What You Practice Is What You Value - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

November 1, 2019

What You Practice Is What You Value

To foster a schoolwide culture of coaching, create a shared language around specific teaching skills and a norm of constant practice of those skills.

Professional Learning
School Culture
What You Practice Is What You Value thumbnail

To foster a schoolwide culture of coaching, create a shared language around specific teaching skills and a norm of constant practice of those skills.

Listen to an audio version of this article.


"OK, how does Bradbury show us that Montag has changed?" Aly Ross, a new teacher, asks the 25 9th graders in this seventh period class at North Star Academy Lincoln Park High School. "Turn and talk to your partner."

Aly's students animatedly share their ideas about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Aly sets a timer and circulates carefully throughout the room, listening in on as many of these conversations as possible. But Aly's not alone: Instructional leader Madison Fox is there to offer Aly support and is also monitoring the class discussion. She scans the room, noticing what each pair of students is doing and how they're responding to Aly's teaching.

When the timer signals the end of the turn and talk, Aly is in the back of the room and scuttles to the whiteboard upfront while saying, "Come back together in three … two … and one. How does Bradbury show us that Montag has changed? Let's share out."

Despite this instruction, only a few students stop talking, and none raise their hands to volunteer responses. From the back of the room, Madison catches Aly's eye, mimes planting her feet firmly on the ground, and mouths the words, "Square up, stand still."

el201911_bambricksantoyo_fig1.jpg
At a training in Dallas, school leaders exchange feedback on a weekly data meeting role-play.

el201911_bambricksantoyo_fig2.jpg
At the same training, a teacher and leader practice a guided reading lesson.

el201911_bambricksantoyo_fig3.jpg
Nikhil Kawlra and Antonio Burt, principal managers from New Orleans and Memphis, review video of their practice sessions with principals and make a plan to improve them at the Leverage Leadership Institute.

Aly nods, stops moving, and repeats the question while standing still: "How does Bradbury show us that Montag has changed?" This time, the conversation stops. Hands pop up across the classroom.

Minutes later, after the bell rings and students have headed off to their next class, Madison asks Aly, "What did you notice about the feedback I gave you? What made the difference?"

"You called me out for moving when I ended the turn and talk," Aly says, laughing. "That made it harder to get the kids' attention."

"Absolutely," Madison affirms. "Some of your kids, like Zamir, will go all out turning to look at you no matter where you are, but most of them, if you are moving around, they'll think that they can keep moving and talking as well. So even if you're standing in the back, it's more effective to stay in place than to move while you're speaking."

Small Steps with Outsized Impact

For experienced teachers, an action step like "stand still" can seem meaningless. After all, they aren't thinking about how they're standing at all, and they can easily bring a class back to attention. Yet that's precisely the point: What is automatic for a quality teacher isn't for others. For brand new teachers like Aly, small reminders like this have outsized impact.

Rather than wait for years of trial-and-error experience to perfect their craft, new teachers can actually grow quickly, step by step. At many schools, instructional leaders like Madison routinely rehearse specific instructional skills with teachers like Aly. In doing so, leaders ensure that students thrive on a steady diet of increasingly effective teaching.

At schools far from Newark, New Jersey, where Lincoln Park High School is located, moments like this are a part of life—part of a culture of educators guiding each other's growth. Leaders like Laura Garza in Dallas, Jeanine Zitta in St. Louis, and Paulina Cabezas in Santiago, Chile—whom I've had the privilege to observe through my work with the Leverage Leadership Institute—are making a culture of coaching commonplace. And they are seeing extraordinary impact on student achievement. 1

How did these school leaders build a culture that led to results like these? The same way humans build any culture—around a shared language and a norm of regular practice. Whatever community we form, what we say and do reflects and reinforces what we believe. In short, what we practice is what we value.

In effective cultures, people use words everyone can understand to describe actions that committed members consistently put into practice. Practice, then, is the difference between rhetoric and reality. Let's consider these two keys to building a culture of coaching.

