Burnt Pancakes & the Power of Practice
Photo credit: Anonymous Fulcrum Employee Who Can't Cook
I’m not much of a cook - and by that I mean that I don’t cook much and I don’t cook well. So, it wasn’t surprising when I tried cooking pancakes for the first time and ended up with a charred circle in the pan. Having taught persistence for many years in my classroom, I tried a second batch...and they turned out fine! Feeling pretty confident it was just a fluke, I filed the experience away as evidence of my growing abilities as a chef.
But then I burnt the first pancake of the next batch I made. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong! Disappointing, but still not that surprising. (I’ve mentioned my cooking inability.) I tried again, and, yet again, my second batch was a delicious golden-brown! Now, I figured, I learned my lesson and it wouldn’t happen again.
By the third time with the same result, I appealed to my friends: why is this happening? To their credit, they didn’t point out my own cooking deficiencies. Instead, none of them seem surprised. They all seemed to think it was common practice to burn your first pancake - one even called it her “starter pancake”. After that first pancake, they told me, you can adjust your temperature, the amount of butter on your pan, or how much batter you pour, for the rest of your pancakes.
I began to wonder why my friends needed to have a “starter pancake”? How does that help them cook better pancakes? Naturally, as a coach (and not a cook), I started to think beyond pancakes. Where would it help teachers to have a “starter pancake”? In the fast-paced world of education, when do we have the luxury of “burning the first batch”?
As a teacher, I would much rather “burn” my lesson, getting any mistakes out of the way and making adjustments, before I was in front of students. As a coach, I thought, why not make space for this in coaching conversations?
I was in a classroom recently and I heard the teacher asking questions like, “does anyone have any questions?” and “got it?”. Her school leader had told her she needed to repeatedly and strategically check for understanding, so this is what she tried. I saw her thinking of what to say and how to do this during her lesson but, when I debriefed with the principal after our observation, I asked her: did the teacher check for understanding? The principal told me, no, she didn’t think she had. But, when we posed the same question of the teacher during the coaching conversation, she thought she was doing what she’d been told to do!
I’ve seen this happen over and over again after coaching meetings. Coaches and instructional leaders devote entire conversations on one focused action step, only to observe lessons later and feel like the teacher isn’t doing it. One of the most common refrains I hear from instructional leaders is: “I told them but they’re just not doing it!”
The mistake we often make as coaches is the same mistake teachers sometimes make, by telling, and sometimes even showing, but without the opportunity for practice. As teachers, we know that students need multiple opportunities to practice a new skill. Coaching conversations with teachers are strengthened by the same thing. Without actually practicing, the teacher may not fully understand the feedback, and isn’t all that likely to implement the new strategy in their next lesson, much less their overall instructional practice.
Imagine if that same principal had told her teacher her action step: to repeatedly and strategically check for understanding. Then, asked her to script a few prompts she might use to check for understanding in an upcoming lesson, making sure they had the same understanding of what that meant. After, she asked her to practice those prompts as though she was in front of her class. Lastly, asking her to reflect on how it felt to use that prompt, if she wanted to change the language or adjust her tone, how she might make it stronger, etc. That teacher is now ready to start implementing her principal’s feedback.
Practicing during a coaching conversation is your “starter pancake”. We practice without our students present so we can make mistakes, but then problem solve and adjust to better our instruction before we teach our students.
Strong coaching meetings include opportunities for practice with the teacher to build their skill and monitor their understanding.
Do your coaching conversations have opportunities for intentional practice and reflection? Consider some of these coaching take-aways from my “starter pancake” experience:
No matter your skill or experience, you’re going to burn the first pancake: Preparation and planning is not practice - teachers have to actually do it to be able to improve it!
You’re going to throw your first batch away: All teachers to practice in a low stakes environment first, such as in a coaching meeting, before they actually try it in front of their students.
Make the necessary adjustments before you serve: After teachers have practiced it and gotten feedback, ask them to reflect on how it felt and what they want to change before they try it in their teaching.