I used to live in my own little corner of the world. Or school.
In a small district, when one teaches 9th grade English/Language Arts, she is the only 9th grade English/Language Arts teacher. Same with 10th grade ELA. Same with virtually any class I taught. At the risk of sounding clichè, I was an island unto myself.
I could walk in the side door of the school right into my classroom and only leave to pick up papers from the copy machine or to go to the restroom (if I could remember to do so). Conversations with colleagues? If I ventured out for lunch — yes, there would be conversations with fellow teachers. Once or twice a month, we met for PD in content learning teams to talk about vertical alignment. A great gesture, but not enough.
I was happy in my little world. I planned; I taught; I assessed; I laughed; I cried; I created; I responded to student work. And then I went home.
And then I was asked to help write this little thing called the Teacher Leadership Compensation Grant. I was a part of the vision process for creating a teacher leadership program in the school that would include these new things called Instructional Coaches. And…I saw a challenge that I, well, kind of wanted to accept.
And, I kind of didn’t.
What would I gain as an Instructional Coach? I would embrace a new challenge in my life. I would become the go-to teacher at school for ideas, strategies, problem-solving, and more. I would lead professional development. I would organize standardized testing at school. I would meet professionally with administrators and others. I would train with Diane Sweeney. I would have time to research best practices and put them into play. I would get to meet with other teacher leaders across the conference, across districts, across the state to strategize for helping students to be more engaged in a rigorous curriculum. I would get to learn everything there is to know about Smarter Balanced. I would get to sit down with teachers, pick their brains about how they plan, what they plan, and what their content area needs…and together we would put things together so that students could be successful and prepared for both college and career. Exciting!
What would I lose? I’d lose my classroom. I’d lose my autonomy. I’d lose my little corner of the world. I feared that I would lose my relationships with students. I feared that in a few years, I wouldn’t know the names of any students anymore. I feared that my fellow teachers would fear me, even though I am not an evaluator and our coaching cycles are confidential. I feared walking into a classroom of a different content area and being able to offer nothing. Scary.
I now have a new corner in my world — an office — but that office is the springboard to so many experiences and so many collaborations. In just one semester, I have had the pleasure of working with ten teachers in ten different ways. With ten different sets of goals. All toward the purpose of helping students to be more engaged and to master the standards and skills they are meant to master.
I’ve found that even though all of my training is in English/Language Arts and ESL, I am able to apply best teaching practices and teaching strategies across content areas. I feared stepping into a content area where I felt ‘dumb’. Math. Especially math. I have been in classrooms with three math teachers. Each one of those teachers has taught me a skill (standard) in math through their classroom instruction, and I in turn have been able to then go forth and help students to understand the skill. I even modeled the Gradual Release of Responsibility in Algebra 1 by teaching students how to create their own equations when shopping for best deals.
Each and every day is a different day in my new existence. Each Friday, I color-code my schedule for the upcoming week and post it on my door. My day starts with Aimei, my English Learner who just came from China to bless my days, bring me to reality, make me laugh a little, and to remind me, each and every day, why I do what I do. From there, I go to classes, meet with teachers to plan instruction, observe in other classes, research, meet with administrators, attend conferences, co-teach, co-plan, troubleshoot, problem-solve, facilitate the integration of technology, and more. Some days I participate, some days I observe, some days I lead.
All days I gather data to discuss with the teacher so that students are being held accountable, students are progressing, and that students are getting the opportunities they need to master the material.
I can easily top 10,000 steps in a day, just by doing my job. 14,000 if I walk my dogs before school.
What are my top ten takeaways from this first semester as an Instructional Coach?
- You have to design backward. You have to take that assessment and break it down to standards and skills. Only then can you prepare your learning targets and learning activities to move students forward.
- Teaching must be transparent. If you want kids to draw a snowman, let them know that’s what you want — if you just tell them you want them to draw three circles, two lines, three dots, two eyes, and a triangle, you’ve lost before you started.
