The mismatched shoes: Coaching Conversations that don’t Compromise

Let’s begin with a story about a husband and wife who are getting ready to go out to dinner. As the pair get’s dressed, the man begins to put on his black dress shoes.

The wife interrupts him, “why don’t you put on your brown shoes?”

“Because I want to wear my black shoes,” the husband replies.

After a brief argument, the couple decides to compromise.

Ten minutes later, the couple walk out of the house, fully dressed for dinner. On the husband’s left foot is a brown shoe, and on the right foot is a black shoe.


These shoes don't match!Recently, in a training with some teachers learning how to use Sibme, I overheard a teacher say that they didn’t appreciate the way their coach gave them feedback because they felt that it was a directive to change their instruction. “There’s more than one way to teach,” the teacher said.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the teacher really meant, “I don’t like that the appraiser told me to change. I like the way I teach and don’t believe my appraiser knows what’s really going on. After all, what I’m doing works.”

But why would someone ask you to change if what you’re doing is working?


Do You Believe?

Sibme is sort of an acronym. The letters stand for “Seeing is Believing ME” and stem from the fact that we believe that watching someone else teach and watching yourself teach are the best ways to develop a common understanding of how students learn best. But what if that common understanding is hard to come by? What if, like the teacher in the scenario above, you don’t see things the same way? While Seeing might be enough to believe, sometimes you’ll also need to have a conversation.

Conversations are crucial for good professional learning. Teaching is complex, and learning about teaching is a dynamic and ongoing experience that lasts a lifetime. But if either party is disengaged in the conversation, it won’t likely be productive for anyone. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open when teachers work with other teachers, with a coach, or an administrator to learn new skills and continuously improve instruction.

Sometimes, however, the conversations that follow an observation can seem inauthentic and stifled. As such, they’re often rushed and don’t get to the heart of the matter. It’s important to block off enough time have a real conversation and make sure that the time you block off isn’t interrupted by distractions. The only thing that needs to happen during that time is a real conversation about what happens in the classroom.

In addition to ensuring that we have the time for conversations, we also need to ensure that they have a purpose: improving something about the classroom environment so more kids learn in a more meaningful way. Probably, all parties in the conversation will have some ideas about what went well and what can be improved. Take time to put all of the cards on the table and list those things. When there is a conflict between different parties on the table, that’s when it’s time to negotiate.

Everyone negotiates in their life, whether its deciding what time your kids should go to bed, or buying a car, you’ve probably been in a negotiation recently. For many of us, these negotiations seem like unpleasant experiences. That’s why many people avoid them. But this negotiation is a special kind of negotiation. While most negotiations feel like there is a winner and a loser, in this one, seek to have only winners: the kids in the classroom. By externalizing the “winning” party, it can be easier to have a conversation about what needs to change. While some negotiations can feel like a “zero sum game” (I can only get more if you get less…like buying a car), this negotiation is about increasing the total number of positive outcomes for everyone!

Once you’ve identified what positive outcome you want for kids, you can begin negotiating the specifics. This is where specific moments in the video will become crucial to the success of the negotiation. By zeroing in on a few seconds of instructions, you can provide targeted interventions that benefit specific kids or specific learning outcomes. That way, the changes that a teacher makes are small, manageable, and specific, not big broad things like “classroom management” or “student engagement.”

Don’t Compromise…Collaborate

Let’s return to our husband and wife and the two pairs of shoes. By arguing about the colors of shoes, both parties approached the conversation as though there could be only one winner. Rather than allowing for a single winner, they decided to side-step a negotiation and compromise instead. But in the compromise, no one got what they wanted and there was a ridiculous result. In an effort to keep from having a “loser,” everybody lost. But what if the pair had taken time to negotiate specifics? What if both husband and wife explained the things they liked about each pair of shoes and the reason they wanted the husband to wear them. Perhaps the husband liked the black shoes because he knew they were going to have a long walk to dinner and his black shoes were more comfortable. Perhaps the wife wanted her husband to wear brown shoes to go with his brown suit. Rather than trying to find a compromise about the shoes, the couple could have found a better outcome that benefits everyone. The man could have changed his suit so he had an outfit that matched his shoes. Or perhaps they could have chosen a restaurant that was accessible by car, so no walking was involved. By taking time to lay all of their cards on the table, talk about specifics, and negotiating instead of compromising, they found a solution that benefits everyone.

Conversations are about Listening

Of course, in order to have a meaningful conversation, everyone involved has to be willing to listen and be willing to share. To read more about empathy in conversations, check out this other post from our blog.

But let’s talk about listening for a bit.

Are you listening?Listening is perhaps one of the hardest skills to master in busy environments. Steven Covey likes to say that we must listen “to understand” and not “to respond.” But most of us spend the time while someone else is talking preparing our next response. That isn’t productive, and it isn’t fair to both parties. Remember, this conversation is a negotiation and you’re trying to find an outcome where everyone wins. To accomplish that, it’s crucial for everyone to be heard. That’s the only way all of the cards get on the table. So don’t cut one another off. Don’t follow each statement with a rebuttal or with a different topic. Take time to paraphrase one another and clarify one another’s perspective. That way you’ll see the whole picture, and not just your version of it. The same is true for the video you record of the classroom. As you review the video, figure out what each person sees and what each other means when describing events in the video. Use empathic sentence stems to begin your time-stamped comments.

For example, imagine you walk into a classroom and it seems chaotic and disorganized. Rather than assuming that the teacher is disorganized and that the kids are off topic, try a neutral observation of the events you see, with non-judgemental words like, “what I see is students moving around the room with little structure. Kids are laughing and talking a lot. It seems like they might be off-task. I didn’t say that’s how it was, it just seems that way.”

Then give the teacher time to clarify the situation.

And listen to what they have to say.

And then seek to mutually find a solution that works for everyone.

Perhaps the kids were actually deeply engaged in a fun learning experience that started before you walked in the room. Perhaps this was a reward for some intense reading time. By clarifying the situation you can mutually decide if there is a problem that needs to be solved before you begin mutually seeking a solution that benefits the kids.

Oftentimes, well-intentioned people will rush to solve a problem that doesn’t exist just because they think they see a problem. They aren’t willing to take the time to have a meaningful conversation, build clarity, and then begin to find a mutually-beneficial solution that will make things better for everyone. When I think about the teacher described above, I wonder how involved he felt in his own professional growth. I also wonder how heard they felt in the conversations they had about their teaching. Perhaps all that teacher needed was to see his classroom to know that he needed to grow. On the other hand, perhaps seeing wouldn’t be enough to believe. Perhaps he needed to see, speak, listen, and be heard to find a solution that would work for everyone.

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