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The self-discipline to wait, watch, coach (revised)

My small extended family, there are just 10 of us, blazed through 12 dozen homemade cookies in three afternoons. Home for the holiday, my mother, my daughter, and I bake for pleasure, to help the house smell good, and to pass on important family traditions.  The cookie baking extravaganza has now extended into day 4. The demand for more cookies might be triggered by the smell of chocolate, peanut butter, and sugar wafting throughout the house, back porch, and driveway. Or, it could be gluttony. It’s a holiday; calories don’t count, right?

In her new red and green pjs, AS wakes up raring to go.  Jumping up and down in the kitchen in her new polka dot apron, she asks “How many cookies will we bake today, Mama? How many? How many?”

I hold back a sigh and try not to drop my head; I am tired. I have turkey, dressing, ham, and several casseroles to prepare to carry on our traditions, and I am experiencing cookie overload. I muster my best smile and say, “We need to bake at least 4 dozen cookies. Uncle Jack is coming today, and you know how much he loves your cookies.”

It is our 4th day of cookie baking. Once again, by popular request, we were making Reese’s peanut butter cup cookies.  We make peanut butter cookie dough, roll it into balls, and cook them in mini muffin pans.  As they come out of the oven, we press mini Reese’s peanut butter cups into the center of the cookies.  Delicious.

It is day 4 of this algorithmic work.  The learner is still excited, curious, and engaged.  Am I? Do I feel the same engagement, or am I bored and ready to move on?

For the first 2 dozen, I make the batter, and three generations work together in concert to roll the cookies into balls. The tins come out of the oven holding peanut butter goodness just waiting to receive the Reese’s peanut butter cup candies.  Together, my mother, AS, and I press the candy into the cookies as they come out of the oven. I can still picture my grandmother’s hands doing this work with my mother and me.

Apprenticeship as learning is so important.

I am struck by the lessons my sweet 6-year old, AS, is teaching me about learning with my students. How often do our students watch us do the work to solve the problem or answer the question and pitch in at the last step?   

Baking the second 2 dozen is a very different story.  Thanks to my mother, AS her very own measuring spoons, spatula, and mini muffin pan that bakes 1 dozen muffins.  Empowered now that she has her own pan, she takes charge. It would have been so much faster for me to roll the cookies.  But, no…her pan; her cookies. Her mantra: “I can do it myself!”

So, I watch, wait, and coach.  I try not to cringe. I hold my comments so that I do not undermine her independence and confidence. Too small, the balls will be difficult to press candy into after baking in the oven.  Too big and they will blob out on the pan during baking. Patiently, I ask, “I wonder, honey, if the peanut butter cup will fit into that ball once baked. What do you think?” She fixes most of these problems with a little coaching from me.

Isn’t this happening in our classrooms?  It is so much faster and more efficient for the teacher to present the material.  We can get so much more done in the short amount of time we have. But, how much does the learner “get done” or learn?  When efficiency trumps learning, does anyone really have success? How do we encourage “I can do it myself!”? How do we find the self-discipline to watch, wait, and coach?

As she demands more independence, her confidence grows.  Can you believe that she would alter my recipe for the first 2 dozen cookies?  As our second dozen bakes, I press the peanut butter cups into my cookies. Miss I-Can-Do-It-Myself decides that Hershey kisses will be just as good or better.  With no prompting (or permission) she creates a new (to her) cookie. She has Hershey Kisses, and she wants to use them.

Worth repeating: “As she demands more independence, her confidence grows.” When we intervene too soon, are we stripping learners of their confidence and independence? Are we promoting productive struggle? Do we let them grapple enough?  

Does it really matter which method a learner uses to solve a problem or answer a question?  Isn’t it okay if they use the distributive property or an area model to multiply? Does it really matter which method is used to find the solution to a system of equations?  Shouldn’t they first find success? Don’t we want our learners to understand more than one way? Is our way always the best way?

