Fifteen years ago today (July 1, 2005) I decided to quit my job and begin my own business helping struggling schools with their literacy practices. I was already doing that work with another company (CORE), but I kind of thought, “Well, why not me?” and I struck out.
I didn’t know what I was doing back then. I lived in an apartment and my mom was my banker and my dad was my business advisor. And my friends were packet staplers and the staff at Fed Ex Office became my best friends because we spent so much time together.
There were major wins along the way (15,000 teachers in one day getting a copy of my third book in their hands…thank you New Mexico!) and there were major losses (thanks, economy for crashing and leaving me holding the bag on conference deposits for events we were hosting!). There are so many stories I could tell from the hysterical (where I dragged a trash bag on my boot the entire length of the Denver airport without knowing it). To the harrowing (sleeping in a shelter in Gape Girardeau, MO because of tornadoes).
But the thing is, when I really think back over the past 15 years, not much has changed about how I do this work with teachers, coaches and principals. What guided me 15 years ago, still guides me…maybe it’s even clearer today:
- Keep instruction simple
- Focus on quality teaching
- Cut the fluff
- Have some fun doing it
I want to thank you, reader, so much for supporting me along the way through these 15 years. Without you I couldn’t have done what I have been able to do with my work and with my life. Here’s to 15 more!
(For context if you’re reading this after 2020, I am writing this during quarantine due to the Coronavirus. What a time to be an educator. This email response from a kind, loyal educator just gives us a glimpse into what life is like right now. It’s tough…but so are we.)
I received this email in response to a newsletter I sent out just asking if anyone needed encouragement. Quite a few people responded and I was so touched by the fact that they thought I could actually help in some way. I certainly tried to provide whatever wisdom I had (which is very small…I assure you!)…but, ultimately, I think the best support I can provide anyone right now is perspective. Look…we aren’t miracle-workers and the last thing any of us needs is more free stuff to do on top of what was already weighing on us before this freaking virus! Let’s slow down, be methodical and realize that all is not lost or buried even!
Email I received:
It’s Samantha (not her real name) from Michigan (but it is her real state!). We did that PD this winter with you. We just found out face to face learning us cancelled for the rest of the year….If you could share some encouraging words to the staff that would be great.
My attempt at an encouraging response:
Hi Samantha! Of course I remember the PD we did together…that was fun and you guys were a great group!
Ugh…face-to-face teaching being canceled feels like a punch in a gut a bit…our governor announced the same thing yesterday and I think it makes things feel terminal like they’re never going to change. BUT THEY WILL.
Here is my encouragement to you (and to me, too, if I am honest!):
- Don’t try to be super teacher/super coach – you are not being judged by your output…your compassion and timing and just touching base with teachers/students is going to be what your highest priority is
- Realize that your students received A LOT of great face-to-face instruction already in the school year…YOU ARE NOT AT ZERO….you have a whole bunch of teaching foundation that you built already
- Focus on 1-2 things that you want kids to strengthen skill-wise and make that a priority over the REST OF THE SCHOOL YEAR. To be honest, we are not going to do our best teaching to every single one of our kids through Zoom. So, set out to just strengthen a couple of skills that will be a great set-up for the next grade level. TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF OF YOURSELF
- Honestly? Unfollow on social media the people who make you feel like you’re not doing enough as a teacher. I had to unfollow a woman that I really admire because I was feeling like such a loser because I hadn’t cooked some meals from scratch and itemized my day completely on the second day of quarantine. We don’t need that pressure! (And by the way, I’m at about Day 20 of quarantine and I haven’t done either…and I don’t need a stranger to make me feel badly!
- Finally…daily remind yourself of this: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING SO THERE IS ODD COMFORT IN THIS! (HA!…BUT SO TRUE!)
And then some coaching advice to you:
- Send an email out to your teachers that asks them two questions:
- What are you most overwhelmed by right now?
- How can I help?
- …and then set out to help them on the thing that is most overwhelming them right now. Helping others will make you feel so useful and will be so appreciated by your staff.
Let me know how you guys are doing…I am here!
What do you think? Can you relate to Samantha? Do you need some coaching practicality in your life? Then, check this out. It’s right up your alley.
To School Principals and Instructional Leaders at the District Level,
I write this to you as we are on our umpteenth day of quarantine, trying to get back to some semblance of normal…whatever that means anymore!
As I’ve taken a couple of weeks to just watch what schools and districts are doing to gear up for a long time of no students in the schools, something has emerged that really concerns me. DEEPLY CONCERNS ME. And I think you need to know it and recognize it, if this describes you.
I am seeing educators scrounging for more materials, more daily schedules, more portals for more activities to do with kids via Zoom, more teaching plans, more online resources…MORE MORE MORE.
Hmmmmm…this sounds a LOT like what we have tried to get away from: confusing and overwhelming teachers.
Before we had even heard of the coronavirus and Covid-19, we had issues in schools: we had overcomplicated things to the point where teachers were overwhelmed and students weren’t performing anywhere near where they need to be. But now with this wild time of eLearning and distance learning that was literally shoved upon in one fell swoop, we are back at it with TOO MUCH STUFF.