Shared Language for Key "Action Steps"

Seven years ago, I formed a working group of extraordinarily successful principals and instructional coaches. As a group, we started observing and filming the successful coaches and learned that there was a pattern to the feedback and powerful action steps they guided teachers to use in many aspects of teaching. We wrote those action steps down and shared them with other coaches. Those coaches tweaked that feedback and made it even better until, five years later, our working group had developed what we call the "Get Better Faster" Scope and Sequence—a menu of skills teachers of all skill levels can hone.

Figure 1 presents a sample of action steps from that scope and sequence. This tool is particularly effective because its list of specific actions provides a common language around the abilities that define great teaching. In doing so, it gives instructional leaders a unified way to describe and teach those skills. Without that language, Madison would never have been able to give Aly feedback in the moment, because Aly wouldn't have known the meaning of "square up, stand still." That common language also enables leaders to work together to get better at coaching and allows leadership teams to compare progress across school teams.


Figure 1. Sample Action Steps from the "Get Better Faster" Scope and Sequence

What You Practice Is What You Value - table

Action Step

Definition

Strong Voice
Square Up, Stand StillDraw students' attention by standing up straight, keeping feet planted on the ground, and facing the class.
Formal RegisterProject your voice and strike a formal tone when delivering instructions.
Teacher Radar
Scan Hot SpotsScan parts of the room where students are often off-task.
Be Seen LookingCrane your neck to appear to see all parts of the room.
Independent Practice
Write First, Talk SecondGive students opportunities to respond to a prompt in writing before beginning class discussion.
Do NowBegin class with an independent writing task.
Aggressively Monitor Student Work
Monitoring PathwaySet up a monitoring pathway that maximizes the number of students you can reach during independent work time.
Monitor the Quality of Student WorkLook for patterns in student responses, not simply for whether students are on task.
Engage All Students
Turn & TalkHave students turn and talk to one another in pairs at key moments during class.
Narrate the Positive
Narrate What Students Do WellNarrate what students are doing well to encourage replication of that behavior.
Look at Off-Task Student While Narrating the PositiveNarrate what students are doing well while looking at off-task students to positively redirect those students.
Reinforce Students' Intellectual ProgressUse language that praises students' efforts, not just their results.
Check for Whole-Group Understanding
Poll the RoomGauge student comprehension by polling the room. ("Thumbs up if you agree with Jasmyn's answer, thumbs down if you disagree!")
Target the ErrorTailor instruction to focus on the pattern of error in the class.

Source: Get Better Faster Sequence of Action Steps. Copyright © Paul Bambrick-Santoyo. Used with permission.

But it's not just providing a common language that makes this scope and sequence effective: It's making sure that language names building blocks of coaching that will actually serve both teachers and students. Three key characteristics make the action steps in Figure 1 valuable: They're granular, high-leverage, and observable.

Granular: The Power of Micro-feedback

Before we saw Madison working with Aly, she had already given this novice feedback that came straight from this scope and sequence: When giving directions, stand still so that it's easier for students to listen. Imagine if instead of getting to this level of specificity, Madison had simply told Aly it was necessary to "make sure students are paying attention when you're talking." That feedback wouldn't have been nearly as effective. Why? Because humans learn most effectively when we master one small component of a craft at a time. Giving Aly a single action step might seem as if it would cause this teacher to master classroom management extremely slowly. In reality, receiving micro-feedback like this both deepened and accelerated Aly's development as a teacher.

Daniel Coyle explains why this is in his book The Talent Code (2009). Across an array of professions from tennis to music, Coyle identifies "talent hotbeds" where superstars emerge at astonishingly high rates. At all these talent hotbeds, novices intensely practice the "smallest possible chunks" of each skill they want to perfect, skill by skill. Those who practiced in "chunks" set the cornerstone of mastery—and, as Coyle explains, "developed something more important than mere skill":

They'd grown a detailed conceptual understanding that allowed them to control and adapt their performance, to fix problems, and to customize their circuits to new situations. They were thinking in chunks and had built those chunks into a private language of skill. (p. 86) 2

By going granular instead of global, Madison is coaching Aly to become the kind of teacher who can do just that. A good way for a coach to strength-test the grain size of an action step is with one straightforward question: Could a teacher implement this step in one week? If the answer is yes, the step is the right size. That means by the following week, the teacher will likely have perfected one new chunk of the art of teaching and will be prepared to practice another.

