by Nick Ferentinos
JEA Mentoring Committee
When making assessments about a teacher’s practice, mentors often want to start with deficits, what the person does not do well, much as many teachers do when they’re looking at student work. For that matter, new teachers usually begin self-assessments by raising what they think is wrong with their teaching.
Instead, the New Teacher Center promotes the idea of beginning mentoring conversations around what’s working in a teacher’s practice, only addressing challenges or concerns after a teacher’s strengths have been established.
JEA’s Mentor Program is built on the same notion: Mentors need to help teachers first explore and then build on what’s working in their teaching practice before addressing what’s not working.
At a New Teacher Center Annual Symposium, I attended a very useful session called, “Strengths Coaching: Exploring Natural Talents with Beginning Teachers to Develop Excellence.” The presenters were Tim Gollup, a full-release mentor from Monona, Wis., and his colleague, Tom Howe, an Outreach Coordinator for the NTC-Wisconsin.
The session focused on helping learn how to distinguish between skills and talents and to become familiar with and practice strengths coaching using a tool the presenters developed.
It began by asking us to consider what we’re good at in our professional role, how we know, and whether we identified a learned skill or a natural talent.
The presenters went on to debunk two myths about strengths:
Myth No. 1: “Each person can learn to be competent in anything.”
Drawing on the work of Buckingham and Clifton in “Now Discover Your Strengths,” Gollup and Howe pointed out that focusing on weaknesses may help with damage control, it does little toward actual development. As evidence, they cited Clifton and Harter, who found: “Managers who built on the strengths of their employees were 86% more successful than managers who didn’t. These top-performing managers were more likely to indicate that they invested time in high-producing staff, matched talent to tasks, and rewarded strengths rather than seniority when making personnel decisions.”
Myth No. 2: “Each person’s area for growth is in the area of greatest weakness.”
Rather, they said, “The greatest potential for growth in the area of our greatest strength.” They pointed to a 2008 study by M.C. Louis which found, “Students whose strengths and talents were identified had more control of their academic futures than students who did not know their strengths of talents.”
The session moved to how we can support new teachers with strengths coaching by helping them identify their talents, build their knowledge and provide opportunities to develop and hone their skills. They offered the following equation: “Talents + Knowledge + Skills = Strengths.”
So, they asked, how do we locate strengths? A survey they conducted found three ways: Confirmation from others, prior success, and personal passion. They used these to build a strengths locator tool (see below)
They identified several tools the NTC uses: the Collaborative Assessment Tool, which JEA has modified in cooperation with the NTC; a standards-based self-assessment, much as JEA urges our mentors to use JEA’s “Standards for Journalism Educators” (jea.org/resources/standards.html) and the Continuum of Teacher Development, which JEA has also modified to use with our standards.
In addition, the presenters developed their own “Strengths Locator,” a tool for a mentoring conversation.
The tool explores four areas:
1. Start with a context. Here, the mentor explains the purpose of the tool as a way of identifying natural abilities and strength that can be applied more within the teacher’s context.
2. Using the responses to their survey, they ask questions to guide reflection on strengths. For confirmation for others, for example, they ask questions like, “What do other people say you’re good at?” Or, “What feedback have students and parents given you?” To determine prior success, they suggest asking the new teacher to explore “a time when you accomplished something challenging.” And for personal passion, they ask, “What do you love to do?”
3. Next, they suggest leading the teacher in identifying next steps to expand utilize their strengths. They suggest asking questions like, “What patterns do you notice?” Or, “What knowledge or skills do you need to expand your strengths?”
4. Finally, they suggest having a short debrief by asking, “How was this process useful for our work together?” Or, “What have you learned from our time together,” both good questions at the end of most every mentoring conversation.
This Strengths Locator protocol asks several other questions. My guess is if you contact Tim Gollup, at tgollup at gmail.com, he’ll be happy to send you a copy of the tool and the protocol, which you should credit to him if you use it.
If it hasn’t been your practice to explore a teacher’s strengths before you address challenges, you might want to give this approach to mentoring a try.
One resource you might want to visit is D.O. Clifton’s website, strengths.org.
You might also check out strengths.ning.com.