Reflections of an Instructional Coach

Entries from 2012:

Building Relationships

When I applied for this job last year, I had hoped that I would be able to make an impact on others in my field. I had no idea, however, how much of an impact teachers whom I hadn’t even met yet would have on me.

Last week I sat down with a teacher I had just recently met for a post-observation meeting. I had observed her guided reading groups, and we were going through the routine questions that would inspire reflection on her practice.  Even now, I’m not sure how her reflection turned from a reflection on guided reading to a reflection on life, but by the end of our meeting we were both in tears.

This teacher was in her early thirties, like myself, and was a perfectionist in teaching and in life.  As we talked and related to each other’s philosophies and challenges, she began to talk about a battle she had been facing with her health- a battle that was so serious that her doctors weren’t sure she would make it through the school year.  Through her tears, she told me that she wasn’t sure why she was opening up to me… that she always tries to be strong and not lose it in front of her family or coworkers.

Having just met her, I felt embarrassed that our conversation on guided reading now seemed quite meaningless in comparison to what she was dealing with.  I apologized to her that this coaching thing must seem pretty stupid at a time like this when so much was on the line for her. She was a great teacher. She really didn’t need me at all.  And here we were talking about guided reading when she wasn’t sure she would even live to see her children grow.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from her thanking me.  She said that she apparently just needed someone to talk to and cry to- that focusing on teaching is what keeps her from thinking about what her life has in store for her- and that even though we didn’t make eye-opening reflections about instruction during our meeting, we did exactly what was needed in order for her to walk back in her classroom and not have to teach through tears.

The very next day I sat down with a librarian whom I had also just met since being hired on as a coach. We were collaborating on how to get more sixth grade classes into the library for lessons on how to efficiently navigate the library, and again, the conversation meandered.  I found myself listening to this new friend, who was thirty years my senior, talk about the recent death of her husband- how they battled cancer together, and he didn’t make it, but how she was still fighting her own fight.

I felt so honored and humbled that for the second time that week someone whom I barely knew was opening up to me and trusting me with their most personal feelings and thoughts.  I let my new friend know that I was very grateful to be trusted with her feelings, and that I had been struggling with some personal things over the past few years that paled in comparison to the stories I had been hearing from teachers I with whom I was meeting. I told her that I had not made much of an impact on anyone I had been meeting with recently, but that I was profoundly changed.

Not only did I reflect on my own life, realizing how much I had to be thankful for, but I thought about all of the amazing educators out there, who in spite of all of the challenges life throws their way, are plowing ahead with fierce devotion, giving all that they have to their students and taking so seriously their calling to this career of service.  

Towards the end of our conversation, this librarian said to me, “I have to be honest, Amy.  When we were told that you would be our coach, I went to my principal and told her that I was offended that someone would think that this girl who wasn’t even a twinkle in her dad’s eye when I began teaching would come into my library and tell me what I should be doing.  I realize now that is not at all what this is about. A few days ago I went back to my principal and told her I was wrong. Teachers are dying to have someone to talk to and to go hand and hand with on their journey. It has been a pleasure working with you.”

This was the biggest compliment and validation I have received as a coach.  When I was first trained for my new position, I heard that building relationships was the key to a successful partnership between the coach and the teacher.  Naively, I had looked at this as a “step” to implementing better instruction in the classroom- a means to an end, if you will. I realize now that it is not a step at all.  We are in a people profession. And, in a people profession it is so very important that we are all seen as people that matter.

These two teachers I worked with faced extreme struggles.  Not every teacher is dealing with issues as serious as life and death, but we all bring our joys and sorrows with us to work. And if we are to care about the students in our classrooms, then we need to also care about their teachers… not because doing so will be a step in increasing student achievement, but because teachers are selfless, passionate, and amazingly strong individuals.  And they matter.

Validating Teachers

Post-observations are possibly my favorite part of instructional coaching.  I feel like they are an artful dance in which I have to master the balance of validating teacher’s efforts and instructional skills while encouraging reflection and improvement.  I am always the most nervous when sitting down with a teacher with whom I have yet to build a solid relationship.

Yet, coaching is not always as organic as it would ideally be.  Sometimes the district’s model is set up so that teachers have to complete observations before an authentic partnership is built.  So, on this day I was particularly frustrated when sitting down with a middle school teacher for a post-observation. I really get discouraged when I feel that these meetings with teachers are just hoops to jump through so that they meet the requirement of “collaborating with their coach.”

As we sat down, the teacher told me that she had received the observation paperwork I had sent her and after reading through it should could hardly contain her emotions.  She had called a friend in tears telling her friend how great it was to hear positive feedback on her teaching.

Now, I have to be honest. I was truly confused. Tears?  I thought back to what I’d written. “Teacher circulates the room to check for understanding . . . Teacher calls on students randomly . . . Students are engaged and on task.”  Surely these comments did not evoke such emotion.

