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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

If You Want Them to Get It, Get Them to See It

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Instructional Strategies
Professional Learning
If You Want Them to Get It, Get Them to See It thumbnail
Credit: JJ Ignotz Photography
832 Marcy Avenue is a behemoth of a school building occupying an entire block in Brooklyn, New York. Home to four high schools, the building isn't the only aspect of the learning happening here that has outsized impact. So does the coaching the teachers receive.
On the fourth floor, principal Ashley Martin jumps into her coaching meeting with math teacher Ijeoma Duru. Ijeoma's face lights up as Ashley notes the improvement she's seen in Ijeoma's teaching since their last meeting, particularly in her work around students' conceptual understanding.
The principal and director of curriculum and assessment of Kings Collegiate Middle School discuss action steps to recommend for a teacher being coached, after jointly observing that teacher's practice.
Photos courtesy of JJ Ignotz
"What was the impact of the changes you made?" Ashley asks her.
"Getting students to verify their answers and understand that zero should equal zero if you've solved for the correct variable—that was great," Ijeoma recalls, smiling.
Ashley smiles back. "Great job! Now that we've set students up to succeed, let's think about how you might use data on students' level of understanding during independent practice time. Think back to our last PD session. What are the keys to aggressive monitoring?"
Ijeoma nods, recalling that faculty workshop, and replies, "I think this is primarily about collecting data on how students are doing during independent practice."
Ashley reaches for her laptop and says, "I'm going to push your thinking a little. Here's a video of Mr. Frazier's class during independent practice. What is Mr. Frazier doing, and what impact does this have on student learning?" Ijeoma and Ashley intently watch the clip of Mr. Frazier, a more experienced teacher. "I see a couple things," Ijeoma shares when it's over. "He announced before they started, "I'm going to walk around and I'll be checking for …." He was collecting student data on his clipboard, and then for the next round [of circulating], he also announced what he was looking for. The first time it was the amplitude and midline, and the second time he was looking for range."
At this point, the conversation turns from Mr. Frazier's teaching to Ijeoma's. Ashley asks, "What is the gap between what Mr. Frazier did and what we saw in your class today?" Recognition shows on Ijeoma's face. "There are a number of gaps. First. …"

The Magic of Models

Consider the power of what happened in this scenario. Learning something new is challenging—for students, teachers, leaders, or anyone! To teach something new in schools, we heavily rely on professional development sessions. Yet PD can be one of the weakest levers for change because it often stands alone. In this case, Ijeoma had already received PD on how to monitor student work more effectively, but it hadn't translated to her classroom. But once she compared her own practice to a model, she could find her "gap"—she could see it. By showing Ijeoma the video of Mr. Frazier, Ashley illuminated the action she wanted her to replicate. Ijeoma saw it, and she got it.
Ashley isn't the only coach who recognizes that good coaching hinges on showing someone an excellent model side-by-side with their own practice. In my work with more than 20,000 schools across the globe through the Leverage Leadership Institute, leaders have discovered a powerful maxim: If you want them to get it, get them to see it. Across disciplines, masters succeed by harnessing the impact of impeccable modeling. Doctors watch operations take place before performing them. Dancers see the choreographer model a step before they perfect it. Aspiring chefs start by watching experienced chefs practice techniques from the basic (chopping) to the intricate (preparing the perfect souffle).
So it's no surprise that when teachers get to "see it," their students see results. This is happening in schools of all types across the United States, from Lincoln Elementary School in Ogden, Utah, to Blanton Elementary School in Dallas, to Truesdell Campus in Washington, D.C., to Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School in New York City, where Ashley is principal. In 2018, not only were all the seniors in Uncommon Collegiate accepted into a four-year college, but 75 percent of them passed at least one AP exam, well above the national average and one of the highest performances of any urban high school in the country.
It wasn't just exceptional teaching strategies that drove this degree of achievement; it was coaching every teacher so that every student benefited from those strategies being used effectively.
At another school in the Uncommon Schools network—Leadership Prep Brownsville Elementary Academy—two administrators observe high-quality instruction.

Do Try This at Home

How can school leaders—at any level of instructional leadership—incorporate the practices Ashley used into their own work with teachers? By following a simple process: See it. Name it. Do it.

See the Model—and the "Gap"

