4 Phrases All Teachers Say and No Students Understand

shift-focus-graphic-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Before I had children, I had no idea just how crucial explicit directions are for their understanding. Case in point, the time my son took his first independent shower. It seemed simple enough. I told him to “take and shower,” and then asked him, “do you know what to do?”

He responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Ok, then! I turned on the water, set it to the right temperature, and proudly waited outside the bathroom door for him. So, imagine my surprise when he came out of the bathroom dripping wet, with shampoo in his hair, and soap on his face, trying to wrap a towel around himself.

I was reminded of this incident while attending an inspirational and thought-provoking workshop led by George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset last week. At one point, George showed us a video clip of a dad telling his young son to “keep his eye on the ball,” and the little boy literally put his eye on the ball.

I started to think about all of the ambiguous things educators say to students with the assumption our students share an understanding with us:


“Work in your groups.”

“Finish your work.”


More importantly, I started to think about how often we believe we have given students clear directives and put the onus on them meet these vague expectations. Then, if our students do not meet these expectations, we allow ourselves to make convenient excuses, “I told them to study. They didn’t.  I can’t do that for them.”

“Is what we teach as important as how we teach?”
Couros asked us to think about this question during his workshop. As an instructional coach, my focus is on instruction. I strongly believe that regardless of the content, good instruction is good instruction. So, my inclination was to answer, “how.”

But, as I pondered this question more deeply, I believe the answer is actually, “both.” Part of high-quality instruction is offering the right content for individual learners. And,  part of high-quality instruction requires us to be explicit in our communication and flexible in our implementation.

To avoid using vague phrases like those stated above we need to shift our focus from the action (study) to the desired outcome (learn). We can accomplish this shift by implementing the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning For Teachers).  Hattie has found certain criteria to have a greater impact on student growth than others. Strategies with an effect size of .4 for or above are proven to result in a year’s growth for a year’s (appropriate) use. For example, take a look at these four shifts.

Instead of asking students to study, focus on how they learn. (Metacognition .69)

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand how I learn best until I became an adult learner, and was given the autonomy to “study” as I saw fit. As it turns out, making flashcards and writing outlines were not the most effective strategies for me. But, creating mind maps and visual depictions are highly effective for me.

With the availability of research about learning, our students have the opportunity to ascertain how they learn best now, as children. The key is for educators to recognize and embrace the fact that all students do not react the same way to all learning strategies. Therefore, we should avoid requiring students use a certain strategy (take notes), and instead, expose our students to a variety of learning strategies and help them determine what strategies were helpful or not.  Then, we can tap into this knowledge to choose/differentiate learning strategies for subsequent learning activities.

Instead of asking students to work in groups, offer them structure. (Cooperative Learning .59)

Contrary to popular belief, group work is not synonymous with cooperative learning. To ensure all students in a group benefit from learning activities, all group members must have equal and active participation and opportunities to learn. This goes beyond setting roles for students in groups (sorry, the timekeeper does not have the same learning opportunity as the discussion leader).

There are multiple ways you can encourage true cooperative learning. Hattie recommends jigsawing content amongst groups to be later shared. This suggestion, however, assumes the learning intentions and success criteria are clear (see below).

Another way to ensure true cooperative learning is to provide structured ways for groups to run, like Kagan Structures. As an instructional coach, I have collaborated with teachers to implement such structures and seen remarkable student growth from tweaking just this one piece.

Instead of asking students to finish their work, provide explicit learning intentions and success criteria (Teacher Clarity .75)

Hattie coins the terms “learning intentions” and “success criteria” in Visible Learning. He uses what has become one of my favorite analogies to describe the need for clear learning intentions and success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

When we tell students to finish their work without providing them with the specific learning intentions and a concrete example of success criteria, while it may feel like we have set clear expectations, students, more often than not, do not know what they need to do to finish their work. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers and students have a shared understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria.

Instead of asking students to behave, focus on building rapport (Teacher-Student Relationships .72)

It is easy to believe we have strong relationships with students just by having their best interest at heart. And, perhaps there is some truth to that. But the question is, what type of relationship is it?

Because of the inherent age and status differences between teachers and students, many teacher-student relationships revolve around compliance and one-way respect (student respects the teacher).  But, genuine relationships require both parties to equally commit to building trust which ultimately leads to respect.  The teacher and the student must also show vulnerability, be transparent, and approachable.  Again, because of the inherent age difference between teachers and students, it is the obligation of the teacher to model these qualities.

