Inspire First, Instruct Later

Tough connections

Me:Jeeeez Gramps, doesn’t it seem weird to call this job ‘painting’ when we only paint about once in every ten days.

My Grandpa:You know… some of our competitors just show up to a job with brush in hand.

Paint Brushes

This post has been rolling around in my skull for a while now.  Honestly, once the due date for our new babe arrived, that is really all I have been able to think about.  So now on a lazy Saturday, I will tap this one out while pining for birth.

Blogging does fun things inside my head.  It seems the furniture up there is now more regularly re-arranged through a very connective filter.  While contemplating the roles of a coach this past week, one of those good, solid life lessons learned from positive adult proximity came back into my short-term.  While attending the funeral of a beloved uncle yesterday, my grandpa again nailed a good one on memory.  While realizing something he couldn’t quite recall, he remarked that those memories aren’t really lost…  it’s just that you can’t always bring them back the very moment you need them.  Amen.

Well this one did come rushing back when I needed it.  When pondering the wit of the moment, the memory above came bolting back to latch onto this post on coaching roles while it was still in mental space.  The arrival of this memory, while walking out of the funeral home, was welcomed, warm and wonderful.

The human graph

Two summers ago, I had the pleasure of attending a coaching workshop in downtown Chicago.  Robin Fogarty and Brian Pete, authors of From Staff Room To Classroom, orchestrated three very worthwhile days of learning.  During one of those sessions, all participants were asked to queue up into one of four columns along the front wall.

Those columns formed around what Fogarty considers the four roles of a coach.  We were to decide on the one word that applied most often to the work we were currently doing as a coach in our building.  Though this workshop was aimed at instructional coaching, I am quite certain that the wisdom here applies to coaches of all flavors.  In fact, allow me here to make the case that this logic also transfers into many other educational roles.  Before transferring, let’s be sure we can at least somewhat agree on applicable definitions for four words that tend to overlap a great deal.  Allow me to summarize:

instruct: to give a person direction, information, or authorization, aka: to teach

encourage: to give support, confidence, or hope to someone.  to raise awareness to the point where one might attempt to do what is difficult

empower: to the give someone the authority or power to do something.  to make someone stronger and more confident

inspire: to create a feeling in someone.  fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative.  to animate one to action

The strategy that began with this column construction was coined the “human graph,” and for good reason.  Before step two even commenced, I was already making inferences about the “data” filing in.  Step two then was to turn to the folks in your immediate vicinity to discuss why you decided to land there.

This, of course, was the meat of the strategy.  Discussion was deep as folks defended their decision to plant in any given column that had now formed.  After a period of time, each column was asked to anoint one or two as speakers to share the rationale of that group’s placement.  Once the four reports were made, the participants were allowed to switch columns based on the new information.  Finally, we were asked to speak up with an analogy of the “data” represented in the columns.

In a group of over 100, I remember speaking up first by announcing that the graph reminded me of what was then the “Cingular” ad depicting “more bars in more places.”  That was pretty much the visual.  There was an almost perfect progression from low numbers of those who aligned with instructing, to the highest numbers found in the empower and inspire lines.

So what?

When the instruct line explained their rationale, they said they felt that more often than not, they were acting more as a trainer.  They were modeling, demonstrating, and overall doing most of the doing themselves.  Progressively up the scale, each group provided descriptions that tended to include less and less concrete action performed by the coaches themselves.  At that point, I felt like my coaching role tended to land mostly in the empowerment role.

layer upon layer of paint

As I recall, many of the folks in the instruct line were elementary school coaches.  The secondary school coaches of differing roles tended to fall into the two roles at the other side of the graph.  I think this is natural tendency given the fact that elementary teachers are more closely aligned with general expertise in a wide range of disciplines, but more or less as experts in kids.  A coach in a secondary school lives in a world of content experts.  At best, we are masters of instruction within our realm of world knowledge.  At worst, we are subject matter experts with a disconnect from kids.

