Katherine Casey shares her latest thinking with Heather Rader on the best ways to mentor teachers in classrooms. Katherine is the author of Literacy Coaching: The Essentials. You can visit her website at http://katherine-casey.com/
A full transcript is available below the player.
Heather Rader: I recently read your article on modeling lessons in October's Ed (Educational) Leadership and it really spoke to me and supported what our district is doing with embedded professional development. I thought it was really a great article. When I read the purpose section about how some teachers don't pay attention to model lessons, in your past, and then your line, "It comes down to my failure to establish a clear purpose," I thought, "That's so right on from my experience." So, talk to me about how you got to that thinking.
Katherine Casey: I got to that thinking mostly because it just baffled me that people would say, "I want you to come in and model a lesson," and then when I was in there they'd start doing other activities as if it were almost like a prep or a break or an opportunity for them to relax. And I understand that teachers are under enormous pressure and when someone else comes in to watch your students, it does give you that break. But that's not the purpose.
And then I started to think of – I actually asked people why when that happened, "I was here to demonstrate. Why did you start doing something else?" Or, "How could I have made it clearer?" And people would say, "I really didn't know what I was supposed to be looking for," or, "I got overwhelmed," or, "It seemed different from what I had planned and so it just seemed out of the realm," or some people thought, "Oh, I thought you were giving me a break."
So, it sort of varied but the specific one when people said it got overwhelming, I realized that when I do a lesson, if I model a lesson and I use materials that are different from the materials than the teacher expected, that that can be a place where they shut down and say something in their heads probably like, "Well, if I had those materials I could do that work."
Or, if the purpose that they gave me I reworded in a way that sounded too different from what they had expected, people then sort of shut down.
So, I think it was more of like a shutting down and not really being able to pay attention than an unwillingness to. So then I got really clear on the purpose and gave people choices, because I'd say, "What do you really want to see?" And they just say, "Well, a lesson," but that's so broad and so vague.
Heather Rader: Yeah.
Katherine Casey: And I said, "Do you want to see how I pace lessons? What's your problem with practice that you're trying to get specific around?"
And then when people would say something like, "I don't really know what to do when students don't seem to be understanding a lesson," I say, "Okay, great. I will model for you and probably have to think aloud then about why it is I'm making decisions when I see children aren't understanding."
So the more I think as coaches we can get into conversation about what is it specifically you want to see? Pacing? Charting? Responding to students' needs? Supports for English language learners? What is it that you are asking to see?
And then almost giving them a preview of what it could be in their classroom and what they need to look for specifically. And then we just got into a much better conversation and gave people a clearer purpose because then they'd say, "Oh, wow. That's exactly what I wanted to see."
So that's how I got into the thinking.
Heather Rader: Yeah. It strikes me two things. One, that you were willing to have kind of that difficult conversation of, "Wow, I came in to model and you were emailing. Tell me about that." And then it sounds like when you're working with teachers you don't just stop with them saying, "Well, I just want to see a lesson or just anything you want to show me will be great." That you just keep working at it like, "Okay, and? And? And?" As you work through.
Katherine Casey: Mm-hm. And I think, too, the more I've noticed school districts and classrooms starting to use student data, and I don't mean test scores. I mean like actual student artifacts or specific rubrics or tools and exemplars that they're using to really ground the work, I've noticed that the conversations about what people want to see become much more specific. And that's been a really wonderful tool.
So, for example, if a teacher will say, "I notice that in the student writing samples students are able to string together three paragraphs. My students really struggle to even write one paragraph. Can you show me how you would help students connect ideas over three paragraphs?"
Then we can get really specific. And I think before we were just sort of looking at it as lessons. Like, "Show me a lesson," as opposed to, "Show me how to help my students learn this concept."
So, the more we plan for student learning and the less we plan for the lessons that we just feel like we need to teach, I think the easier our coaching conversations become about those specifics of what you want to see in a demonstration lesson.
Heather Rader: Yeah. So it's really moving beyond that lesson into really get at the thinking that needs to go on to plan instruction.
Katherine Casey: Exactly.
Heather Rader: That's great. Well, along those lines, as you were talking about thinking aloud and the conversation, I remember when I learned push pause from you. Can you elaborate on that strategy?
