As educators, we talk a lot about how teaching and learning has dramatically changed as a result of the pandemic. We seem to be talking less, however, about how these new ways of operating are changing our professional learning and professional relationships.
With so many demands on our attention, it’s easy to let the process of self reflecting on instruction fall down the list of priorities a bit. But, as I uncovered in a recent conversation with Jim Knight, the importance of these coaching-style relationships has never been higher. Yes, instructional coaching may look or feel different, but it’s still possible — even if we can’t be together in person all the time.
I trust Jim’s opinion. He’s a respected researcher and author of multiple books, including Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction, who has spent more than two decades studying instructional coaching, effective learning, and professional learning.
During our conversation, we first discussed why video should be a central part of professional learning, and Jim was clear that this idea is true regardless of whether educators are in the classroom or teaching virtually. Then, we delved into tips and strategies to help coaches successfully support and connect with teachers online.
With the shift to online and distanced collaboration among educators, how is professional learning changing for today’s virtual world?
While in-person workshops are good for providing an overview, I don’t think they are great for deep, transformational change. That’s why we need coaching. And I think we’re moving to a point where the coaching part of professional learning is going to be more pre-eminent than workshops.
Today, we can do a lot of things virtually that aren’t possible if it’s exclusively face to face. We can differentiate in a whole lot of ways, divide up into groups, meet at different times, and use asynchronous communication. While these opportunities for professional learning were there before, they weren’t being fully exploited.
I think these methods are going to work. For example, it’s helpful to have a person to send a video of your teaching to or watch your lesson happening virtually, and then have a Zoom call with after and try different things out. Coaches and educators are able to respond using this method and it should be more powerful than our more traditional forms of professional development.
What new skills should coaches try to build to become professional learners?
It’s really important that professional developers reflect deeply on their beliefs. Paulo Freire in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about a few key concepts that need to be in place if you want to have dialogue with somebody. He said you have to have humility in the way you interact with the person. This means, “I’m open to being changed by what you have to say, in fact, I’m encouraging you, I want to hear you and I’m open.” You also have to communicate faith, which is to say, “I believe in you and I really think you can succeed.” The other condition is love, which means “I’m engaging in my will for the good of you and I have an attitude of benevolence toward you.”
He said when people understand that we want to hear what they have to say, we’re open to being changed by them, and we believe in them and want what’s best for them — and this is authentic — they’ll trust us. But the flip side is also true if any of those things are missing. So, I don’t know if it’s a new skill, but I think to be effective at this work, it’s really important to think carefully about our beliefs.
What new skills should teachers try to build?
I don’t have research on this the way I do for coaching, but I would say the same thing applies in instruction. Teachers can step back and ask what beliefs guide their interactions with students. They can ask questions like: Do I truly see the dignity in every child that I teach? Do I really communicate that I believe in them? Do I genuinely want what’s best for each of my children? Can my students see these things?
Beyond beliefs, it’s important to try to figure some skills out. For example, what does eye contact look like for coaching when you’re doing it through Zoom versus face to face? Overall many of the same skills or best practices apply – let people finish their responses, genuinely want to hear what they have to say and listen, don’t interrupt, don’t fidget with stuff while they’re talking, and pay attention to the person. This can just be harder virtually, especially with a group. When you sit down with a person or a group face to face, you can feel if this is working or not, and that’s hard to do virtually, so working on skills like these are key.
How do you think empathy and listening between a coach or school leader and a teacher changes in an online context?
I think the good thing is you’re able to communicate in a number of different ways, so you can find different opportunities for asynchronous communication using video. And, you can just get online anywhere.
The opportunity is there, but what’s different is you have to find other ways for taking the temperature of the relationship. With face to face, you can usually feel what’s happening and get a sense if you’re in sync or not. But online, it’s a little harder.
Jim Knight is a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and the president of the Instructional Coaching Group. To watch more of this interview with Knight, visit the Edthena blog. To read more insights from Jim Knight, check out our past interview on TCEA TechNotes.