Arriving brush in hand

What does this mean for those who are not coaches?  Can a teacher be a coach?  Isn’t the move from instructor to facilitator essentially a move toward coaching?  Wouldn’t this same lesson work to start some good conversation with your faculty?  Imagine this at PD#1.  If every school day were carried out with this lesson on coaching in the back of our heads, wouldn’t we naturally become more reflective about our day to day roles as educators?  I know it works for me.

So then why are teachers still standing in their classroom door on day one…  brush in hand?  Why do we still hand out textbooks and “assignments” on the first day?  Why do we blindly begin the year instructing when we have yet to figure out where our instruction needs to begin?  We spend 100% of our time with a focus on Bloom’s cognitive domain without an organized approach to what he knew was also crucial:  the affective domain.  I will likely dig into in this domain many times here in the future.  This will surprise my principal none when I do so.

I would like to say, “you wouldn’t paint a house before scraping off loose paint.”  I would like to say, “you wouldn’t open a can of paint before you had washed every ounce of dust from a home.” I would love to say, “move the first friggin benchmark exam back three weeks so teachers feel empowered to meet their students-  let alone learn about them.”  However, my radical voice would be outnumbered by those who show up each day in order to follow the plan as opposed to making the plan.  Adherence is far safer than creation.

I will go so far as to say that those who are respected as educators know how to inspire their students.  They know how their field of study impacts the world and how to bring their students to at least some of this understanding.  And most importantly… they do so before trying to instruct them on the mundane facts of cHaPTeR oNE!!1!!!  (sorry-  i get dizzy in middle age when i get this fired up)

ladder to ?

I dare you

Walk up to a house in disrepair.  Look at it from the street, put your arm around a kid and say “This will be beautiful when we get through with it.”  Do that.  Do it, and mean it.  Mean it, and then deliver it.  If you put a scraper in a kid’s hand in September and expect him to rejuvenate a home by May, you had better darn well have inspired him first.


*“Paint brushes” by AndrewB47 on Flickr.
*“Cingular commercial” by vissago on Flickr.
*“Paint Fragment” from Belmont Art Park” by otherthings on Flickr.
*“my view for the next week” by m_m_mnemonic on Flickr.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at


  1. This brings to mind possible US Sec. of Ed. Linda Darling-Hammond’s presentation on performance-based assessment, within the wider context of “narrower but deeper” curriculum. Because when the “coverage” compulsion goes out the window, into the room comes air and space to know all students well enough to perform all the coaching functions in the four columns with all students.

    Nice post. Good luck on the newcomer, and sorry about the loss of the old-timer. Quite a cycle you’re experiencing.

  2. “Blogging does fun things inside my head. It seems the furniture up there is now more regularly re-arranged through a very connective filter.”

    I love the metaphor! I came to read about your painting experience and why someone would need to wait ten days to paint, but then I was captured by your connective filter and my mind went every which way.

    Congratulations on the baby! Babies are born with minds of their own and take their own time deciding to join us here in the outer womb.

    And my condolences on the loss of your uncle. Sometimes time goes too quickly for all of us.

    I loved what your grandfather said about memories not being lost. It reminded me of a poignant children’s book. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it. It’s called Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. It is all about connections.

    I also liked the human graph discussion. The four types of teaching were useful and I think I am going to have to write on them later. (I will reference this post.)

    I am not sure I would have known where to stand. I think in my freshman composition courses I am doing all of these all the time with different students. The focus of the class is to get the students to see that they are capable of academic writing… but sometimes I instruct them on the parameters of particular types and I encourage them to include their own expertise, which empowers them to see what they add to the academic discussion and hopefully inspires them to continue with their course of study.

