The Art of Connected Coaching

A MiddleWeb Interview



Lani Ritter Hall is a leading expert in the relatively young field of professional coaching within virtual education spaces and communities. After a 35-year teaching career, including National Board Certification in 2003, Lani retired from her Ohio school system and joined Powerful Learning Practice LLC, where she serves as Director of Connected Coaching and community leader for PLP’s Connected Learner Experience, a year-long program for teachers learning to integrate technology and social media into their professional practice.

Lani has taught in the middle grades in urban, suburban, and independent schools in the U.S and Canada, and she began collaborating with teachers online in the late 1980’s, when she also found ways to connect her students to distant classrooms. She is the co-author, with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, of the recent book The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2011), and she blogs at Possibilities Abound.

Lani also teaches a popular online course on becoming a Connected Coach. The next class begins in early January 2013. Learn more at the PLP website.

For our “5Q Interview,” Lani talked with Kansas middle school teacher Marsha Ratzel, also a Connected Coach, who wrote about her own shift to connected professional learning in a June 2012 article for MiddleWeb.


Marsha Ratzel: You’re a 35-year veteran teacher, NBCT, online coach and now author. Did you imagine yourself co-writing such a powerhouse book like The Connected Educator? How did this happen?

Lani Ritter Hall: Imagine? Never! Where and how did it begin? A series of serendipitous connections with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach led to our sincere friendship, continued collaboration and always—learning. And then ultimately The Connected Educator.

My journey is a story filled with masterful educators. It’s a story that dramatically illustrates the potential of deep online connections and their capacity to transform lives. And it’s story of some telling; you can learn about the beginnings here.

Sheryl and I had been collaborating for some time when one day, during a Skype conversation, she suggested that we share what we had learned about online communities of practice in the form of a book. I thought she was kidding at first. She wasn’t; she was serious. The very thought of it scared me to death; 65,000 words is a lot of words. Yet there was no way that I could pass up an extraordinary opportunity to learn more, stretch, and grow.

Following Sheryl’s unbounded enthusiasm, I jumped in too but likely not in the way you might imagine. I live in Northeast Ohio and Sheryl in coastal Virginia. So two connected learner leaders, separated geographically by more than 500 miles, availed themselves of technology to collaborate, share insights, and gen­erate ideas. Our use of Skype led to words flowing on Google Docs as each chapter of our book emerged and evolved. The priceless comment feature let us unpack and repack and finally brought us to publication. In the true spirit of connected learning, neither the book nor its ideas touched paper until Solution Tree’s presses began to run.

Marsha: You used the term “connected learner leaders.” Can you talk a bit how “connectedness” has changed learning and leading for you?

Lani: The potential of “connected learning” first hit me in the face in the late 1980s, when I and my students participated in collaborative projects with other classes from Germany, Lithuania, Canada, Australia and Britain via email.

Student writing dramatically improved as did their general interest in learning. One student who had failed English repeatedly remarked when we finished: “This project gave juice to my writing.” My students began to develop a global awareness; they were dumbfounded to learn that in Lithuania, a messy home was considered the sign of a dysfunctional family. When they read accounts of winter from Australian students, in the months when we were approaching summer  in America — and when those accounts arrived from an Australian classroom in the middle of our night — they began to realize how vast and complex the Earth really is.

Fast forward to my own professional connected learning: it’s commonplace for me to collaborate with people who live in my tomorrow! I’ve Skyped at 7 p.m. my local time while John in Australia was drinking his morning orange juice. I’ve risen at 2 a.m. to attend a webinar with an Australian team of educators as their coach. With time and distance blurred, I’ve commiserated with colleagues in the far southwest about the constraints imposed by high-stakes testing and brainstormed strategies to work around, in, and outside the system.

At every time of day and night, I’ve participated in online sessions with experts, authors, and teachers as we sought to understand more fully how to influ­ence the educational policies that affect our children’s futures. In online communities, I’ve developed significant collegial relationships that I cherish. The opportunities to engage in difficult discussions around practice have kept me from sleep. Through networks on Twitter and in blogs, I’ve explored resources (ones I likely would never have discovered on my own) that have profoundly affected my beliefs about teach­ing and learning.

My journey into connected learning has been compelling, sometimes daunting, often exhilarating, yet always fueled by passion. And it’s my firm belief that the diverse group of educators with whom I’ve connected has stretched my thinking and enabled me to move outside of my comfort zone to consider new ideas and remix them to improve my practice.

I’ve embraced the exponential potential that connectedness has to transform learning. I’ve learned far more in my time as a connected learner than in the many years before.

That extends to connected leading too. In the Connected Coaching eCourse I facilitate and in the communities I lead, I’ve connected with accomplished educators from China, Denmark, Norway, and many parts of Canada, Australia, Central America and the United States—all from my home. In Blackboard Collaborate we share virtual drinks– and engage in deep discussions around learning, coaching and transforming education given the affordances of technology. I ask questions, I share my thoughts through audio, images, text and video as we find our way. Adopting perhaps a different perspective on leadership, I see myself there as a co-learner, a curator, a network administrator.

Marsha: Tell me more about Connected Coaching— how do Connected Coaches differ from the school- or system-based coaches that often enter classrooms?

Lani: For Connected Coaches, gone is the need to travel to meetings; gone is the need to obtain building permits; gone is the need for boxes filled with folders of activities, binders filled with observations, plans and reflections. Coaching relationships are no longer nurtured and developed exclusively with people in proximate geographical spaces, or only through face to face interactions.

