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Partnership in Professionalism

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new paradigm for working with people both personally and professionally.  The Partnership Principles of Instructional Coaching (Knight, 2007) changed the way I approach every situation and every conversation.  Jim Knight is the one who developed the Partnership Principles, and he has his own blog (http://jimknightoncoaching.squarespace.com).  However, this blog post is about what the partnership principles are, the way these principles have had a distinct and valuable effect on my life, and why I think they are valuable as an approach to working with educators across a wide continuum of practices.

The seven partnership principles are these:  Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Praxis, Reflection, and Reciprocity.  For me, the principles of equality, choice, and voice communicate to someone that s/he is valued.  My colleague may have different knowledge and skills than I have, but we are equals because we both have something to offer.  When people partner together with the foundational concept of equality, cooperation (not competition) prevails.  Voice is an essential element for communicating value to another person.  By listening, really listening, to someone, I send a clear message that the person is important, worth of my time, and s/he has thoughts and ideas worth considering.  Choice promotes value, when I am able to honestly offer options and be content (not offended) if the other person does not choose to do something the way I think it should be done.  Dialogue provides the collaborative exchange of ideas where people can think and learn together.  Praxis, doing the work, flows naturally out of dialogue.  Praxis merges theory and practice in action; it is not only doing the work, but also how mindfulness, research and frames for thinking and practice shape activity.  When people reflect on their practice in order to tune, shape, or transform, growth occurs.  Reflection provides the opportunity for people to examine their work critically to determine what went well, what did not go well, and what accounts for the difference.  In some ways, the principle of reciprocity ties up this partnership package. It suggests that I enter every situation and conversation with the expectation that I will learn as much as I teach, that I will receive as much or more than I have to offer.  The seven partnership principles sound simple enough, but I think they are more like the slogan for the Othello board game:  “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master”.

I walked away from the first Instructional Coaching Institute I attended with all seven principles nicely memorized and ready to implement, or so I thought.  People who know me might describe me as highly motivated, so it is no surprise that I wanted to take these principles out for a spin to see how they worked.  That was exactly eight years ago, and I am still working hard to master these principles.  Almost every day, I have the opportunity to practice and improve the way I implement these principles.  Like many of life’s most important lessons, the ones with the most meaning often require multiple attempts before they become part of one’s behavior.  Additionally, life lessons often appear from multiple experiences. The most important effect these principles have had on my life exists in tandem with the lessons I learned from Professor Turnbull in his special education law and policy classes:  every person has value.  Most people would agree with that statement, but for me, the partnership approach means that every person has equal value.  The big change in my life has been to find ways to communicate value to every person with whom I work and converse.

In the first coaching institute, Jim had the institute participants practice the language of ongoing regard (Kegan & Lahey, 2002).  This exercise began the transformation process for me.  The language of ongoing regard is direct, specific and non-attributive feedback.  This type of feedback infuses the recipient with affirmation and value.  As I employ the partnership principles, Equality, Voice and Choice form the conceptual framework for approaching a situation or conversation; Dialogue, Praxis and Reflection provide the means for getting the job done; and Reciprocity acts as currency, because I love to learn.  When I wrap all the principles in the language of ongoing regard, I find that my work, my relationships, and my professional life satisfy me more and frustrate me less.  I experience less friction and more positive outcomes.  I truly benefit from seeing others succeed and from partnering with others.  Little by little over the last eight years, the partnership principles ve become more about affirming others and less and less about my own performance or agenda.

In the last decade, working as an instructional coach, and working on the Tele-Coaching project, and supervising student teachers, I have become convinced that applying the partnership principles across all relationships in education fosters positive, productive results.   Think of all the relationships that exist for the purpose of educating students; from superintendents to paraprofessionals, librarians to custodians, every person plays an important part in creating the learning environment for students.  What a difference it would make if a superintendent considered the custodian as an equal and communicated value to him/her by giving him/her voice and  choice.  That may sound a bit extreme, but who knows more about the every day practice of keeping a building site operating well than the one doing the work?  Partnership principles suggests that the voice of the accountant who knows the cost of the ammonia for cleaning, the custodian who cleans, and the teacher who knows how clean the classrooms hold equal value.  Each perspective offers insight in how to improve the outcomes, or even what the outcomes should be.

The same is true of paraprofessionals who work closely with the same students every day.   If paraprofessionals were invited to the table of collaboration from the posture of equality, given voice and choice, permitted to engage in dialogue, praxis and reflection, perhaps reciprocity would prevail and students would benefit.  How often has the productivity of professional learning communities (PLC) been derailed by competition or one-upmanship or a focus on dissimilar personalities? I suggest that the partnership principles create a productive process for PLCs, co-teaching relationships, principal-teacher relationships, — all for the success of the students.  Educators have a profound responsibility to create learning environments where all students can be successful and reach their potential.  By choosing the partnership approach, professionals take a step in a positive direction.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2002). How we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction (p. 239). Sage Publications.

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Marti Elford has many years of experience as a classroom teacher.  She worked as an Instructional Coach on the GEAR-Up project in Topeka, KS.  Through Instructional Coaching, Marti developed a growing interest in Special Education.  Marti recently completed a doctorate at the University of Kansas in the Department of Special Education.  She worked with Dr. Earle Knowlton on research using wireless technology and simulation technology to provide immediate feedback to pre-service and in-service teachers.  Marti is currently the Lead Coach on an Instructional Coaching Initiative research project and she directs the research and operation of the TeachLivE KU virtual learning lab.