- If you use a pre-assessment, it must be used to guide instruction. What is the point of a pre-assessment if you’re only going to do everything you planned on doing anyway? If a pre-assessment tells you that the students have mastered a skill — then move on. Every teacher I know complains about not getting to everything they wanted to get to in the quarter/semester/year. Use pre-assessments appropriately, and you will be able to add in one of your great new ideas!
- Check the pulse of the students each and every day. Even if your formative assessment is a thumbs up/thumbs down, check the students out. There are volumes of resources that will help with fabulous formative assessment ideas. One of my favorites is to give students red, yellow, and green stickers. In a writing project, have the students place a red sticker at place(s) they know need your help. Have them place yellow stickers on places they want you to read and comment on because they think they’ve got it, but need your feedback. Have them place green stickers on the places where they are proud of what they have written. Simple. It guides your feedback. And…saves you from guessing at what they want/need from you.
- Don’t be afraid to try. Even when you’re afraid to try. Something that works in one place may not work elsewhere. But you won’t know until you try. We’re all talking about the mindset phenomenon in education — it might not work….yet. You might not be good at it….yet. But if it’s worthwhile, it’s possible.
- Sometimes pet projects, pet assessments, and pet activities need to be retired. If it doesn’t tie back to a standard or skill that is necessary for moving forward, then those pet things probably don’t belong in your curriculum. That is a hard concept to share. That is a conversation that I don’t like to have to have. Sometimes that is the conversation for the administrator. As a coach, I have to look at the data and the marriage between the standards, skills, and curriculum. What is intended (standards), what is enacted (curriculum), and what is assessed (tested). Do they all mesh together? My job is to subtly guide a teacher to making the determination on whether or not all pieces come together seamlessly. If not, we have more work to do.
- While I like being an Instructional Coach, I would never want to be an Administrator. In this job, I get a better seat in the theatre of school administration. I get to be a part of decision-making. But I don’t have to be the guy on the firing line. I’m not the messenger — ok, I might be the messenger, but the message ultimately comes from up above, and they know that.
- I’m a ‘doer’. That means that when a task comes up, I’m the type of person who will just say, “I’ll do that!” Some teachers will allow that to happen quite willingly. Others are more likely to take the reins and do it themselves. Coaching is a mash-up of those two things. Try this on for size, though — when I am in a coaching cycle with a teacher, I am taking up one of his or her plan periods each and every week. A part of what we do should help to streamline that planning, but few teachers see it that way. They sometimes see it that I am taking away some of their precious time. I get that. So…when a teacher needs something from me — whether it’s a demonstration of a teaching method, rubric, powerpoint, research, etc. — I’ll take time to help out. On the other hand, it’s also up to the teacher to take strategies and ideas and to put them into play in the classroom. It’s teamwork, ultimately, that gets the job done and helps to create positive change.
- There is so much to learn about education, relationships, and teaching. I enjoy being the conduit for that for my teachers. I have always loved learning, and I will always love learning new things. That is a part of the reason why I have taken college classes most semesters of my teaching career. Instructional coaching builds on that learning and gives me an avenue to bring what I’ve learned to the teachers. And then they can take what I’m teaching, process it, and use it to engage students. Win-win.
- In the end….it takes a team. We all work together to reach our students. There is an article called “Multiple Measures” by Victoria L. Bernhardt. In that article, it addresses the multiple measures that we must focus on in order to best serve our clientele: demographics, perceptions, student learning, and school processes. We must look at each of these things in order to accurately assess what we are doing. If all we look at in teaching are student standardized test scores, we are missing out on a lot. We can not improve without taking a team-approach. We need to look at how demographics (gender, language, ethnicity) works with perceptions (from students, community, parents) and works with school processes (adopted instructional strategies, discipline policies, vertical alignment) to get to those test scores. One misstep, and we can topple the whole thing. Everyone needs to work together to build a community and culture in which we all come together for the good of all students.
So….this has emerged as being a lot longer than I ever imagined. I have so much to do to improve as an Instructional Coach…but it’s coming. I learn from every teacher I work with. Ten so far. Ten more in the spring. And so on it goes.
It just takes 10,000 steps a day….but I’ll get there!
Nancy Voggesser is in her first year as an Instructional Coach for the Logan-Magnolia Community School District.