Katherine Casey: That strategy of push pause originated from realizing that I believe that the complexity of teaching is in the decisions we make as we implement our lessons as opposed to the lesson plans that we design. So there's obviously lots of choices we make when we're designing a lesson but then the students that we planned for don't always actually show up in that lesson and so, so often we start teaching and say, "Wait a minute. I thought the lesson was gonna go in this direction. I didn't realize this would be a sticking point." Or, "Wow, the students actually know more than I expected so now I need to accelerate."
And so those opportunities to either push pause to think aloud for people and say, "This is why my lesson plan may say I'm gonna do these nine things but I'm actually gonna go in this direction so giving that opportunity to push pause to think aloud is one level of just naming what it is we're doing so teachers understand sort of where we are in the process.
But then that other piece as I'm starting to work more side by side with a teacher, saying, "I'm gonna stop the lesson here students for a moment. Another teacher's gonna help me teach this," just gives an opportunity to pause a lesson so that a teacher can take part of it.
And I thought a lot about this because I'm really bad at cooking and I've been really trying to learn how to cook better and I'll read recipes and they sound so good but then you'll get to the stuff that says something like fold in this ingredient and stir lightly until it's mixed. I'm like well, what does that look like? Lightly until it's mixed and not too much?
Heather Rader: Right.
Katherine Casey: And my mom was visiting one day and she said, "When you get to that part, just let me know." And I said, "Mom, I'm at that point," and she mixed it in for me and I said, "Oh, that's what that means?" That is not what I would have interpreted. I needed her to just show me that one step and then I continued with my cooking.
And so oftentimes the things I think that make it challenging in teaching is not a complete lesson, it's a part of it where it's a tricky part where you just don't know how to envision it or what that means or you read it in a book and you can't imagine it happening with students. So, if another teacher takes on that part, or I have another teacher help me with that part during a lesson, we can get over that hump and then continue and then develop that felt sense of what it feels like when you're successful in it.
So, pushing pause means that we give people a chance to either hear our thinking or help us do something or take over a part or share the load so that we can get through the whole lesson and have a complete lesson but also learn from it along the way.
Heather Rader: That makes so much sense. I love the cooking connection, too. I think that really resonates.
Katherine Casey: Yeah, because often in learning it's just a little bit that's hard, usually in learning. It's not all of it.
Heather Rader: Exactly. Right.
Katherine Casey: It's just a little bit.
Heather Rader: So, along those lines, I know that some teachers I've worked with in the past worry that they're going to lose status in front of students with a strategy like push pause. That hasn't been my experience but what are your thoughts about that?
Katherine Casey: I think it's a good concern for people to have depending on the classroom dynamic. So I have in front of students often presented myself as a learner. Like I'm giving this a go, let's see how it's gonna go.
So, my stance has been as a teacher I'm gonna give it a go and we'll see how this lesson works and based on what you need we'll do more tomorrow. Other teachers that I've worked with have had a stance of saying they're the teacher, they have the content, they want to present it to their students.
So, part of it depends on the classroom dynamic that you've established with students. I've watched teachers and worked with teachers who have had more of a 'I'm the teacher. I know what I'm teaching and to push pause would be to suggest that I don't know how to teach' but students are actually really flexible and some of the students in classrooms where they've had teachers that have more of that stance when the teacher and I go in – and I often own it.
I'll own it and say, "Students, I know your teacher teaches geometry in such a marvelous way and I'd like to try this opportunity today so that I can learn from your teacher about how these lessons work so we're gonna do this thing called push pause and your teacher's gonna do part and I'm gonna do part. It's really for my learning and I want your feedback afterwards." And almost 100 percent of the time the students have just gone with it. They've said, "Okay, that's how it's gonna be."
But if I take on the ownership of I'm changing the way your teacher's teaching so I can learn from it, that often takes the pressure off of the teacher feeling like I'm saying the teacher doesn't know how to teach. You know what I mean?
Heather Rader: Yeah.
Katherine Casey: So when we can carry the load of why things need to change, it often eases the pressure. And then nine times out of ten afterwards the teacher will say, "The students didn't seem fazed by that at all. I guess we can try it some more." You know? The fear of the unknown is scarier than usually the reality of it and children are adaptable. They'll pretty much go with whatever it is we suggest they do, for the most part.
