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.

 

 

Five Ways to Impact School Culture Regardless of Your Title

Leadership has much more to do with one’s influence than one’s title. Too often we wait for someone with a certain job description to “fix” a seemingly broken culture, and while it is certainly frustrating when the one tasked with leading doesn’t rise to that occasion, we have a moral imperative to step up to the plate to make our schools places where humans grow and thrive because our students and those who work on students’ behalf deserve it.  If we all take responsibility for influencing school culture, how can we best leverage our influence?

 

  1. Assume best intent.

 

Probably the most impactful shift we can make is to establish a norm of assuming best intent. Think back to a time when your supervisor assumed the worst about a situation in which you were involved or oversaw.  Maybe he or she assumed you were not working hard enough or did not care enough, but in reality you didn’t have all the necessary information to complete the job effectively or efficiently.

Did his/her assumption of worst intent motivate you? Did it make you want to go above and beyond? Probably not. Oftentimes assuming the worst actually has the opposite effect. While it might intimidate people into compliance, if they’re already doing the best they can with what they know, that won’t make much of a difference. In the end, they’ll just hide their inadequacies from you or avoid taking risks out of fear that they will disappoint again. On the other hand, when people assume the best in others, we’re given the benefit of the doubt, and that trust in us empowers us to take risks, use our creativity, think outside the box, and dive into finding solutions for complex problems.

 

2. Surround yourself with greatness.

 

You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Research has demonstrated time and again that people are generally unaware of the social influences that surround them and how those influences impact their day-to-day thoughts. And, because our thoughts usually manifest our actions, it is safe to say that the thoughts of those with whom we spend our time strongly impact OUR impact..

So, if you’re hanging around the water cooler with that guy who’s constantly complaining about everything and everyone, chances are you are, in turn, going to start feeling more exhausted, more hopeless, and more easily frustrated … by the very same events or situations that you’d otherwise likely tackle with a positive attitude. On the flip side, if you hang out with people who inspire you, challenge your thinking, are solutions oriented, and laugh frequently, your engagement and performance at work will likely improve.

 

3. Elicit feedback from those you trust.

 

Self awareness is perhaps the most important leadership strategy one can implement … and it’s possibly the hardest as well. One of the reasons people struggle to identify the areas in which they can/should improve is because our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses. For example, my strength is that I’m a global thinker and an ideas generator. At face value, these are good things, but, there is a shadow side to every asset.

The shadow side to being a big-picture person is that I get bored by and bogged down with the day-to-day details that bring that big picture to life. The shadow side to ideation is that I am unafraid of change and maybe even sometimes instigate change for change’s sake. This can be off-putting to others–especially the 99% of people for whom change is scary and something to be avoided.

However, with awareness of my shortcomings, I can work on and improve upon my blind spots. This awareness, though, usually needs to be purposefully cultivated. It is not innate. I am lucky to have amazing coworkers who double as best friends. Because we trust each other and are willing to be vulnerable with each other, we often ask for brutally honest feedback from one another–feedback that, in the end, will only serve to make us better, stronger, and intentionally growing.

 

4. Know your sphere of influence.

 

Oftentimes we think we need to rise to a traditional position of power to have influence on the vision, the culture, the policies, or the practices. That is far from true. One of the biggest misconceptions about leadership is it must be top down. Ideally, people in positions of power would also be amazing leaders, but even when they are, leadership cannot be unilateral.

“Leading up” and “leading across” are just as important as “leading down.” There is nothing more disheartening than when an amazing classroom leader does not exhibit those same leadership qualities they have with their students when it comes to leading their peers or superiors.

I think people greatly underestimate the power of leading those in their sphere of influence. Frustrated by your boss? Instead of complaining, how could you lead him or her to see things differently. Frustrated by your peers? Rather than complaining about their efforts, have you considered inspiring them (as you would surely do with struggling students)? It’s not condescending; it’s proactive. We can choose to be victims of the system, or we can choose to influence the system. It’s really that simple.