Ashley planned every part of the use of her model video clip intentionally. The most important part of this planning was selecting a strong model. In this case, Ashley chose a video clip of a teacher on her staff. Not every leader or coach will always have available (or be able to film) a video of a teacher in their school showing excellent practice. Several publishers have remedied this problem by providing video clips of good teaching in action as supplements to books on teaching. Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and two of my books, Get Better Faster (Jossey-Bass, 2016) and Great Habits, Great Readers (Jossey-Bass, 2013), are excellent starting points that between them offer more than 100 videos. You can also find an ever-growing library of classroom-practice clips online.
Videos aren't the only way to show a strong model. Other ways include modeling the practice yourself or asking a skilled teacher to model the practice in his classroom while the teacher you're coaching observes.
However you secure your model, the keys are its quality and clarity. From listening to the experiences of many school leaders, I'd say it's safe to assume the average person will follow at most 70 percent of any practice that's modeled for them. That means if you have a good teacher—or administrator—model the practices you're after, you need to exaggerate your model and bring "110 percent" to the task. In other words, model what a new teacher would need to do to achieve the desired result—not what you could get away with as an established instructional leader.
For example, a highly experienced teacher can walk into a classroom and reset the class simply by standing silently at the front and looking disappointedly at the class. If a new teacher tried that strategy, she would probably fail! So a good model of this strategy would include exaggerated body language, tone, and precise words that would help any teacher earn that level of respect.
Once you've got a solid model, make sure the teacher is looking for the right thing. Before showing the video, Ashley focused Ijeoma's attention on what to look for—what Mr. Frazier did during independent practice. Think of what might have happened if Ashley hadn't done so. Ijeoma might have focused on other aspects of Mr. Frazier's lesson, which may been weaker or not relevant to Ijeoma's development at the time. Giving a teacher a question that targets what matters most in the model guides that teacher toward what you need them to see.
With a model in hand, coaches can more effectively help teachers to "see the gap." After Ijeoma reflected on the video of Mr. Frazier's class, Ashley asked, "When you think back to your independent practice today, what's the biggest gap between your practice and what you saw Mr. Frazier do?" The results of such a simple question are often profound. If you ask a teacher to reflect on her teaching prior to seeing a model, she'll be limited to what she already knows; she may not realize there's a ceiling to what she can reflect on. After observing a model, that teacher can see more of what's possible. And guiding the teacher to identify their own "gap" gives them ownership over their improvement.
A weekly Leadership Team meeting at Excellence Boys Charter School Elementary Academy.

Name It—State a Clear Action Step

Once a teacher sees where he or she is falling short, the coach's role is to help that teacher choose precise steps to take toward improvement. After Ijeoma identified the gap in her teaching, Ashley made sure they specified a clear next step for her. That step was to aggressively monitor students' work during independent practice by naming the "lap" (what Ijeoma would be checking for) and choosing a code (a checkmark if correct, circle if incorrect). Then she could use that code to record what she observed in each student's work and collect data on the trends.
There's a lot to notice about this action step. It is observable, high-leverage, and bite-sized. Why narrow the focus to such a small action step when there are dozens of areas where a teacher could improve? Although it seems counterintuitive, the smaller and more precise the action step, the quicker the growth.
Daniel Coyle highlights this concept in his book The Talent Code. Coyle traveled the world to study "hotbeds of talent"—places and situations that produce more talent than should be statistically probable, like Russian women's tennis teams or a top-performing music academy in upstate New York. In each case, he noted how teachers and coaches there focused on mastering small steps one at a time, from a perfect tennis grip to a flawless measure of music. When students focused that narrowly, they could perfect each step and never have to revisit it again. In the end, students grew faster than if they had worked on more things simultaneously.
Assigning large action steps that take months to carry out and monitor isn't only unmotivating, it's unrealistic. Most of us are at our best when we have a small, targeted goal to accomplish.

Do It—Close the Gap

In the last part of this process, the teacher gets to practice the action step she's been given. Once Ijeoma has a clear understanding of her action step, she and Ashely plan the next day's lesson, including the in-class work students will do independently. They spread out the exit tickets from the previous class across the classroom and Ijeoma practices walking the room, observing and coding each student's work and recording what she noticed.
Every great leader in every field achieves excellence through practice, even someone as great as Michelangelo! He spent years replicating the art of his teachers before he established himself in his own right, then guided his students in similar practice. You can see how closely Michelangelo had apprentices copy by looking at a well-known sketch housed at the Ashmolean Museum. The sketch shows the eye (at top in black) that Michelangelo drew for his apprentices to copy as well as their myriad efforts to imitate it. Through carefully practicing small steps like this, his apprentices grew quickly, until each reached their own style of painting.
Educators can achieve excellence through practice, too. Thousands of schools have created a "culture of practice," an environment where it's normal and valued to practice before you teach or lead. Consider how, in a single meeting, Ijeoma moved from identifying a gap in her teaching skill to committing an action step to muscle memory through practicing it under Ashley's watchful eye. In 45 minutes, Ijeoma has become a better teacher and embarked on a path of continual growth.

Bringing Modeling into Other Scenarios

Ashley converted a normal post-observation conference into a practice clinic where Ijeoma got better before even leaving the meeting. But the principles of see it, name it, do it. don't have to be limited to feedback meetings; they can be applied in many situations involving instructional leadership. Consider these options:
  • During a data meeting, guide teachers to see what material students are struggling with by first looking at an exemplar response to see what it looks like when a student produces a perfect answer. You'll be equipped with ideas from the exemplar that will help illuminate the gaps when you look at less exemplary work.
  • When helping teachers with lesson planning, have them review an excellent plan as a guide to their own planning. Teachers are often left to their own devices in making lesson plans. It can change the conversation when a teacher sees the gaps between his or her own plan and an exemplar.
  • During professional development sessions, let teachers see effective practice. Too many workshops deliver lots of information to teachers, then leave it to them to figure out how to implement it. Why not instead show teachers a model of effective practice during a PD session, and then allow them to "do it"—to practice with their peers—right on the spot. A professional development session is only as valuable as the amount of practice it offers.
See it. Name it. Do it. These steps are the foundation of excellent coaching in any scenario of instructional leadership. Harness them consistently, and you will give every teacher the tools to shine.
End Notes

1 Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code. New York: Random House.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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