Coaching During COVID: 6 Key Takeaways from Jim Knight and Diane Lauer

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By Julia Ramsey

Were you at KickUp’s live “Coaching During COVID” conversation? Coaching expert Jim Knight and St. Vrain Valley Schools Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs Diane Lauer led a compassionate and insightful talk on coach-teacher relationships, core virtual learning skills, district data strategies and much more in a live Q&A.

Check out the recording below, plus highlights from Knight’s recent Facebook Live talk with the Instructional Coaching Group:


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The sudden shift to distance learning has created an urgent question: how do we support educators? Instructional coaching is a key component of most job-embedded professional learning plans, but contextualizing mentorship in a newly remote environment—while supporting the social-emotional needs of both coaches and educators—is a big task.

Jim Knight, instructional coaching expert, offers six key takeaways on coaching in a virtual context:

Comments have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

1. On using the impact cycle virtually

We talk about goals as being powerful, emotionally compelling and reachable, which means we can measure it and identify a strategy to move the number. Goals should also be student-focused, which usually has to do with engagement or achievement. 

At this stage when we’re figuring out how to reach those goals as we go, you’re co-constructing what the practice looks like with your partner. During the “learning” stage of the impact cycle you’re helping someone get ready to implement.

Some things just might not work, and so you just have to talk it through with the person. There’s something valuable about that personal communication. If you’re struggling to find that face-to-face time, consider using an app like Marco Polo to have asynchronous conversations.

2. On positive deviance

We have a great opportunity right now to get better at the fundamental things you do as a coach. I really want to emphasize the concept of positive deviance. It’s most fully described in this book by Richard Pascale, an organizational development author, about Jerry Sternin’s research. 

“Positive deviance” is a fancy word for saying “Let’s figure out what people are doing when they succeed and then learn from them.” And the idea is, first, you go right into the center of a situation and find out what the challenge is. Then you discover settings where people are succeeding. And lastly, you identify those behaviors that allow the people to succeed — they call them “vital behaviors.”

They tell a story about guinea worm, which is a really horrible parasite in some developing countries in Africa. Guinea worms are painful, even fatal to children. So they went to this one village that was worm-free to try to figure out what happened. When the women got the water from the river and brought it up to the village, they pulled out another bucket and poured the water through the cloth of their skirts to filter it. And then that kind of activity was translated into work everywhere else.

In this time—where there’s so much that’s new—we need to be looking for positive deviance. We should be looking for those vital behaviors that are really being successful and then share them

And so as a coach, I would suggest you’re as connected as possible, and learning as much and sharing as much from people who are succeeding and building connections. This can be a time of positivity.

3. On elements of remote learning for mentorship programs

Video is key to get a clear picture of current reality. If you’re working on Zoom, for example, it’s pretty easy to record the video and send it back with comments. 

You’re also going to have to adopt some kind of formal process, like the growth model of coaching — John Campbell or Christian van Nieuwerburgh have some good information in their book The Leader′s Guide to Coaching in Schools

Basically, you set a goal and then ask yourself “What resources exist in reality, and how close are we to the goal in reality?” Then you generate options: “What are the ways in which I can accomplish this?” Then you identify actions that will be most effective: “Which of these options gives you the most energy?” or “Which gives you the most confidence?” 

Then you use these tactics to make that goal move forward, even incrementally. 

4. On keeping professional learning a dialogue

I would say as a rule, more than 45 minutes is probably too much time—even 30 minutes can feel long. 

Any way you can establish some process for dialogue is important. Have people go try things out, then come back and talk about what they tried. It’s how we’re doing our online courses — every session begins with people reflecting on their experience. 

Start with empathy and ask real questions. Don’t ask questions that have an answer buried inside them. Ask questions that you genuinely are curious to hear what the person says. 

In his book The Advice Trap, Michael Bungay Stanier talks about how advice gets us in a lot of trouble. Most people really don’t want it, what they want us to be heard. We’re much more compelled to give advice than receive it.

5. On managing tension and compassion

As you do your work, it’s possible that people will be angry when they talk to you. It’s important to recognize they’re not necessarily mad at you. It’s the rule you represent. To separate your role from who you are is a really, really key thing.

Everybody’s having a hard time, because it’s all new. A lot of people are struggling with the “What the heck do I do now?” 

I was reminded of a time years ago, there was a TV commercial for Nike, about Bo Jackson. They would show Bo doing all these different sports because he was such an athlete so he could play baseball, he could play football. And then there’s a scene where he puts skates on and goes out on the ice with Wayne Gretzky. He can barely skate—he’s falling down and holding on to Gretzky. And Gretzky just goes “No.” 

To some extent, we’re like that. The teachers are used to knowing what they’re doing, having a good sense of control, but right now they’re a little bit like Bo Jackson. They’re superstars but right now they’re on a whole different train—and our job is to remind them they’re still superstars.

6. On resources for online learning

We have a page on the Instructional Coaching Group’s website that has a lot of resources around taking care of yourself and teaching from home strategies. The website radicallearners.com also has a ton of resources.

Want more resources on instructional coaching?

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