Swimming in the Deep End: A Day with Jennifer Abrams

This particular book is about the professional deep-end work we do in schools: the projects we undertake, the initiatives we are tasked to move forward with, the teams we are in charge of. What I hope this book will do is support you in seeing what the deep-end skills, capacities, and mindsets look for you in your context, with your work as an ever-learning education leader-someone who is growing his or her leadership skills to be effective within your school or organization, no matter your role. If you are looking for some strategies to stay afloat in the deep end, dive on in.” ~ Jennifer Abrams

On Tuesday Aug. 20, In partnership between Learning Forward Ontario and the Ontario Principals’ Council, I had the privilege of being part a very special event with Jennifer Abrams, author of Swimming in the Deep End. Her session, entitled ‘Swimming in the Deep End: What does it take?’, was excellent. We had the opportunity to learn about how we would each go about developing the educational leadership skills that we need to create change within our schools.

As an Instructional Coach, I was able to think deeply about what skills I need to develop, as they pertains to my own unique situation, and my own work both as a coach and from my own initiative I will be leading for my PQP practicum this fall.

Her Deep-end self-assessment of 4 Foundational Skills was invaluable to me to begin to think about where I felt I needed to focus my own learning on. The 4 Skills include:

  1. Thinking before you speak
  2. Preempting Resistance
  3. Responding to Resistance
  4. Managing Oneself Through Change and Resistance.

Resistance is a very broad category, and so I believe it is important to become clear as to what exactly about resistance we might find ourselves managing, and how we can do that. Jennifer Abrams led us through an entire day of work that enabled us to think through this as they pertain to our own situations and lenses. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you will experience resistance, but ‘when’ you will face resistance. This is because there are so many needs, values, goals and polarities at play that need to be aligned. It is very important to me that I can now specifically think about how I can understand these challenges that will be inherent in my own initiatives, and in those of my school board that I am responsible for.

It is one thing to meet people where they are at – this is essential to building relationships. It is another issue to swim in the deep end and communicate in ways that could create discomfort for the purposes of learning, and the purposes of helping our students achieve the best education they can. As Jennifer said, we are also in the business of thinking about the adults we work with, and not just the students. We are developing and supporting those teachers who in turn support the students. How will I provide opportunities to help them see that they are making an impact and developing? How will I help provide the professional learning that will help make changes for the betterment of the students?

My own philosophy is that learning is hard, challenging and uncomfortable, and we have to push ourselves through it in order to learn. Some people say that we always need to have strong relationships first in order to build trust. However, I have also come to believe that we can also build strong relationships based on trust by Swimming in the Deep End together. Depending upon the people we are learning with, I do think that some of the strongest learning comes from working through challenging circumstances together, with willing spirits.

In my role as an Instructional Coach, yes we are working to shape quality learning experiences for the students, however, we are also deeply working with the adults, for the sake of the students. We are developing and supporting those who support the students. We provide those opportunities to help teachers see how they are making an impact and developing in their professional practice for the students. We think about what is the professional learning that we will provide at our school. Therefore, I ask myself about how we are growing and teaming while making changes for the sake of the students? I have learned with Jennifer that this includes the ability to embed regular moments of reflection.

Implementing regular moments of reflection reminds me of the Coaching/Teaching Cycles we engage with in our practice, in our school board SCDSB. We call it co-planning, co-teaching and co-debriefing. To me, the debrief is the most important component.

I have found through personal experience that coaching is not nearly rich enough unless there is formal time set aside for a rich debrief session. This is the part of the action plan were we can truly stop and reflect. It takes courage to just sit, look back on the lesson. Courage to recognize what might not have done as well as we had hoped, to look at what the data is telling us through, look back and look ahead. This is the input that is essential to improving and moving forward. I really appreciate that Jennifer highlights the importance of setting up regular moments for true reflection for these very reasons.

Something else that really stood out to me was Jennifer Abram’s inter-generational work. It suddenly hit me that the new teachers are 20 years younger than I am, and that we have grown up in completely different worlds. (I have no idea how this happened, lol). I obviously coach all age groups, but to realize that new teachers have grown up in a different world, it is important to think about the implications of this in terms of how I coach.

It resonated with me that Jennifer Abrams was discussing the importance of understanding what others values are and how they need to align with the school and board goals, but also to articulate clearly how they will maintain autonomy over their practice.

I am now also thinking deeper about how I will plan my own initiatives and deliver the key messages. As I embark on my PQP Practicum this school year in my role as an Instructional Coach, I will be continually revisiting and reflecting upon the components of Jennifer’s Deep-end self-assessment (that you can find in her book, Swimming in the Deep End) and her four foundational skills: a) Thinking before you speak, b) Preempting resistance, c) Responding to Resistance, d) Managing Oneself through Change and Resistance.

I am very excited to take my Learning Forward this year after this wonderful session with Jennifer Abrams.

Thank you everyone for a wonderful day,

Deb McCallum

Aug, 2019






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