In Connected Coaching, we use the tools of virtual connection: video, Skype conversations, shared images, collaborative Google Docs, threaded discussions, voices in Voicethread, AudioBoo, and Vocaroo. Connected coaches meet from home, in PJs with a favorite beverage of choice, using Google+ or Blackboard Collaborate. They have opportunities to engage others 24/7, live or asynchronously, irrespective of time or place.

Connected Coaches need a well developed online voice/personality, and the ability to move beyond text to communicate in online spaces. The affordances of technology necessitate new mindsets, new skill sets, and new dispositions for those who coach other practitioners in connected spaces.

We see Connected Coaches as “social artists” who help people think deeply about learning that takes place in shared online spaces. They assist educators in becoming more self-directed, in realizing previously unrecognized potential in themselves to effect systemic change in education.

Coaches as social artists– immersed in collaboration in online spaces– epitomize a coaching approach that is an art, a wayfinding, not prescriptive and surely not from a deficit perspective.

Connected Coaches engage in wayfinding, an architectural term appropriate to the learning that occurs in connected spaces. Pathmarkers guide us in our role as coaches. These markers light the way as coaches facilitate the journey of others toward a more accomplished reflective practice. This journey is as much self-directed as it is collaborative. The objective: to create momentum for purposeful inquiry around a shared goal of self and school improvement.

Connected Coaches are skilled at inquiry, asking good questions. Unlike coaches in other models, Connected Coaches share less information and opinion. Often their efforts focus on helping teams and individuals recognize and appreciate diversity found in connected spaces. As well, they concentrate on the development of relationships that leverage an environment for positive growth and self-directedness. Through this appreciative inquiry/strength-based approach, Connected Coaches understand that as they help members realize their own potential over time, innovation follows.

Marsha: What in the coaching model engenders the types of trust relationships that grow during your course?

Lani: One of the most critical elements of the Connected Coaching model is trust building –growing and nurturing relationships. In face to face spaces, coaches and those they coach often share coffee; they chat about where they’ve taught and lived; they share recent photos from their cell phones of activities and family. From these initial interactions, trust begins to develop. Conversations turn to stories around experiences in the classroom. And only then can the real work of the coach begin. It’s no different in online spaces, especially for coaching from an appreciative inquiry perspective.

Building trust online becomes very intentional—creating opportunities for social interactions is purposeful and ongoing. And it is from these that coaches develop meaningful relationships with those they coach.

I’ve designed the Connected Coaching eCourse to model an appreciative inquiry journey similar to the one coaches take with their teams. Very purposefully, I include trustbuilding activities throughout the course, especially at the beginning. We share images that represent how we are feeling; we create 6-word stories around a set of given images; we share passions (other than teaching); we use audio files to share stories.

At the beginning of each webinar, we participate in brief activities that offer opportunities for each one to share a little about themselves in fun ways. We create a collaborative presentation together. Throughout the course, we engage in appreciative language, we recognize and celebrate each other’s strengths. We’ve (all of us) been amazed and totally delighted at the depth of the relationships developed in such a short time—relationships that continue long after our formal time together in the course ends.

Marsha: You mentioned self-directed and self-directedness? In what ways has that been important in your learning? Is that a key characteristic of connected learners?

Lani: Long before DIY (Do It Yourself) became a household acronym, I was a DIY learner. I was self-directed. I didn’t know it then. I just knew I wanted to learn; with every new interest, I sought out my own opportunities for that learning to happen. In high school, years ago at the height of the Cold War, I decided I wanted to learn Russian. It wasn’t offered in my school, so I signed up for adult education in night school—not for a credit, but because of my interest.

When I began teaching, years of top-down “in-service” days seemed to focus only on procedures, new policies and dealing with stress.

With the belief that my students deserved better, I initiated my own self-directed DIY professional development that was focused primarily on teaching strategies. My tunnel focus during those years was teaching and learning. Only later, following significant reflection, did I attribute the enormous effect of my learning on my classroom practice to DIY — to me as a self directed learner.

With a growing interest in facilitating online learning, I stumbled upon an online course entitled MOOM (Moving out of the Middle) hosted by the Concord Consortium. I then embarked upon an incredibly frightening and exhilarating journey into inquiry learning. That learning experience had a profound impact on me and my practice and intensified my quest as a DIY learner. I was hungry for learning, yearned for opportunities to stretch and grow on topics for which I had a passion.

My successful pursuit of National Board Certification followed. In portfolio entry 4 of the National Board certification process, an entire section was devoted to the “teacher as learner.” The evidence gathered for that entry and the accompanying analysis had to make a clear case that my personal learning had directly affected my classroom instruction and students’ learning. The NBPTS candidacy process challenged me as a learner in many ways I previously could not have imagined. I learned so much more about how I learn. And even at that point in 2003, I didn’t know I was self-directed or that I was a DIYer— I only knew that the more I learned the more I wanted to learn.

DIY learners use technology to become connected to resources, including people, as we search for answers. Now that I’ve been deep into connected learning, my strong sense is that self-directedness and connectedness go hand in hand. Why? Because “connected learners take responsibility for their own professional development. They figure out what they need to learn and then collaborate with others to con­struct the knowledge they need. Instead of waiting for professional learning to be organized and delivered to them, connected learners contribute, interact, share ideas, and reflect.” (The Connected Educator, Nussbaum-Beach & Ritter Hall, 2011, p. 51)

The possibilities for self-directed learning in a connected world are astronomic. And the very best parts, other than the learning, are the relationships we develop with smart, passionate people the world over who join us in DIY learning.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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