But then she went on. “All these years I have been teaching, and I’ve never known if I was a good teacher or not.  This is the first time I have really gotten feedback that the things I am doing in my classroom are working. Now I think I’m brave enough to have you come observe where I really need help:  sixth period. I just don’t know how to get them under control at all.”

Then it hit me. Teaching can be such an isolating job.  We close the doors to our classrooms and hope that we are doing the right thing, but rarely does anybody give us concrete feedback and a much needed pat on the back.  It doesn’t take much to fill a teacher’s cup. A simple “Yup- that’s exactly how you do it. Great job!” can move mountains.  Some of the most profound things we do as coaches can appear to be a hoop at first glance.

I think differently now about those “hoops” we sometimes jump through.  They are not hoops at all really, but investments in teachers. While a routine observation may not drastically change instruction, it may instill in teachers feelings of confidence and validation.  And teachers who feel acknowledged for the great things they do also feel empowered to do more.

Combating Culture

I am not a patient person.  The hardest part of my job is walking into a building where the whole system is broken. I liken it to looking at a student’s piece of writing that is a hot mess and then trying to conference with him about it.  Where in the world do you start? You can’t even read the writing, and what you can read doesn’t make any sense. There is no organizational structure, and no evidence of a grasp on punctuation or grammar. As a teacher you know that you have so much work to do, and you know the work will be daunting.  And, to add insult to injury this student really isn’t interested AT ALL in improving.

Schools are systems, and in systems we often sink or swim together. This year one of the schools I have been working with appears to be sinking.  And, I don’t even know where to start. It feels as though I am standing at the base of a giant mountain with a chisel and am banging away at it the best I can, but every time I look up that giant mountain remains.  In the same way, a school’s culture can be monumental to overcome. And, while I know that it is not technically my duty to change the system, I think most coaches are probably hired in the first place because they feel a tremendous moral obligation to make a real difference in whatever they do.

So, here I am, an impatient idealist, standing at the base of this mountain with a chisel feeling completely overwhelmed and frustrated.  When there is a general culture of low expectations for student behavior and academics, I feel a sense of urgency to do something NOW to help.  As a coach though, I only have a chisel. The principal may have better tools, but that doesn’t mean he sees . . . or wants to acknowledge, the mountain in front of him.  So, every day I take my little chisel to with me, and with a forced smile start to chip away. For the most part, I just go home exhausted. But, every now and then a whole chunk falls off that mountain, and for a moment the task doesn’t seem so insurmountable.  

The Power of Failure

As a former elementary classroom teacher, the idea of modeling instructional strategies in middle school classrooms scared the bejesus out of me. And now here I was tasked with modeling in the class from “Dangerous Minds.”  When I had last set foot in this seventh grade classroom for an observation I nearly had to dodge a punch as I walked in the door. I’m exaggerating, of course, but in all honesty I thought I was being “punked” – that someone had set this up as joke, maybe as an initiation into coaching.

Students were shouting out disrespectful comments toward their peers as well as their teacher.  They were throwing things at each other, passing notes, and basically doing anything and everything except learning.  I kept waiting for the teacher or students to point at me and say, “Gotcha!” and then go back to working diligently on their assignment.  But that never happened. This was in fact the class from hell.

So, when I was asked to model a lesson for this teacher I wondered if I would come out of it alive.  Needless to say, I bombed the lesson. In all fairness I “managed” the class as well as I could. They were respectful . . . enough. But, there was no glory on my part.  I did not walk into that class and “show the teacher how it was done.” Coaches are not without egos. In truthfulness, we like to think that we know what we are doing and are pretty damn good at it.  So, when our modeled lessons turn into disasters, we can taste our pride as it slips down our throats.

As I left the classroom the teacher looked at me curiously and said, “Thanks?”  “Great -” I thought. “My first chance to prove to these middle school teachers that it wouldn’t be a worthless endeavor to work with me, and I ruined it.”  To make matters worse, I had to model for this same teacher the very next day.

I couldn’t sleep that night.  Finally I resigned to simply do the best I could, and to use my failure to inspire reflection on my practice, just as I ask teachers to do.  I had gotten so caught up in needing to appear “an expert” to the teachers for whom I was modeling that I had neglected to think about the students. What was it they needed?

The next day I went in vulnerable but with nothing to lose.  I took off the “expert” hat and was simply myself. As a classroom teacher I was always pretty laid back, and if I must admit it, pretty darn funny.  The students responded so much better to me than they did the “expert” that was in their room the previous day, and the results were miraculous. I didn’t want to leave when the lesson was over, and neither did the students.  They did FANTASTIC, and the lesson was a success. As I walked out the door the teacher was glowing and called down the hall to me, “That was amazing!”

I cannot decide which was more valuable: failing in front of that teacher, or successfully modeling in her classroom.  I think it is crucial that we as coaches do not get hung up on being the experts. First of all, we aren’t. And second of all, students and teachers alike don’t need experts. They need people who are willing to be vulnerable and real because learning from our failures is as necessary to teaching and learning as success is.

 

 

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