A Financial Investment…Coaching Teachers

I was asked to guest blog on Hawk Hopes. My initial thought was, gosh, I’m not sure I’m really a blogger. Then, I felt the need to learn; expanding myself into something new…you know, live on in the educator’s spirit of being a “life-long learner.” So, here I am!

In my 11 years in the field of education, I have learned many things.  As I started my career in a more administrative role, I quickly learned that I wanted the hands on experience with the kids before I get into paper pushing. I was fresh out of graduate school, with an early childhood special education degree. The position I was offered (and accepted) was in a private Catholic school as an overseer of the paras (all FOUR) in a school of 600 students. Molding the public school IEPs to fit into the Catholic school’s curriculum and assisting teachers in modification of curriculum were just a few of the task list items that fit into my job description. The next year, I began the journey in public school life and thus opening my career in the field of early childhood special education. Little did I know, this would be the quite a ride! In my experience, the majority of educators start in a classroom, and end in a classroom. They may add on leadership roles within the school, but their passion remains in the classroom—I thought I was that person…until I discovered there was a world between administration and classroom teaching. I found the instructional coaching and department mentoring position in my district and THAT was my new goal: To mentor, support and coach teachers! Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching my students and their parents. So very many joys came from my time in the classroom, every day. But, I saw something different for me. This new goal was about touching more lives than just in my classroom-it was a ripple effect. And really? I get to “teach” teachers without a life consuming PhD?? Yes, Please!!!

My time in the classroom delivered some validity with the other educators as I stepped into their classrooms. I believe the other piece of my success was meeting teachers where they were. I didn’t use one prescribed method to reach each individual, nor did I plaster myself, my beliefs or the information about evidence based practices to force a change. Change is gradual, and you have to establish and continue building trust as part of a buy-in from your stakeholders before you can start the process. That meant personal, face to face visits to classrooms to see where each person was, and to collect data on our departmental strengths, areas of need and see who could assist who. I enjoyed thinking out of the box, relying on collaboration with team members (parents, teachers, specialists, principals, etc.), and helping facilitate more meaningful learning for both adults and students. There is something very empowering about infusing your work and experience into someone else’s work. It makes all the extra hours (you know, because teacher DO, in fact work outside of 8-4), more worth the while and effort.

Researching to keep up with the latest and greatest, as well as finding research to validate that some of the old tried and true is still best practice, was such an entertaining challenge. Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is such a HUGE concept, as each classroom we teach in has a spectrum of developmentally appropriate—some students come in reading, while others are still working to sort letters from numbers (typically developing or not). Both skills are on the DAP spectrum, but you would teach each in a different way-the expectations are different.  The students’ personalities and experiences, as well as developmental levels assist in guiding our style of and content in our lessons, classroom arrangement, classroom management and organization. Sometimes, we get stuck. The best of the best get stuck, and it’s okay. When you are so close to the source, at times, it’s difficult to step far enough away to see what other options might be. The advantage of having a district that provided an instructional coach/department mentor, was having someone to call for help.  Someone to provide different ideas, an ear to chew, data to collect and present, a supportive hand, someone to model something different, or just to reiterate that what you are doing is right—keep it up, you CAN do this! Even when it’s hard, results WILL come.

During my time in this instructional coaching and department mentoring position, I enjoyed creating lesson plans and curriculum, observing others at work, offering my insight as an outsider, pointing people in the direction of a colleague, or making connections between people (e.g., across schools, within schools, and within their own classrooms) that weren’t there before. Being an instructional coach has been the most challenging, yet satisfying career choice I have made. I felt like I was making a difference.  I could see the physical and emotional change in the department as we worked together.

I feel there is a great need for more instructional coaches/department mentors throughout the educational field. The position can provide invaluable support to educators (new and seasoned) to help them feel heard and validated. Additionally, it can provide (or enhance) individualized and ongoing staff development onsite, often times where it is needed the most. The accountability level for the educator goes up, and in my experience, the educators felt a deeper sense of commitment to change with a support person who was able to be present. A department mentor or instructional coach can provide a sense of cohesion within departments, as well as through the district. The hands on experience I was able to give the educators I worked with was so much more meaningful than an e-mail sent with little or no follow up.

I understand that in today’s “zero and declining” budget, there just isn’t enough funding to support a position like this in every district. I do feel, however, that the money spent was justified, and well spent to better the department, and in turn, the district, as a whole. Additionally, it provided an invaluable experience to educators new to the field. Demanding day to day responsibilities, paired with learning district “ways” and policies can be very overwhelming. The position I held enabled me to assist (and learn more myself) educators with a hands on approach. The response to the individualized attention the position allowed me to provide was overwhelmingly positive, and I am still utilized as a resource to some of the educators I was fortunate enough to coach. When teachers feel supported, validated and “heard,” there isn’t much that cannot be accomplished.

Lisa and kids

Lisa Payne is a 2002 graduate of the M.S. Ed program in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. She specialized in Early Childhood Special Education and earned a B.S. from Fort Hays State University in Speech and Language Pathology. She resigned from her position in June 2013 to stay at home with her two young sons and daughter.

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