted to really drive home for coaches are the fundamental skills that teachers have to have in place.  So, I broke those fundamental skills down into five categories:

  1. Classroom Management
  2. Behavior Management
  3. Engagement
  4. Lesson Planning (the most often un-coached skills that is the starting point of a successful lesson)
  5. Delivery of a Basic Lesson (like the very least the teacher has to do to deliver a successful lesson)

In this series of five blogs, one on each of the topics, I have broken down those skills for you, too!

If you’re a teacher, you can use these as a checklist for lesson planning

If you are a professional developer, you can use this is a checklist for a new teacher (or veteren teacher) training program

If you are a principal, you can use this to help you set your instructional goal and as a tool to determine where you staff might need strengthening.

If you are a coach, you will use these lists to prioritize the content that you will coach.  If a teacher is struggling with any of these, then that struggling point is where your coaching should start.  After all, if a fundamental is missing, then the teacher doesn’t have much of a chance of getting the fancier stuff well implemented.

Here are the Behavior Management Priority Skills for Coaching

The teacher:

  • Teaches replacement behaviors for most common behavior problems
  • Has the ability to quickly analyze the behavior and get to the root of whether it is a whole group, small group, time of day, type of content issue
  • Has clear steps in place for students choosing to repeatedly break the classroom rules
  • Has a procedure for removing students from the place of instruction without students removing themselves from learning the content
  • Has a routine for de-escalating behaviors before they become intolerable

Allows students to recover once they have paid the “price” for misbehavior

Does a Checklist Really Work? {Behavior Mgmt.}

Does a Checklist Really Work? {Behavior Mgmt.}

I am on a quest to figure out how checklists can simplify and improve the quality of our work in schools.  If you haven’t read my first two installments of this little series, I suggest you do (they’re super quick reads!).  Here’s the 1st.  Here’s the 2nd.

This time I tried my hand at behavior management.  How do we define a series of steps so that we can ensure that behavior management doesn’t dominate instruction?  Also, how do we streamline it across a school so we have similar expectations for kids?  I tried my hand at it here…what do you think?

Checklist for In-Class Behavior Management

1

When a student is misbehaving, kindly ask student to replace with an alternate behavior (“Instead of _____, John, I would like you to do _____.”)

2

If behavior is not immediately corrected, then firmly ask the student to change behavior and add consequence (“John, I have asked you to _____ and you have chosen not to.  I would like you to ____ right now.  I do not want to have to ask you to leave the group!”)

3

If the behavior is changed and no longer an issue, find an immediate way to compliment the student on the changed behavior (“John…thanks so much for doing _____ -really nice job paying close attention.”)

4

If the behavior persists, quietly go over to the student, whisper directions to carry out consequence (Whispering: “John, please come and sit in this desk right now – I will let you know when you are free to join us again.”).  Ignore the student if he acts out or tries to get other kids’ attention

5

Tell the student that he is still responsible for doing the work, just doing the work in a different spot in the room

6

If the student is not behaving in the new spot, give 1-2 calm reminders of what is expected (“Remember John, I’m looking for you to not blurt out and try to distract everyone.  When you can do that, I’ll invite you back to the group, which is my #1 goal.”)

7

If the student is still not responding, then calmly move the student to the next step on the behavior chart (losing recess?)

8

If the student gets to the 4th step on the behavior chart, a note goes home with the student and the note comes to the principal’s office

9

Every new day is a fresh start for every student – we allow students to recover
“We are waiting to get him tested”

“We are waiting to get him tested”

“We are waiting to get him tested” is not a teaching strategy.

I couldn’t resist sharing this image I created a long time ago…it is as true today as it was when I created it.  I posted it back then because I had just been to a school visit where every other student who needed intervention wasn’t getting it because “they were waiting to be tested.”

The thing that cracks me up (well, it doesn’t crack me up really – it makes my blood boil actually!) is that the only thing that testing can provide is the same thing that intervention can: a pathway for knowing where to start teaching!

A Special Ed designation or learning disability designation just means that we need to take special care in providing instruction…but when it comes down to it, it’s all instruction anyway.

I also wish that we’d stop saying this because it totally degrades our profession.  It makes us look weak.

And I don’t like to look weak in a profession that I’ve chosen to be a lifelong part of, do you?