 

5. Make your WHY transparent.

 

The hardest thing to overcome when changing a culture is a broken why. An example of a “broken why” in the field of education is someone who wants results on paper at the expense of real results for students, i.e, they’re willing to go to great efforts to increase test scores even if those efforts don’t, in the end, produce more driven, accomplished, engaged students.

The good news is that most people who have daily contact with students have a very intact why. It’s rare that someone who works in schools doesn’t want best for the students he/she serves. Most of the conflict I’ve observed in schools is a result of one person not fully understanding the other person’s intent. Rarely would we argue about policy or practice if we thought the person who was behind that policy or practice truly wanted what was best for students. We get in trouble, though, when we don’t bring that why to the table and surface it for all to see. The most important advice to remember when trying to impact change is to lead with your why. Always.

The Power of Labels

 

I think my mother has only lied once in her life, and that lie proved to be life changing. You see, when my mother was a child, her life was less than ideal. Having to change her last name five times in elementary school due to the five new “fathers” who came into her life was just the tip of the iceberg. Home was a place of fear and survival—a place where “I love you” was only heard if it was coming from the TV set. I’m sure even as her daughter, I only know the bits and pieces of her life that my mom thought I could handle.

For my mom, school was a dream world. When she walked in the doors to her school, no one knew that Vicki came from a scary world—a world she was ashamed of and felt deep down she was better than. And, that is why she told her lie. Quite innocently, and without foresight about the weight her lie held, my mom told her teachers that her real name was Victoria (which it wasn’t)…because Victoria was a queen. Nothing could be further from my mother’s reality than the life of a queen. So, at school my mother was “Victoria”, and the teachers took the bait.

She acted the part. She was prim and proper, completed all of her work, and the label stuck. Basking in the joys of the imaginary world she created and addicted to the stability and pride she felt, she kept up the charade—always keeping her dark reality a secret, even to her best friends. But slowly, what started as a lie became her new identity, and she graduated at the top of her class. And, although she now goes by Vicki, she continues to carry herself as a “Victoria” in all she does.

She was “that mom.” You know the one—the mom who looks at you sideways when you bring home an A- suggesting, “YOUR best is better.” Her high expectations never wavered, and the only thing that trumped her expectations was her obsessive and unwavering love for her family. My mom’s new label was so powerful and believable that she went on to create her own business, one that, like my mom, broke the mold in its industry. Some might even say that it has allowed her to live the life of a queen.

When I was a teenager, I overheard a conversation between my mom and a friend of hers that has never left me. Her friend muttered something about how “all kids experiment with alcohol or drugs at some point.” My mom, usually diplomatic, responded with assertion: “What an insult to our children,” she began. “To assume our children are not smart enough or capable enough or strong enough to make good choices is simply dooming them to fail. Our children most certainly can choose the life they want, and as the people who are supposed to love them the most in this world, it is our duty to EXPECT that they do.”

That conversation resonated with me. As an educator, I am profoundly aware of the role that labels and expectations play in my students’ education. A few years ago I was having a conversation with a coworker of mine about one of the students for whom I was concerned. I was looping with some students and was attempting to make an excuse as to why I would need to modify some of the expectations for a particular boy who not only lacked parent support but also often did not have a bed to sleep in at night. My teammate called me out. He said, “For that student in particular, it is even more important that your expectations do not waver.”

He was right. We get connected, know how hard life is for some of our students, and feel it is our job to lighten the load. But, in doing are we not setting them up for failure? Sometimes as teachers we allow labels to serve as excuses for what seems insurmountable. It isn’t that that challenging student of mine is incapable of learning the soft skills that least to success or mastering the content, but rather it is just so overwhelming and plain old HARD for me to help him reach that goal, especially with everything else this profession piles on our plates. But good teaching IS hard.

