The One “Improve Schools” Question You Must Be Asking


So we’re back to the question: how can I improve schools as we head into 2013?

The other question is: WHERE ON EARTH DID 2012 GO?  I wish I could answer that one for ya, but I’ll stick to the improving schools question – I’ll have a higher likelihood of actually answering something!

Actually, the answer to the “how can we improve our school?” question is pretty simple: Look at your data.

I know, I know…it’s my JOB to tell you to look at the data.  But I don’t want you to just look at it.  I want you to TALK about it.  Maybe even in a way that you haven’t before. 

Here’s what it might sound like if I were sitting next to you at your next grade level team meeting:

“Ok guys…I have one big question I want to ask you and we’re going to spend at least 1 hour discussing and charting what we know.  Here’s the question: How do we KNOW that we were successful in 2012?

The follow up question to that is ‘what EVIDENCE do we have (well beyond a gut check or feeling) that we did things well?'”

What I find is that we are so busy talking about WHAT we did, that we often forget to even discuss WHAT HAPPENED because of what we did.  And here’s the big hitch in the whole thing: If what you were doing was working, the scores would reflect it.

You see, here’s a thought I have a lot:  Teachers who are well prepped, are excellent deliverers and use their data every day to help them bob and weave through their teaching day are ALWAYS looking at what THEY can do to improve the scores.  (Notice I didn’t say “improve the teaching” – inherent in “improving the scores” is altering the teaching in some way).

What I also know is that teachers who are struggling to get the scores that are expected of them or the kids bob and weave and are looking at the KIDS and the factors that are completely unrelated to their own performance.  Excuses, excuses, excuses!

So, when you’re asking the question How do we KNOW that we were successful in 2012, we’re really focusing on several things:

  • Our performance as teachers (and this IS the thing that we have most control over!)
  • The data (we can’t answer the “how do we KNOW” part without referring to and using the data)
  • Taking responsibility (we are not waiting for ‘the test’ or ‘the benchmark’ to evaluate how well we did, we are focusing on all of the other data that we have – which is PLENTY for reflection)

One of the things that I’m most passionate about is that we avoid “romancing the problem” (focusing on the same thing over and over and over and over again without making real moves to change it) and that we ask the right questions that lead to real alterations in our teaching that lead to real results.  This question gets you right on the path to action and lets you leave pining for “what should be” behind.  (And, oh lordy, we need to leave that behind!)

So, I encourage you to bring this question to your next staff meeting, PLC, coaching interaction, classroom debriefing or administrative meeting and see if it doesn’t propel your conversation to a different level by focusing on what we KNOW, not what we THINK.

How do we KNOW that we were successful in 2012?

Go strong into 2013 guys…we’ve got this!!!!

“Read write learn”: What it’s REALLY all about


I have to break it to you now, the “Three R’s” need to be replaced with this: read write learn.  And here are 5 quick-take-away reasons why:

  1. The ultimate test of reading skill is whether students are gaining knowledge and information, this demonstrates the read write think idea! It’s critically important that they’re able to WRITE about what they’ve read as a vehicle for explaining and connecting to what they’ve learned!  Our reading skills tests tell us whether kids have the necessary underlying skills, but the big comprehension of text and the taking in of important and relevant information will be witnessed in their writing.
  2. Students need to be reading the RIGHT material.  I see so many kids getting points on Accelerated Reader programs and they’re really excited about what they’re reading (which is important!).  But the problem is, the text is rarely challenging enough and, ultimately, there is little connecting to the knowledge that kids should be taking with them after reading the text.  Big, important comprehension isn’t measured by silent reading and quick-tests alone!
  3. True learning takes place when students are able to simultaneously decode, comprehend, think about and CONNECT what they’re learning to other relevant topics and previous readings.  In other words – get TALKING about what they’ve read, what they’re reading and what they want to learn more about in future text.
  4. Writing about what you’ve read requires re-writing and editing.  And during re-writing and editing of writing, it’s common to GO BACK INTO THE TEXT! Study after study has shown that re-reading text is critical for comprehension.  Sooooo…the simple task of editing our writing and going back in the text that inspired the writing is strengthening comprehension.  Two bird with one stone, I would say!
  5. Ultimately, we need to extend our students’ current understanding of what comprehension really is and that it goes beyond ‘answering some questions after I read’.  In fact, comprehension of reading needs to include regular and habitual reading, writing, discussing, revising of ideas and written response, rereading, discussing some more…well, you get the point.  Answering a few “who, what, where, when, why” questions is critical to begin with and to establish simple retell, but it won’t take kids all the way into deep comprehension.  And deep comprehension is critical for our students’ success.