Heather Rader: Yeah. And it's just really different. I mean we have this history of if there was another adult in the classroom it either meant you were being observed or there was something really wrong.
Katherine Casey: Exactly.
Heather Rader: So it is something to really talk through and I really like two things. One, you're talking about owning it and then the other thing. Just your language around the students. "I'm gonna give this a go based on what you need," and just having that down. I presume when you walk into the classroom, knowing that ahead of time that's the way you're gonna language that really helps make that smoother for the teacher so that he or she does say, "Wow, that really did work and let's do that again."
Katherine Casey: Yes, and also I think when we think about strategies to move teacher practice forward, I may not start with pushing pause in a lesson with a teacher who has some resistance to it. The likelihood is I will start with demonstrating lessons where in the gradual release of responsibility, let me get in there and show you and the students respond. And oftentimes in the debrief the teacher will say something like, "I know these students better and what could have happened here is you should have done something in this part."
And I see that as an invitation to say, "Next time I teach, could you help me make those decisions? Because you do know the history of your students and what they've learned and their learning styles." So I wait for those invitations to say, "Next time let's do it together because you have some ideas that I'd like to have and I may have some ideas you'd like to have and if we collaborate on the lesson it'll go smoother."
So I wait for that invitation. So I probably wouldn't start with push pause in a classroom where a teacher was really afraid of the authority part. And by then the students know the styles the way I work and they're easier to adapt to a different structure.
Heather Rader: Yeah. That makes good sense. So, thinking about this, we've been talking mostly about classroom teachers. So, what role do you see the use of push pause with mentors of either student teachers or beginning teachers? Using this with their mentees?
Katherine Casey: I think it would be fantastic. In fact I had a cooperating teacher who, she didn't really label it anything, who would often pull me alongside when she was teaching a lesson and whisper to me about why she was doing things.
Heather Rader: Wow, nice.
Katherine Casey: Yeah, she was just really well versed in saying, "And by the way, this is why I'm doing," in front of her students. They didn't mind. They knew that I was a student teacher.
And I had a mentor teacher my second year who was a Title I reading teacher and I attribute a lot of my classroom management to her. And she would come in and help me manage my class. I would teach the lesson part but she would say things like, "Katherine, if you want them to put their pencils down on the count of three, they're gonna do it. Watch how I do it." And she would think aloud about her decisions and she would say, "One, two, three," and they'd do it and then she'd say, "Now you try it."
And we would go back and forth in lessons and I'm so grateful. I can't imagine having survived those first two years if I didn't have teachers who were willing to either help alongside, talk to me about why they were doing things or think aloud or take parts of the lesson for me and name what they were doing. They just did that as part of their practice and student teachers are often so overwhelmed with all the moving parts and they don't know why we make the decisions that we make or they're just looking at the content and not the process. And then when it comes to them having to teach the next lesson, they're like, "Wait a minute. How did that work?"
So I think slowing down and explaining or pausing a lesson and having a student teacher just take part of it and then the mentor teacher takes it back or vice versa would allow for opportunities for people to feel successful along the way and understand the decisions that teachers make along the way. I think it would be fabulous.
Heather Rader: Yeah. And it sounds like you had teachers in your life that just did that naturally and I think for me, just the whole push pause strategy is noticing and naming what's good practice as a coach and here's when you use it and here's when it may not be effective and here's how you language it. So, it's really neat to see some of these natural things of I can picture you in your first year teaching having that teacher whispering to you, "Okay, let's do this," and now there's a strategy and we can use that with other teachers.
Katherine Casey: I think also what really pushed for me is I didn't find it effective at all as a new teacher to have a full observation and then they give me feedback at the end.
Heather Rader: Yeah.
Katherine Casey: I remember feeling embarrassed and frustrated and being like, "Why didn't you just tell me while I was doing it?" Like I couldn't apply their feedback to the next place because I also think there's sort of like a kinesthetic aspect to how we teach so we try something and we get into the motion of it and stop me midway if I'm not doing it right. Like, don't let me do it for another 30 minutes and then tell me at the end of the day what I should have done differently. I just found that that was just so ineffective for me as a new teacher and I think I advocated for just get out there and tell me how to do it then or show me or help me.
Heather Rader: Right.
Katherine Casey: So I advocate it strongly for new teachers and mentors.
Heather Rader: That's great. Really, really smart stuff.