Let me be very clear: when someone feels like they’re drowning (which is what trying to homeschool your own kids while doing Zoom lessons with your class students must feel like), the last thing they need is more water.
I want you to hear me loud and clear: THEY DO NOT NEED MORE STUFF.
In an effort to be a kind but stern fairy godmother as you are navigating this time, I’ve put together some things I recommend you STOP doing and some things I recommed you START doing.
Here’s what I want you to STOP doing as a way to save and stabilize your teaching staff:
- Stop keeping up with the Joneses and trying to be leader of the year by giving your teachers more resources. They don’t need them.
- Stop sending out another “helpful” resource when you come across it online. It’s not helpful. It’s not received with joy, even though you intended it that way.
- Stop buying access for your teachers to portals of new activities and teach-from-home shortcuts. They don’t have time to decipher what to use and what not to use.
- Stop acting like teaching from home takes a different skill set than teaching face-to-face. Yes, the technology might be new, but teachers still have to have a management system, they have to engage their kids and they have to teach explicitly. None of that has changed one bit.
Here’s what I want you to START doing as a way to save and stabilize your teaching staff:
- Check in with each teacher via email or phone and ask: “What is the most frustrating thing right now for you and how can I help?” They need relief…and it doesn’t come in the form of more worksheets or online games.
- Send an email to your teachers and remind them of these foundational elements of teaching that they already know and how important they STILL are in our current circumstances
- Greet the students by name on the beginning of each Zoom – let them know you see them…literally!
- At the start of each lesson, review the behavior rules – they haven’t changed since we were in regular school
- Give kids structured stand up and stretch breaks a bit more often during the lesson because they are working harder to stay engaged
- This is not the time to be teaching everything new…see our safe-at-home orders as an opportunity to reivew and solidify the most important skills – that’ll be a huge win if you do just that
- Be excited to see your students – that joy is contagious
- Go take a nap. This is hard. These are muscles we haven’t flexed before and it’s new.
This is not a time for heroics, this is a time and opportunity to simplify. Show your teachers it is more than okay to do just that.
(And you go take a nap, too. This is hard hard work.)
With love and so much admiration,
(who is also taking naps even though she isn’t doing the heavy lifting like you are!)
I got a great question from Sarah in response to another blog post of mine…and I thought our convo might help you a bit, too!
Good morning Jill,
I like how you talked about creating the remind with
teachers so the focus of the cycle doesn’t get lost. I’ve been doing this
with (generally) weekly emails or some kind of communication of how the goal is
progressing (are they tracking things on their own- can they produce data,
shall I come in and observe/tally, etc) and what I can do to help
them. I don’t want to be a burden to the teachers, but I want to hold us
both accountable to the goal and cycle we have established. Do you have
any other suggestions as to how I should do this?
Thanks for a great thought-provoking post this morning!
Happy Tuesday and you ask a great question! It sounds like you’re doing really well already in reminding your teachers, but here is a suggestion that has worked really well for me and it’s super simple.
Give each teacher a cheapie composition book ($1 ones from Target work well!). Designate a few pages of the book to creating a checklist…and every time you give them something to work on/they commit to incorporating it, they add it to the checklist, essentially creating their own lesson planning checklist that is designed just for them based upon your coaching!
I find, too, that this serves as a really great restraint for me as I coach because I can’t have them add 92 things each week/coaching cycle to their checklist.
It keeps me honest to the ONE THING that is most important for them to change/alter/remember. Then, every time we coach, we can go back to the checklist that we’re created together and ask how things are going.
I find this works really well and is super tangible for the
Hope this helps!
If you are thought this super practical coaching/leadership support was refreshing, then you might be refreshed by this, too!
As you probably know by now from all of my writing-related postings of late, I’m obsessively thinking about writing. It is a topic that I used to tiptoe around because I didn’t have a clue as to how to teach it. But now I’ve constructed the skill of writing, and I feel so much more confident in talking about it – phew!
One of the things that’s in the front of my new book is a roadmap (Side note: The graphic is so cool – and I love looking at it!) that shows the questions that a writer asks along the path to completing a writing project. It’s simple, but I believe that is boils the informational text teaching down to exactly what kids need to know how to do – without fluff.
Here are the questions and the relating skills that students need to know how to ask and do as they write informational text. This chart simulates the steps in the thinking of successful writers and links it to the skills that help “answer” that question.
||What do I want to tell the reader?
||Teach students how to Brainstorm and Content Map
||How do I approach my writing so that I can have the biggest impact on my reader?
||Teacher students how to Setting a Formal Tone
||How do I logically order my ideas so my most important points are obvious to the reader?
||Teach students to Organize Their Writing and Outline
||How do I grab the reader’s attention?
||Teach students to Write a Thesis
||How do I format my writing in a way that highlights my most important information?
||Teach students to Format Text
||How do I create a natural flow of ideas so that my writing is easy to read?
||Teach students to Develop a Topic and Create Transitions
||How do I make an impact on the reader and compel him to do something after he’s done reading?
||Teach students to Write a Conclusion
||How do edit my writing for ideas, connections and mechanics?
||Teach students to Revise, Edit and Proofread
If you found this remotely helpful, then you’ll find this infinitely helpful!