Before you go…consider this quote from my favorite researcher.  🙂

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

How Doing Difficult Things Helps Our Kids To Do Difficult Things

Okay, so I’m obsessed.  (Not an unusual thing, but we’ll get to that later…much much later…)

I heard Michael Kamil speak at a conference last year and what he said was “We get kids to do difficult things by getting them to do difficult things”.




I can’t stop thinking about this and the impact that it has on what we do in the classrooms everyday – especially with those kids who struggle to read.

It’s been about 9 months since I wrote “We get kids to do difficult things by getting them to do difficult things” in my notes.  I keep referring back to what this means for us – and for our kids.

Here’s what I’ve got rolling around in my brain about this:

  • As teachers, we cannot shy away from giving kids tasks that they struggle with – – – I mean after all, if they knew everything from the get-go, wouldn’t that eliminate the need for school?
  • As teachers, we need to teach persistence and stick-to-it-ive-ness (which is a HUGE life skill!). How do we do it?  By giving kids the tools and support and encouragement that they need when they encounter tough skills.  When they fail or struggle with a task, we stand alongside them and SHOW them how to take another step.
  • As teachers of reading, we need to not immediately solve a decoding or comprehension struggle by giving kids lower-leveled text.  When we quickly default to the below-level text, that’s what we get kids used to: below-level text.  It’s actually a set-up for future struggle, I believe!
  • As teachers of reading, we need not always pair kids with an “able” counter-part – – – this is enabling for a lot of kids and we KNOW that many on-level kids have little to no patience for supporting a struggling partner and they end up doing most of the work anyway.
  • As teachers of reading, we need to focus on pre-teaching and rehearsing tough spots with kids who struggle or who give up easily.  I have found that rehearsing answers or responses is a great intervention actually!  It’s worth checking into.

But the bottom line of it all?  As teachers, we need to switch our perspective from “Oh no!  They’re not getting it!  I must be a bad teacher!  I better simplify this task…STAT!” 


“Yes!  They’re struggling a bit with this – what a great opportunity for me to provide on-the-ground guided support for my kids AND build their stick-to-it-ive-ness at the same time!”

The confidence-building of learners is in the doing of difficult things…and living to tell the tale!

School Improvement Plans: Leveraging the RIGHT stuff for REAL Results


You know all of those school improvement plans that you have to fill out and turn in on time and make fit in the allotted number of pages…you know those ones you hurry to finish and rarely look at again until you make revisions and go through the whole rigamarole again?

Yeah, those plans.

Well, they’re WORTHLESS.

Yep, total junk – not even worth the paper they’re printed on.

And here’s why…

Because we don’t take them seriously enough to make smart decisions on HOW we’re going to use the information contained in the plans to leverage for real results.

What are real results? 

  • They’re outcome driven (meaning kids are showing that they know how to do things on the test)
  • They’re built on actual numbers – not gut reactions or stories that make us feel better when a student doesn’t perform like they should be
  • They stick – they’re not built on a perfect circumstance or a certain test administrator and they certainly don’t change over the weekend!
  • They have partners – they’re not alone – the results make sense in light of other assessment results

I know you want REAL RESULTS, dontcha?

So, how do we get real results AND have our school improvement plans accepted by the powers that be at the same time?

  1. We leverage school improvement plans by focusing on the instructional core: Put into action things that bring up the overall level of instructional quality throughout the block
  2. We leverage school improvement plans by kicking out proven-to-NOT-work actions and activities from the past – if you gave it a good try and it didn’t work, then dump the practice and move on
  3. We leverage school improvement plans by choosing simple-to-regularly-implement-tasks – – – avoid activities that are too convoluted or hard to follow
  4. We leverage school improvement plans by building in review – focusing on something once or for one year doesn’t mean that we’ll remember it!  So, build in review and cycle-back to re-commit to the practices from your plan that you’ve already taken care of!
  5. We leverage school improvement plans by taking them seriously – don’t slough it off as “another plan” – see it as an opportunity to refine, redefine and reflect on practice – these are VERY important in the life of an organization!

 So where should you start?  Start by pulling out your old school improvement plans, dust ’em off and start looking at what you’ve done, what you haven’t and what you don’t remember.  Start there.  And go slowly.  And think smartly.  And focus on the return on the school improvement plan investment.


