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.

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


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


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!”)


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.”)


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


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


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.”)


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


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


Every new day is a fresh start for every student – we allow students to recover
Does a Checklist Really Work? {Team Meetings}

Does a Checklist Really Work? {Team Meetings}

If you didn’t read my first post on the power of checklists to manage the teacher/coach/principal workload, then click this to take 10 seconds and get caught up!

I am checking out another checklist that I created – what do you think?  What am I missing?

Checklist for Team/Department Meetings


sheet and time arrived


Read agenda together


Set time for Item 1, discuss and record next steps/questions


Set time for Item 2 discuss and record next steps/questions


Set time for Item 3 discuss and record next steps/questions


Review individual notes, responsibilities and next steps


Each teacher signs off notes back to principal/coach


sheet time dismissed
6 Things to Do Every Morning to Set Intensity in Your Teaching!

6 Things to Do Every Morning to Set Intensity in Your Teaching!

One of the things that I’m finding that many schools are working on recently is building intensity of instruction.  Intense instruction can be a hard thing to define and to build.  So, I have set out to explain it and then give some little (but mighty!) ways to build intensity from the first moment of the day or class period.

I will say, that setting the intensity first thing is super important..I find it really hard to get intensity back after a couple of hour of not-so-intense teaching.  But I never give up even if I’ve gotten off to a rougher start!

First, let me define what instructional intensity is:

Instructional intensity is the number of student required interactions/responses

in a short period of time on important grade level content

Here are a few ways that we can measure instructional intensity:

Required Interaction Required Response
The teacher teaches something new and the students engaged with the new content Physical
The teacher corrects a student/s and the student engages in the corrected content Oral
The teacher orchestrates tight practice of an already-taught skill that needs more repetition



Here are 6 things you can do to start your day off with intensity (Note: they might seem minor, but they really matter!)

  1. Greet the students at the door with a timed task related to your content
  2. Pull your kids close to give them the lowdown on the first big content chunk of the day: “Today we are going to learn __________________.  Here’s what that is going to require you to have on your desk __________________.  Go set up your desks now.  You have 45 seconds.  Go!  Now that we have our materials set up, I am going to teach you what our lesson is going to require of your behavior and movement.” {Then teach the academic behaviors they’ll need to master!}
  3. Use a timer and give students much less time that you think they’ll need to transition
  4. Give directions when you have all eyes on you and never, ever compromise on this!
  5. When students don’t give you the exact behavior you have explained, ask them to do it all again and look for opportunities to give them praise
  6. Tell them what you’re going to teach them, tell them what they are learning while they’re learning it, review what you taught them at the end of the lesson

BONUS:  Think of your whole day in 10-minute chunks: “What do I need my students to have learned/to be doing in the next 10 minutes to hit my mark?”

Help!  I need your input ASAP!  :-)

Help! I need your input ASAP! :-)

Help! I am writing an upcoming presentation and I really want to make it pop…and I need some real-life intel…from you!

This’ll take you 30 seconds…A ZILLION THANKS! (PS I am writing next week in the evenings, so if you could complete the survey by Sunday that would be AWESOME!)

Click here to take the very quick survey…I would appreciate it so much!