Experience Before Education

Cathy Seely, in a recent Educational Leadership article, wrote about teaching math. She suggests reversing the traditional I-We-You gradual release format. And, instead, use a You-We-I process. Providing the students with a problem to solve without requiring them to use a specific method. She uses the phrase “struggling on purpose”. Having done this myself, I found the exploration process revealed misunderstandings, provided validation that there are often times multiple-paths to a common outcome, and promoted collaboration among students.

After students explore potential solutions, the teacher leads a conversation about the attempts and outcomes. Then, the teacher presents a “standard” method of solving. The wore “standard” is deliberately used in place of “right” or “correct”. Students can then compare and contrast their attempted method to the “standard” way. Doing so can help affirm their own thinking, abilities, and belief in calculated risk-taking.

For your next lesson, consider providing the students with the opportunity to discover solutions, then provide them with a formal one.

Put experience before education.

Celebrate the Cynic

cynicWe all have to deal with other people’s opinions, unsolicited comments, and silent judgments.

THEY may never change.

But WE can move from tolerating their disposition to, not only accepting, but embracing its presence in our lives.

Go into every situation knowing full well that they will redirect, question, or completely deny the validity of your direction, whatever that may be.

Turn the situation upon its head.

Use their disposition to help solidify your directionality, goals, and evaluation of progress.

Ask their opinion (because they’re going to give it to you anyway) before declaring your position as resolute.

Solicit the previously unsolicited.

Ask for counsel (because they’d give it to you anyway), and then examine your position.

Doing these things turns a perceived negative into an effective positive.

It allows them to be involved (because they would be anyway), but now you can control the timing and severity of their influence.

Utilize their skills to clarify your purpose.

See them as the blessing that they are.

Celebrate the cynics in your life.

Hear ye, hear ye! We must hear ye!

crierIn an effective lesson design, students are the primary activators of the lesson.

For example, they may be working in small groups dialoguing with one another and presenting finished work.


At one point in the lesson, you may find yourself saying, “Remember, during your presentation, each person has to talk.”


Consider the rationale for your decree.

Is it vital to the learning experience that each student share?

Could the group presentation be just as impactful (or better) if each student filled a niche in accordance with their personal strengths?

You know, the old “jobs” concept. Students self-select roles in the group. One draws. One writes. One speaks.

Each contributes based on their area of self-perceived expertise.

From confidence to competence (or maybe it’s the other way ’round).

Something to consider.



Are you interested?

imgresWhen teaching, whatever your content, whatever your method, be present, be passionate.

Your authentic passion will fuel their interest triple-fold.

They will be interested in your interest in it even if they are not interested in it.

Now isn’t that interesting?

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Where Should I Focus My Efforts to Retain Teachers?

teacher futureWhere should we focus or efforts to retain teachers?

Well, a recent study looked at teacher retention, movement, and attrition in Kentucky public schools. The study presented seven significant findings related to reasons teachers stayed, moved, or left either a school-site or the profession as a whole. According to the study rates of retention were “based on select teacher and school characteristics.” Of the seven findings 4 were related to the characteristics of the teacher, 2 to those of the student population, and only 1 to attributes of the community.

Here are the 7 findings as reported by the study sorted by the area of influence:


Teachers stayed in the same school at different rates depending on their age, race/ethnicity, highest degree earned, and experience range. 

Teachers moved to a different school at different rates depending on their age, race/ethnicity, and experience range.

Teachers left the public school system at different rates depending on their age, race/ethnicity, highest degree earned, and experience range.

Teachers left the public school system at similar rates regardless of school characteristics.


Teachers stayed in the same school at different rates depending on characteristics of the schools and students served.

Teachers in schools serving a larger proportion of students eligible for the school lunch program moved to a different school at higher rates than teachers in schools serving a smaller proportion.


Teachers in Appalachian and non-Appalachian schools were retained at similar rates. 

You can dig into the details of each finding by looking at the study, but I want to focus on the spheres of influence. As principals or colleagues, you have little, if no control over the characteristics of the community. The same can be said of the characteristics of the student population. It is often said that you must teach the kids you get. So, if we want to move the needle, per se, in our efforts to retain our valued teachers, then let’s look at the teacher. Teachers stayed or moved from their current school primarily based on personal characteristics. Yes, it could be as simple as a spouse getting relocated or a grade-level opened up that they had always wanted to teach, but it still comes down to the individual teacher’s vision for their own professional future.