4 Simple Steps to Your Successful Instructional Coaching Model

We are going to start with a couple of mantras…close your eyes…take a deep breath…think of yourself sitting on a relaxing beach with the waves lapping against the white sand…and follow me…

Repeat after me: Just because we have a coach, doesn’t mean coaching is happening.

Repeat after me: Just because I am a coach, doesn’t mean I’m supporting teachers.

And open your eyes.

So, you’ve just repeated what are probably the most important statements when it comes to building a killer instructional coaching model in a school.  We start by setting ourselves up with this idea: coaching is done WITH teachers, IN the classrooms, in the trenches ALONGSIDE those who are going to carry out the work in the classrooms.

I’m often asked, “Okay, how do I mentor teachers?” or “How do we set up a successful coaching model?” 

I’ve worked with so many schools and districts who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing coaches or teachers on special assignment out of the classrooms and into the coaching role.  Some have done this very successfully and the results are evident in the student performance – teachers are teaching better because of the coach’s support. 

I’ve also seen coaching efforts fall flat.  There was a lot of hype and fanfare around implementing a coaching model, but when it came down to it, the principals weren’t on board or the coaching failed to have a purpose or the teachers weren’t prepped on a school coaching model and so it fell flat and folks saw the coaching model as just “another flash in the pan effort to get better scores”.

The problem with failed coaching models goes beyond the obvious…the worst effect of a poor mentoring or coaching program is that teachers just lose faith in the ability of a coach to help refine their coaching practice.  And so in the future, even when a great coach comes along, teachers can be resistant.  And really….do you blame them?  I certainly don’t!

So, starting with what the coaches DO is the most important step in setting up an instructional coaching or mentoring program in any school.  Use these 4 quick steps to help guide you as you implement coaching for the first time or are trying to inject some OOMPH into your current coaching/mentor program.

Well, here’s where we’ll start – it might look simple, but these four steps are POWERFUL and RESULTS-BASED!

Step 1:  Start with a focus

Every solid coaching model or school coaching program has a focus or a reason for coaching.  Some examples might be: We are going to focus on bringing all classes to a tighter classroom management system so that we have more instructional time each day.  Or you might have a mentor focus on implementing a particular curriculum or technique that a staff is using across the school.

The focus will be the “in” that the coach has with the teachers – the place to start.  Without it, we are into inviting teachers to engage with us.  The problem with invitation only coaching?  Most of the folks who need coaching will not invite the coach in!

Step 2:  Know your content

Coaches – hear me on this if you hear me on anything.  You will not only have bigger, better confidence in your instructional coaching if you have a very firm and solid mastery of the materials that your teachers are implementing, but it will also build your CREDIBILITY. 

Credibility leads to relationship.  And relationship leads to trust.  And trust leads to openness.  And openness is necessary as we support teachers through mentoring and instructional coaching.

Build study time into your weekly calendar!  It’ll pay off in spades.  (I don’t really know what that means, but you get the idea!)

Step 3:  Go for the win

Coaches – start where you can have success!  So many coaches obsess over the folks who are obviously resistant to coaching and these coaches have it all wrong! 

One of the attributes of very successful coaches is that they are confident in themselves!  This doesn’t mean that they know everything.  I joke during my trainings with coaches that we’re going to have a test at the end of the day and test them like this, “Everyone, what does the third paragraph on Grade 3, Theme 4, Week 1, pg 76 say?”.  Not!

Going for the win means that you assess who is closest to reaching mastery on the focus area and you start there.  You might even have a conversation with a teacher that goes something like this, “Can I borrow your kids for 30 minutes so that I can try out some techniques?”  That’s confidence AND relationship building right there!  And that’s a good thing.

Step 4:  Measure your work in the conversations

Setting up a SUCCESSFUL coaching model means embracing the idea that the coaching happens with the teachers as coaches are supporting teachers in doing two things

  • Reflecting
  • Refining

The ONLY way that you can reflect with teachers about how their lessons went or refine practices is in community with them or in conversation.  So, instructional coaching should be measured, therefore, in the time spent with teachers talking about and musing on the instruction that’s going on in the classroom.

Don’t get me wrong – lots of coaches are busy each day, but the big question is, are they busy on the RIGHT STUFF that’s going to have major impact?

So, when you’re asking how to mentor in a school coaching model, start with these 4 simple, but very powerful steps.  As I say often, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to have purpose!

Would you do me a favor?  Would you leave a comment below and tell me what’s going well with your coaching model and what your specific struggles are?  I’d really love to help!