“Behave” is a non-specific directive often used in response to a variety of actions: disruptions, fidgeting, yelling out, fighting, etc. The root of these actions is what really needs to be addressed, rather than demanding students “behave” which is unlikely to result in any sustainable change. Contrarily, when authentic teacher-student relationships are established, teachers and students are more likely to discuss the issues and create effective action plans.

In the end, these are just four phrases of what is probably a long list of things we say that don’t clearly communicate intentions to students. What other ambiguous statements have you said in the past and how have you adapted your practice? Please share; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.


How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset


This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.
For more on differentiation, click here. 

The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”– Carol Dweck, Mindset

The theory of growth vs. fixed mindset popularized by the research of Carol Dweck is ubiquitous in today’s educational landscape. A cursory Pinterest search for “growth mindset” produces a plethora of options for bell ringers, bulletin boards, and other resources encouraging students to adopt a “growth mindset.” Similarly, a Google search will show an abundance of professional development opportunities on growth mindset for educators.

Perhaps, for these reasons, Carol Dweck is now cautioning us not to fall prey to a “false” growth mindset. Dweck explains in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.

Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew. Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the child has a fixed mindset, without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish…

-another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

As educators we can put up beautiful bulletin boards and use growth mindset language with our students, but unless our actions support and match our growth mindset, we are most likely sending contradictory and/or ineffective messages.

What teacher actions are indicative of a growth mindset?

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck addresses the question, “What makes a great teacher?” Simply, a growth mindset is present in almost all “great” teachers. Dweck shares multiple examples of teachers who instruct with a growth mindset, which include teachers who:

  • Believe talent and intelligence can be developed and are not innate
  • Embrace the challenge of ensuring all students can succeed
  • Set high standards for all students
  • Determine appropriate strategies to ensure all students meet those high standards
  • Are more interested in learning alongside students rather than imparting knowledge (Dweck 193-202).


Differentiation is an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so all students can best learn. In a differentiated classroom, teachers divide their time, resources, and efforts to effectively teach students who have various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests (ASCD).

Teachers can differentiate in a variety of ways depending on need. Teachers can differentiate one or more of the following:

  • The content (what students learn)
  • The process (how students learn)
  • The product (how students demonstrate their learning)
  • The learning environment (where and with whom students learn)

By differentiating instruction, teachers can better ensure they are promoting an actual growth mindset. Additionally, differentiation allows teachers to focus on the process of learning and provide feedback around learning strategies which is an approach proven to develop a growth mindset.

In contrast, a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction will increase the chances that a false growth mindset is created. When instruction is not differentiated, students are inevitably praised for performing well with minimal effort (too easy) or praised for an effort that ultimately didn’t result in growth (too hard). False growth mindsets over time will inevitably present the same way as fixed mindsets.


Initially, effectively differentiating instruction can be challenging for teachers (you can read more about this here). However, as strenuous as differentiating instruction may be, as I stated earlier, teachers with a growth mindset welcome challenge and enjoy the trial and error that goes into determining the best way to meet students’ needs. Therefore, they tend to differentiate without issue and cut themselves some slack along the way. They look at failure as information to help them determine how to proceed in the future rather than as a reason to not try or give up. The trial and error part of differentiating instruction is an important piece of learning for teachers which in time will streamline the process for teachers.

With these connections between mindset and differentiation in mind, what personal connections can you make? How do you view challenge and failure? What do you see as the potential positive outcomes (for both yourself and your students) of differentiating instruction and fostering a growth mindset? What do you see as potential obstacles?

I would love to hear your thoughts and dig a bit deeper. You can connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

What? Principals Are In It For The Money?


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“I love our principal.” The first time I uttered those words was thirteen years ago. At the time, I was joking around with my teammates- I had just married my building’s principal (no impropriety here, we were both teachers when we met, dated, and got engaged). But, as I have progressed in my career, I have continued to say the same thing, “I love my principal” as I have been very fortunate to work for some exceptional instructional leaders.

With this bit of personal background, it may come as no surprise to you that two recent EdWeek articles have left me scratching my head.

The first article, “Principals Work 60-Hour Weeks, Study Finds” explains the findings of a recent study of the workload of school principals. As the title suggests, the study found that, nation-wide, principals average 60-hour workweeks. While no two principals account for their 60-hours in the same way (some cite managerial tasks and others cite paperwork or parent meetings as taking up the bulk of their time) the study found that to perform the role of principal in a meaningful way, principals are looking at 20+ hours of “overtime” per week.