  3. Sean — first of all, congrats on the bambino. I still think she should have Pearl in her name for being born on Pearl Harbor Day. Of course she probably wouldn’t want to explain why she was named after a “day that will live in infamy.”
    This post is awesome. It really made me reflect on all I’ve learned this year. I had two “aha” moments last week when I realized that two of my special education Class-within-class kids have made tremendous progress since the first day. One of them who always chooses picture books to read for independent reading wrote me a full page for an essay question. The other, who usually won’t do in-class work without a lot of hand-holding, did an entire assignment and showed great creativity and insight.
    Both of these students might be viewed as “fixer-uppers,” and they’ll never take an AP test to prove via data how awesome my instruction has been, but I feel like I can see real growth. If I hadn’t spent time getting to know them I might not have even noted their growth because it won’t necessarily show up on measurable data.
    While I don’t think I can accomplish all four every day — instruct, encourage, empower, and inspire — for every student, I can challenge myself to at succeed at at least one for each student every day. That, I think, would be a significant accomplishment.
    So IEEI will become my marching orders…

  4. Sean, thank you for reminding me what my goals as a teacher really are. I’m going to print out ieei and stick them up around me to make sure I stride further from the first i towards the second.

  5. Hey Sean – yeah it has really been a week for reflecting. Your post hit home…yet I really made a connection today. I am having my resource social studies class work on projects. The hard part for me is that the kids are at different grade levels, different ability levels, and to add to that chaos…there is Geography, American History, and Government happening within one classroom during the same hour. It seemed that all of my students were chugging along just fine last week. But today, one of my kiddos threw up his hands and said, “I just don’t understand this whole project!”
    Eeeh-ghads, what does he not get?
    I sat with him and quickly accomplished the first two columns…Instruct, Encourage. These were easy. I really like this kid. He usually “gets it”. A word of encouragement was simple. Yet I left class that hour feeling as if I maybe could have done more?
    Fast -forward to my CWC class with Kelly Lock. Similar situation, although maybe not the force behind the kid giving up.
    She instructed.
    She encouraged.
    She even expressed empathy.
    THEN she said something like, “Ask me a specific question. Don’t tell me you don’t understand what to do. What specifically do you not understand. Take out your examples. Look at them. I know you and I have been through part of this. How do I know?”
    Kiddo: “Because your writing is on my example.”
    Lock: “So what can you do with that?”
    HELLO!!! Empowerment! She gave it to him…right in his face. She gave him the opportunity to take that knowledge and make it his!
    Now…inspiration…I must say that it happens so naturally for Kelly that the kids don’t even realize it is happening. I, however, with the help of your post, will be soaking it up.

  6. @Clay – You couldn’t be more right about the cycle here. Pretty powerful stuff for sure. Thanks for the link as well. “Air & space” – so true.

    @Dr. Davis – Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply… and the plug. 😉 I too use Alltop as a resource. There I find things I don’t necessarily want to clog my aggregator… but I can troll for good reads. I showed it to my kids when explaining the importance of a good title. Thanks for the book tip. I remember Janet Allen referring to Mem Fox at a workshop in Florida a couple of summer ago. I will check that out.

    @Kerry – She’s was a day late for PH day. So… not so infamous after all, eh? Also- I don’t think you can expect to fulfill all of those roles each day. I don’t see how you can, really. I think I see myself moving in and out of each of them from day to day depending on need.

    @Claire – IEEI, eh? You and Kerry both nailed that. Interesting.

    @Lindsay – Thanks very much. I agree those are powerful. When we pull out the “instruct” card on day one, we make teaching into a very… blue collar… sort of thing to do in my opinion.

    @Andrea – I absolutely cannot imagine pulling down all of those subjects in one session. What the hell does “focus” look like in your world? That is unreal. Like you mention in your comment about the young lad in your class… instruct is not a good initial role to jump in on. There are times when that is needed, but I would argue fewer times than we normally see employed in the classroom.

  7. Wow…nice reminder Sean.

    I feel as if I have been focusing too much on the instruct with my freshmen – and your post really helped me

    By the way – I will never forget how I read through this the first time while I was in labor 😉

    @Andrea Thanks for your comment is well. I love reading about how others are inspired by fellow teachers. You don’t hear people talk about that enough – but I think finding that inspiration is an integral part of this profession.

  8. Wow! This one blew me away! In the midst of all this… all we will learn… teach… discuss… we have to touch them first. This house truly will be beautiful when we get finished with it!

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