Now, I’m not saying as a colleagues or administrator that we can influence the personal characteristics of teachers in our building. What I am suggesting is this. If we want to retain the teachers we value, we need to be aware of not only who they are, but of what they envision for their professional future. If we can help them to know what they want, we can then help them get them what they need.

To get a better picture of what it is your teachers want, simply ask them. Keep it simple.

Click here for a simple tool to help them see their own future.

We can’t control much, if anything really, but we can focus on areas where we clearly have influence. When it comes to your efforts to retain the teachers you truly want to keep, focus on who they are and helping them define what they want.


Have you considered it? (probably not)

i we youThe boy was two, maybe three years old. He was holding his mother’s hand while they stood at the curb. He was eager to cross, but she, of course, stood fast. Through the window of the deli I could not hear her words, but understood her intention. She lowered her self to his level. She pointed to the curb. Looked left. Looked right. Spoke to him and shook her head. Looked left again. She then stood up and gestured to her left, right, and left. His eyes followed. He leaned as he looked. She looked at him. He nodded and together they crossed.

In just a few seconds, the mother utilized the most ancient form of pedagogy, I-We-You. First she explained the process of ensuring a safe crossing. Then she looked for traffic with him. Finally, she waited for him to make the call as to whether or not it was safe. I do. We do. You do.

Now shift gears and think about the adults in your school. Is your professional development designed with the I-We-You progression in mind? Do you use pre-assessments to determine which stage your teachers are at? Are they ready to go at it alone with a new concept? Do they need a mentor to guide them? Should they observe the concept in practice?

I-We-You. Something to consider.


Diversity Comes in Many Forms

diversityWe think of a group of people who look different from one another are diverse. And that is true. They are. However, the importance of that difference to the making of decisions does not lie solely in the group members’ outward appearance or life experiences. It is the knowledge base each person brings from their life experiences that matters most. The purpose of this post is to make you consider the importance of diversity of thought in-group decision-making.
James Suroweicki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wrote, “cognitive diversity is essential to good decision making.” [1] Each member of the group brings their own kernel of knowledge to the table. Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” in describing the potential of a group to regulate and restrict possible solutions to a problem because of their similar-mindedness. They all have similar life experiences. They all came from similar neighborhoods, with similar parents, and similar culture. Which led to them all thinking the same way with a similar knowledge base to draw from. So, it is the diversity of thought that separates an argument, an exchange of ignorance, from a discussion, an exchange of ideas. James Suroweicki said it best when writing, “the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” [1]

A group is better able to generate an effective decision when it is made up of people that are diverse in terms of their life experiences, worldly perspective, cultural bias, and, most importantly, varied areas of expertise.
[1] Surowiecki, J. 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books: New York, NY.

5 Ways to Avoid Hearing “Are we there yet?”

navigationThey, the preverbal ‘they’, say 90 some percent of all learning is visual. So, do your teachers have a clear vision of where they are going in their professional development? Do you, as their principal, coach, or mentor, know if they are on the right track toward their desired professional goals? Well, worry no more, the contents of this post will guide you to know that which you currently…don’t!

School improvement coach Tim Westerberg, in his post Five Principles for Formative Assessments That Fuel Feedback,  stated, “Formative assessments provide the feedback on student learning that guides teacher and student adjustments during learning.” [1] In this post I will translate Westerberg’s work for use with teachers. Let’s begin with restating his . . . um, statement. For the purpose of this post, we will understand formative assessments as a means to provide feedback on teacher learning that guides principal and coaching adjustments during professional learning.

Westerberg does a nice job outlining five principles that inform the feedback for students. Here they are in relation to supporting teacher growth.

1. Target key subskills and bodies of enabling knowledge (building blocks) in the learning progression. [1]

What are the necessary subskills a techer needs to meet the objective mastery. For example, a teacher is struggling with the transition of the class from desks to lining up to go to a sepacialist, let’s say PE. So, the objective is to master whole-class transitions. The coach suggests developing a transition routine that can be replicated every time the class must move from desks to lining up. However, the teacher may not have learned the necessary task analysis subskill to determine the precise words to provide clear and concise directions for the studetns. The sequencing of the directions is also of concern.

2. Target those concepts and skills with which students typically experience difficulty or harbor misconceptions about. [1]

Let’s continue with the transition example from #1. It may be that the teacher struggles with transition of all types throughout the school day. It could be a result of a lakc of task analysis skills resulting in long winded directions that are ambiguous and, thus, conufing to the students. Targeting transisiton language skills during observations would be an effective formative assessment of the teacher’s effecitiveness. Timing the transitions interms of directions fgiven and execution by studnets would also help the teacher understand if they are moving toward mastery of transions.