Is AS pleased with herself and her creativity?  You bet. Are her cookies just as good as the original recipe?  Sure! How can you go wrong combining chocolate and peanut butter?

We must applaud the process that learners use to solve a problem or respond to a question.  We must praise them when they try something different. We must promote and encourage risk-taking, creativity, and problem-solving.

We must find the self-discipline to be patient while learning is in progress, to watch, wait, and coach.  We must embrace and promote the “I can do it myself!” attitude.

We must.


The self-discipline to wait, watch, coach was originally published on Dec 26, 2010.  This revision is inspired by what we are learning in Embolden Your Inner Writer.

I am grateful for the thoughtful, challenging, advancing feedback from Marsha Harris, Amanda Thomas, Kate Burton, Becky Holden, Cathrine Halliburton, and Lauren Kinnard.

High-purpose environment. Teacher clarity. Touchpoints of praise.

I wait patiently for my turn.

Carrots. Beep. Doritos. Beep. Milk. Beep.

Donned in her green Publix smock, she makes eye contact and small talk with the customer ahead of me as she swipes items across the reader.

Hamburger. Beep. Kale. Beep. Beep. Beep.

She says, “That will be forty-two. twenty-eight” Wincing, she shook her head and said, “No, no wait! It is twenty-eight forty-two.” Smiling sheepishly, she blushes and says “Ugh! I just hate numbers.” The customer, patient and kind, concludes her business at the register and goes on about her way.

I cannot stop myself. Why can’t I stop myself from attempting to put salve on the raw wound that someone else – knowingly or unknowingly – has inflected on this poor young woman? I hear my internal voice say, “You don’t have to fix this. You really can’t fix this. You did not do this.”

I know I should stop myself. I cannot. I softly say, “So I’m a math teacher. It is easy to mix numbers up. Don’t worry.”

And then it happens… again. It breaks my heart a little more every time. Though it is not unexpected, I brace myself for what is coming.

She takes a deep breath. In a painful blurt, she replies, “I did so many posters just so I could pass.  She decided that was never going to ‘do’ math well, so she let me create bulletin boards and cut out letters in order to pass. I just hate it. Math was never my thing. Early, we knew that I could not do it, and we created workarounds so I could pass and graduate.”

So then, as always, I apologize for her terrible experience.

I am so sorry.

I am so sorry that any child is led to believe they cannot be successful at math – the language, art, and communication tool that is my love and passion.

I am so sorry that any child is led to believe they cannot be successful.

I seethe inside that any teacher would “extra credit” a child out of learning.

High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go. The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling. (Coyle, 180 pag.)

Teachers need to determine the gap between students’ current level of performance or understanding and the expected level of mastery. (Hattie, 66 pag.)

If someone received just three or more touchpoints, or instances, of praise in a single quarter, their performance score in the next review period significantly increased. If they received four or more touchpoints of praise or recognition in a quarter, the retention rate increased to 96 percent over the next year. (Achor, Kindle Locations 1766-1768.)

How might we create more classrooms that are high-purpose environments where teacher clarity empowers learners to close gaps between what is known and what is needed?  What if we highlight what is going well to create touch points of praise to embolden learners to reach for a next level?

CULTURE: from the Latin cultus, which means care.


Achor, Shawn. Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being (Kindle Locations 1766-1768). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Kindle Locations 2378-2380). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hattie, John A. (Allan); Fisher, Douglas B.; Frey, Nancy; Gojak, Linda M.; Moore, Sara Delano; Mellman, William L.. Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Change the world; pick up your pen. #EmboldenYourInnerWriter

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

How might we learn and share, to spread what works well and promotes positive outcomes for learners? If we find that learners are making leaps in knowledge, confidence, and efficacy, how will we share our success with others?

Doing work that inspires growth, courage, and risk-taking in one classroom serves learners and opens pathways of success. What if we share with a broader, connected audience?

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther

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