Problem-Solving for Teachers (Differentiated Coaching: Chapter 3)

Chapter 3: What Problems Do Teachers Want to Solve?

This chapter of Differentiated Coaching addresses the importance of helping teachers clearly define the problems they have in their classrooms.  Properly defining the problem allows teachers to implement the right changes, motivates them to start the change process, and helps them evaluate their success accurately.  


Teachers feel like more and more demands are being placed on them:  Get trained in this.  Give your students this test.  Collect this data.  Use this new strategy.  They feel like there isn’t enough time to do these new things AND do the planning, grading, and work with students they have always done.  

Yes, student data is important and informative, but just telling teachers to improve student test scores isn’t going to create change.  Teachers’ beliefs about why students struggle and fail have a HUGE impact on what teachers are willing to try.  

The power in the coaching model is that the “professional development” is closely coupled with the teacher’s day-to-day reality.  A coach can take advantage of that by starting with a teacher’s immediate concerns, using those as an opportunity to talk about other things, and creating positive results that foster the teacher’s desire to continue to work together.

Learned Helplessness

In this chapter, Kise applies the idea of “learned helplessness” to teachers.  I’ve heard students labeled with this, but never teachers.  But I think it can be helpful to reflect on how even we as adults can get stuck in a “learned helplessness” or hopeless posture.  

We fall into despair when we feel like our failure is universal. Having hope requires you to see that your failures are temporary and limited to specific situations.

When teachers hit wall after wall and get used to failure, they feel like they have no control over student behavior, no ability to meet expectations placed on them by administrators or parents, and no power to change.  They give up.

A study by Peterson, Maier, and Seligman (1993) found that dogs who had given up trying to escape from electric shocks had to be dragged to safety by researchers 30-50 times before they began to respond on their own.  And other research indicates that humans take even more interventions than animals.  Do we intervene with failing students this many times before giving up on them?  What about with the adults we work with?  

Generating Alternatives & Evidence

We all have preferences, biases and blind spots based on our strengths, experiences, and beliefs (such as learned helplessness).  A coach can provide alternate perspectives and solutions to a teacher who feels stuck.  

After defining the problem accurately and implementing change, it’s important to help a teacher quickly generate evidence to determine if the change was effective.  A quick success can energize a teacher to keep trying, and can even start to chip away at their learned helplessness or erroneous beliefs.  

It’s important to note that evidence doesn’t just have to be student test scores.  You can look at quarter grades, student time on-task, or percentage of work completion, among other things.

Last Thought: High Expectations

“The teachers thought they had high expectations, but what they really had was high standards.  High expectations mean expecting that all students will succeed.”  When it comes to grades, teachers need to see failing grades as a problem to be solved rather than as an inevitability they can’t change.  (p. 48)  



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