Frankly, I found this average to be quite conservative. Thinking back on my days as the wife of a principal (meet my husband, Keith Westman), 60-hours would have been a light week. In addition to the school day, we could consistently count on school-related functions that required the presence of “the principal” several nights each week and on many weekends.

With this first-hand experience, I was shocked when I read Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers blog post Teachers’ Views of Leaders: Feedback From Our Readers in EdWeek which was a follow-up post on their post “Boss and Buddy: Can A Leader Be Both?” Jill and Ann had a similar reaction to some of the responses they received as the response from some readers was disheartening.

Many teachers painted their principals as egotistical, money-hungry, micro-managers who couldn’t hack it in the classroom. Reading these comments was like driving a stake through my heart. On one hand, I felt terribly that so many teachers have not had the invaluable opportunity to work with inspirational, transformational leaders. Yet, on the other hand, these comments made me angry. Because some of the claims were just plain wrong.

You may not like your principal, but do you really know why?
In any industry, there are professionals that are “good” at their job and others that are lackluster or downright incompetent at their job. Education is not immune to “bad” employees. Fortunately, we have ways to remedy these situations. We have evaluation systems, accountability measures, and if all else fails, we can litigate.

However, a recurring theme in Berkowicz and Myers’ post is that teachers believe their principals went into administration for the money and this financial goal accounts for their leaders’ perceived lack of leadership.

“Few teachers get into education for the pay. But there’s a subset of teachers who go into education not to teach, but to climb the ladder. In my thirty years, I’ve seen one physical education or special education teacher after another teach for five to seven years, go get an M.S. in administration, and then start climbing. One made it as far as regional superintendent. In my experience, that particular subset was never really good at teaching. As a consequence they were mediocre (at best) administrators. The goal was money and a career-climb, not young people.”

As we all know, the vast majority of school administrators- good, bad and otherwise- started their career in education as teachers. And, since we know teachers surely don’t enter into the profession for the money, how can we conclude that money become a significant motivating factor for one to become a principal?

If the goal of teachers who aspire to be administrators is to climb the “lucrative corporate ladder”, as some respondents to Berkowicz and Myers insisted, there are surely industries that allow for much quicker ladder climbs and ones that lead to much more lucrative heights.In addition to the hefty expense of  the additional education to acquire administrative credentials; being a principal simply does not pay a lot when we consider some facts.

After doing the math, the national average salary for a principal breaks down to $34.88 an hour (60 hours a week, 48 weeks a year). (EdWeek, Glassdoor). The average teacher salary breaks down to $26.56 an hour (53 hours a week, 40 weeks a year) (Washington Post). For basis of comparison, equivalent positions to principals (advanced degrees + internships + experience) make an hourly rate that is substantially higher.

So, why, then, do principals Become principals?
In the summer of 2014, ASCD reported the results from a survey of over 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In answer to the question, “why did you become a teacher?” 85% of teachers surveyed said they chose teaching “to make a difference in the lives of children.” Only 4% of teachers surveyed said answered, “for the earning potential.”

As stated earlier, most administrators started as teachers. So, if the vast majority of teachers became a teacher to positively impact students, can it be true that those same individuals suddenly changed their professional motivation to swap making a difference with making a buck?

In The Roles and Responsibilities of the Principal as Perceived by Illinois K-8 Principals Who Belong to Generation X, my husband found that the majority of principals do, in fact, become principals to make a positive difference in the lives of students and their staff. After surveying hundreds of principals, he found that 97.6% of principals said their motivation for entering administration was their passion for student learning.  Additionally, almost all of the principals surveyed cited the most rewarding aspects of the principalship that fell into one of two categories, being witness to the growth and development of students and being witness to the growth and development of adults, including parents, teachers, and community members.

In short, administrators choose administration for the same reasons teachers decide to become teachers. Sure, less than 5% of principals may have ulterior motives, but these are likely not financially inspired. If a principal lacks some of the qualities his or her staff deem desirable, perhaps these perceived deficits are due to years of working 60-hours a week and being pulled in many different directions.

New evaluation measures, standardized testing, and a shift in the way teachers instruct and assess have all increased the stress and workload associated with being a teacher in the year 2017. Teachers are not the only educators affected by these changes. Remember, principals feel these demands, too.

Being a principal is not an easy job; neither is being a teacher. But, we (teachers and principals) choose this line of work because of the impact we can make. And, when we make this impact, this is inarguably the best form of compensation.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.