High Leverage: One Giant Step

Madison knows Aly won't begin teaching like someone with 10 years of experience, or even two, right away. But students cannot wait for Aly's teaching to yield results. So every time Madison coaches Aly, she recommends that Aly master the highest-leverage action step for the classroom at that time.

Whether you're an experienced coach observing a classroom or the new teacher leading that classroom who's hungry for growth, chances are you can quickly name a vast variety of granular action steps that could improve the classroom. Indeed, multiple bodies of work have "chunked" the skills of teaching into discrete actions. Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion (Jossey-Boss, 2014) and Jon Saphier's The Skillful Teacher (Research for Better Teaching, 2017) are perhaps the most indispensable among these—without those two books, many of the action steps that appear in our scope and sequence would not yet have been named.

But when Madison observed Aly, she saw that the one action step that would make the most difference in that class right away was having Aly square up and stand still. From there, the two were able to address Aly's voice register when delivering instructions—because they could be sure Aly's students would be looking at Aly when those instructions were delivered.

el201911_bambricksantoyo_fig4.jpg
School leaders Kari Feinberg and Eric Sanchez, members of the Leverage Leadership Institute, observe classes in St. Louis.

Observable—and Clear

All the action steps Madison coached Aly in learning were unmistakably clear. What makes them clear is that Madison—and probably Aly—can observe them in action. If Madison returned to Aly's classroom at any moment, she'd know within moments whether Aly was squaring up and standing still. She'd be able to tell right away whether Aly needed more coaching around those actions. This reflects the value of having a common language to describe actions: When Madison says, "square up and stand still," Aly—like any other teacher at Lincoln Park—knows exactly what that means.

Practice Makes … Growth!

Look at any organization, country, or culture. Study what they practice most, and you will see what they value. You will find soccer being practiced in every corner of Brazil. In a training hospital, you'll find residents practicing each surgery they are expected to know; those who plan to be surgeons will practice the most because they value being able to operate safely in any circumstance. In every school, you'll find emergency drills (because we value children's safety) and rehearsals for concerts or plays (because we value high-quality creative performance). But will you also see teachers practicing perfecting their craft?

Practice makes the difference between transformative feedback and feedback that amounts to … well, just words. We coaches need to redefine what we mean by feedback, from something we deliver to something that guides our teachers to practice a key skill—right away. If not, we aren't valuing excellent teaching.

The beauty of granular, observable action steps is that they are immediately practice-able. When Madison coached Aly on "square up, stand still," Aly practiced it on the spot, while still teaching. And if, in their next meeting, Madison gave Aly the action step to have students "write first, talk second," it would be just as easy for the two of them to rehearse that step.

Madison and Aly are actively dispelling a dangerous and pervasive myth in education: that no teacher can become great in less than 10 years.3 The assumption driving this misconception is that teachers can only learn from experience. But while experience is an irreplaceable teacher, our students cannot afford for us to accept the notion that we can't accelerate the process of mastery for teachers through the art of practice. We believe this is possible for athletes, for musicians, and even for the students we teach. So why not for the teachers themselves?

This culture of practice in education is reverberating across the globe. You'll see every one of Laura Garza's teachers practicing opening routines before school—which led to her school, Blanton Elementary, becoming the most successful turnaround in Texas. You'll see teachers in Jeanine Zitta's school practicing how to lead discourse around students' mathematical errors. And you'll see instructional leaders at these schools practicing how to give feedback—if it's good for a teacher it's good for a leader, too!

A culture of coaching leads to more leaders, teachers, and students thriving. "I've never done anything harder than teaching," Aly said early on when working with Madison, "but I've never been hungrier to get better at anything, either." Madison's coaching fed Aly's drive to improve—and showed, every step of the way, how much growth Aly was capable of.

End Notes

1 For more about the work of these leaders and others like them, see my books Driven by Data 2.0, Leverage Leadership 2.0, and A Principal Manager's Guide to Leverage Leadership 2.0.

2 Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how. New York: Random House.

3 Marzano, R., Frontier, T., & Livingston, D. (2011). Effective supervision: Supporting the art and science of teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?