It is all too easy to succumb to labels. If a child is an English learner or in special education, we may tell ourselves that she is being serviced by a pull out program (someone else—the system—is taking care of it) to justify our inaction in the daunting task of helping her succeed. If a child has a bad attitude about school and seems apathetic, it is easy to say to ourselves, “Well, no wonder. Look at his family life.  He was doomed from the beginning…Poor guy.” We pity these students for one reason alone: because it is easier to pity their reality than to change their fate.

But, just like my mother said, when we spend more time feeling bad for students and justifying their lack of progress than helping them to create a new path, we are insulting them. We are essentially saying to students as young as six and seven, “Bummer. You have been dealt a hard hand…so hard, in fact, that the thought of how to help you overcome it is so overwhelming that I don’t know where to start. Thank God you are labeled “attention deficit,” or “emotionally disturbed,” or (fill in the blank) because if you weren’t, I would feel too much responsibility for your education. Thank God my mom was such a good liar.

Labels are so powerful. Everywhere in society we can see the benefits as well as the repercussions of labels (both low and lofty) that have been fulfilled. BUT, it is in our hands to create them. Not only is it in our hands, but it is also our responsibility. If we don’t take on that responsibility then we are insulting every student who walks through our doors.  How often do our actions and words brand our students? How often do they create writers, scientists, drug users, or drop-outs? How many of our students walk through our doors as Vickis wishing they were Victorias?

It is my belief that good teachers lie often. They whisper to students, “You are brilliant….” “There is something so special about you…” “You are one of my favorite students of all time.”  Lies, lies, lies… Or are they? After a while, we start believing our own lies. And they do too. For, they are not really lies at all. They are declarations of our students’ true identities. Affirmations that we, as their teachers, can see can see beyond their labels. Invitations and expectations to become the people they wish to be.

Just as my mother, lost and scared, could declare herself a “Victoria,” we too can declare our students scholars before the path unfolds. So, we get in our student’s face—the one society tells us to pity—and demand an explanation for the A- and love him (and “lie” to him) until he gets there. We demand excellence and respect from our emotionally disturbed student—the one who was in foster care after being abandoned by his drug-addicted mother—telling him that we do so because he is different from the people who surround him in his life. He is special, and we are somehow privileged to be let-in on the secret of just how great he is. We hand back papers over and over again with the message, “You can do better. You are destined to be great. I BELIEVE in you.”

And we MUST believe they can do it. We MUST feel responsible to ensure that they do. And the only thing that should trump our expectations is our obsessive and unwavering love for our students. In all aspects of our education system we need to create new labels: for our students, their parents, school staff and administration, our communities, our states, and our country so that  our beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have had some great mentors and teachers who “lied” to me too. With a nod in the direction of my less-than-ideal work and a knowing smile I couldn’t escape, they told me I was great, in spite of the fact that I was struggling, in an effort to bring that potential for greatness forth. I wasn’t sure if it was true, but all of us deep down want to be queens (or kings) just as my mother did. So, I fell for their bait. I believed their words because I so desperately wanted to matter.

Deep down, I think that’s what it all comes down to. We all want to matter: our students, our parents, our teachers, all of us. And, we will live up to that expectation: “talented student,” “supportive parent,” “great administrator,” “teacher leader,” IF it is being offered. What a gift. It makes us feel trusted and capable and willing to give all that we are to this profession and this world. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, we feel empowered…and we have more to offer than we ever knew. A belief in someone doesn’t cost a thing. It is time we start investing.

Changing our students’ fates is no easy task. But, it CAN be done. In this field of work, it is time to start expecting mountains to be moved, by ourselves as well as our students, because if we don’t expect it, who will? My mother moved mountains. It can be done. She told a lie—a lie that revealed the deeper truth of who she really was all along—a person of value. She changed her label. And, that little girl from a scary family has left quite a big footprint on this world. So big, in fact, that I named my daughter after her. Gracie Victoria.