3. Align with the content provided in related classroom and common summative assessments.


4. Align with the levels of cognitive rigor featured in summative assessments.


5. Mirror the item formats included in summative assessments. [1]

Westerberg’s focus on summative assessment guiding formative measures constitute #3 content, #4 rigor, #5 format. These last three will be addressed together. The state of Minnesota has license renewal criteria requiring specific areas of growth be addressed and documented. [2] on of the requirements is training in Positive Behavioral Intervention Strategies. You can read more at How to Motivate the Un-Motivatable. Formative feedback for teachers should be aligned with atainable objectives that serve summative measures such as relicensure requiremetns. Consider aligning all professional development activities to meet the needs of all mandated teacher evaluations while, of course, placing the greatest considerations on the needs of the individual educator.


Principals, coaches, and mentors should provide relevant, specific formative feedback to teachers in relation to the summative measures such as mandated evaluation systems and re-licensure requirements.


[1] http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol10/1019-westerberg.aspx

[2] file:///Users/gschnagl/Downloads/RenewalApplicationPacket_DONE%20(1).pdf

The Form, From & Function of Feedback

feedbackPlease excuse the alliterative title. Its use was positively promoted primarily through teachers teeming with functional feedback from several sources. Annoying isn’t it. My older brother rues the day I discovered alliteration’s annoying properties. You can picture the scene – a long car ride with nothing else to do but enrage your big brother enough to punch you so he gets in trouble with mom and dad. Yea, that’s where I honed my skills in verse while my brother provided me with ample feedback in the form of massive charlie-horses to my left thigh.

Feedback can come in many forms (not just a fist) from many sources (not just a brother) in an attempt to serve varying functions in the growth process. This post will address feedback in the form of critical questions from peers functioning as a catalyst for growth.


“When information on progress is timely, specific, accurate, and focused on improvement, it has the greatest chance to positively affect the learner’s end performance.” [1] Of course the ability to provide effective feedback is not found in a professional development catalog or two hour take-n-bake workshop. The most important aspect of feedback is the critical question. Asking critical questions is a learned skill. “Spending the time early in the year to walk students [,or in our case, teachers,] through the process, provide them with specific examples, and highlight good instances of peer feedback is key.” [1]


Feedback may come from a teachers’s principal, coach, mentor, or peers.  When students were asked who they preferred provide them with instructional feedback, a majority stated their peers. “Some of the most powerful feedback that students receive can come from peer-to-peer interactions.” [1] What of teachers? We are evaluated by our principals, instructed by our coaches, and persuaded by our mentors. Our peers may also provide similar types of feedback, yet they can do so with minimal power dynamics. A peer, such a grade-level teammate, does not make hiring decisions like a principal, judge against curricular outcomes like a coach, compare us to a rubric as a mentor might. A peer simply tells it like it is, but with the ability to empathize with our plights regarding both curriculum and the developmental level of our students. Our peers “get it” cause they are right there along side us.


What is the purpose of providing feedback to a teacher? Robyn Jackson stresses the importance of recognizing the type of needs a teacher has when determining the purpose of feedback. Jackson differentiates between skill and will when diagnosing need. The end game, according to Jackson, is to generate growth. “To move your school forward, you must move the people in it.” [2] Barbara Dill-Varga and Adam Roubitchek call this type of feedback”feeding forward”. [1] The key is to differentiate the feedback for each teacher.

“It is accepted as common knowledge that we have to adjust our instructional practice to meet the needs of all the learns in the classroom. But, when it comes to instructional leadership, oir appraoch is often one-size-fits-all.” [3]

To provide effective feedback, it first must be determined if the needs of the teacher are greatest in terms of motivation (will) or method/content knowledge (skill).


Feedback specific to pedagogy or motivation form a trusted peer can help a teacher move forward in their professional competencies. The feedback must be relevant and timely with a specific and actionable focus.

So, now I must leave you with one last annoying alliterative annotation.

The form and function of feedback from a friend is found to be fantastic!

[1] http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol10/1019-dillvarga.aspx
[2] Never Underestimate Your Teachers: Instructional Leadership for Excellence in Every Classroom by Robyn Jackson
[3] The Instructional Leader’s Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers by Robyn Jackson