In my last post, I talked about “seasons” of the school year and how coaches can adapt their coaching to help teachers through each one. I mentioned that November is a time when you see teachers hit the first wall of frustration, doubt, and uncertainty. It is a tough time. BUT...it is an amazing thing when you can see those same teachers break through those walls like the Kool-Aid man used to do in those commercials you’d watch on Saturday morning. That’s what I’ve gotten to experience the last 2 weeks-walls being demolished-by amazing, brave teachers willing to overcome their fears and try.
Since Thanksgiving break, I have seen intermediate and middle school teachers willing and wanting and attempting to do guided reading. I’ve seen high school teachers excited about getting books for their classroom libraries. I’ve seen teachers using anchor charts and language frames like they had been using them for years. I’ve talked to teams who said planning had become easier and more focused, and I’ve visited classrooms where the STUDENTS are the ones doing most of the work! I’ve also heard teachers questioning and evaluating their resources with more thought, and I’ve seen way less test prep materials being used. These things are happening because teachers decided to try something different. Without knowing exactly how. Without being completely comfortable. Without even fully understanding what some of the practices or tools were. And that is brave!
My first 2 blog posts ever were based around two books that have continued to influence my life and approach to coaching: Ish, by Peter Reynolds and Walk Through Walls by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Ish reminds me that perfection is not the goal. When a teacher is trying something new, look at it through the “ish” lens. It may not be a perfect guided reading lesson, but is it guided reading-ish? After all, it’s only December. If it’s “ish”, then we can be pretty proud of that. “Ish” takes effort. Walk through Walls reminds me that it is the ideas you are most afraid of trying are the exact ones you should. So, even though it may seem second nature to you to use read alouds as a practice...to high school teachers, it may be a completely foreign concept. But if they attempt it...good for them! They’ve broken through a wall. That is brave.
For the coaches out there...as the holiday break is approaching, look for places where you can see cracks in the walls and acknowledge teachers’ attempts at knocking down walls. Sometimes just a word of “I can tell you are trying to_____” is all that is needed to help them bust through the first brick. Help the teachers who are busting through to see how many bricks they have already knocked down. For others, help pull them out of the rubble...after all, busting down walls is messy, and it usually requires a team effort.
So, to all of the wrecking ball teachers and coaches out there….have a wonderful holiday break, and I can’t wait to see what walls get busted down next year!
Thursday, November 9, 2017
Fall is my absolute favorite time of year. I especially love November when the Texas weather FINALLY decides to give at least a few days of chilly air and allow me to pull out my boots and sweaters (which I have way more than anyone living in Texas will ever need in a lifetime!). Fall also signals the time of year where I put on a different type of coaching hat. Through the years, I have found certain patterns that occur over the school year. Just as the weather changes with the seasons, the mood and stress levels of teachers and campuses change throughout “seasons” of the year requiring me to adapt my coaching style and skills. From September-May, here are some ways to prepare for the changes during the year:
September-October: The honeymoon.
This is the start of the new year, and teachers are trying new things. There is a sense of hope. Coaching during this season focuses on relationship building, getting to know the students, training, and introducing support for new initiatives. This is the time of year to get flexibly organized. Observe in classrooms to get a feel for each teacher’s style and the conditions that they are working in. Take inventory of what resources are available or needed. Build relationships by finding resources, planning, and being present on a routine basis.
November is a doozy. This is the point of the year when teachers generally hit the first wall and start getting tired or burned out. At this point, they know the students, several assessments have been done, and there is a sense of “Really? They’re still not getting it!” This is also the case for coaches. November is when I hit a wall, too. Teachers that you have been trying to win over are still guarded, some are implementing suggestions, others are struggling to understand why you are even there. It is a frustrating month. Holiday breaks are around the corner, benchmarks are approaching, and there is still tons of work to do. This is the month where I find it helpful to start developing detailed coaching plans. Now that you have had a chance to work with the teachers, what are some areas that need support? Start setting coaching targets or learning goals and work backward to develop actions to help teachers improve practice. What would you see in the classroom if teachers were successfully implementing ____? Break the actions into steps that can be practiced and that improvement can be seen in 1-2 weeks. A plan helps by putting some action to the fears.
January-February: The big panic.
Once the holiday break is over, the stress really starts to set in. I have deemed February the “month of tears” because this is when so many teachers start to seriously panic about getting their students ready for testing in April and May. Semester exams and benchmarks usually happen around this time, and the panic begins in full force. This is also a time of year when teachers are put on growth plans and administrators are under a great deal of pressure after a semester of data collection. This is when I put on my “cheerleader” coaching hat. Honestly, at this point, you’ve worked with them on content. You have developed and continue to work on the coaching plan. The teachers who were resistant at first either truly hate your guts now or have resigned themselves to the fact that they can’t get rid of you. Regardless of all of that, they need someone to be their voice of support in this time. They need someone to focus on what they are improving in and doing RIGHT. Administrators, too. They need someone to help them see the growth that has occurred-even the small amounts. They all need someone to help them see beyond numbers to the bigger picture. Help them see the data that is not collected from paper/pencil tests, and listen to them. This is always a hard time of year for me because we, as coaches, need support too, but we often don’t have a team to work with. Make time for yourself during this time. Take care of yourself, and find someone outside of school to vent to.
March-April: Crunch time.
This is the time of year leading up to state testing, and there is a sense of just work, work, work. I have to put on my “practical partner” hat in this season. I am not a test prep proponent...AT ALL... until this time of year. If teachers have been employing good practices and have been teaching with authentic texts and methods, then this IS the time to show students how to transfer that learning to test-taking. Not every day, all day, but it does need to be built in on a routine basis. Testing is a genre and needs to be taught as such. There are features of a test that are not seen in other types of text. There are navigation requirements that are necessary to understand a test that are not needed for other types of text. If the students have been learning true reading strategies up to this point, then it will be easy to transfer those to how to read a test. If they have been learning test-taking strategies disguised as reading strategies, then you will hit a wall during this season. The students who have been struggling will continue to struggle because knowing the tricks for taking a test don’t matter unless you can actually read and understand using real reading strategies. As a coach, this is when I become a teaching partner. I may work with students or help develop small group or tutoring lessons based on skills using best practices.
May-June: Reflect & Wrap-Up.
Oh, how I love May. After all the stress, the tests finally get taken, and the end is near. There is a ton of activity with awards ceremonies, field days, field trips, special presentations, etc. This is the best time of year to reflect on your coaching and with teachers. One thing I do is keep a summary of my coaching visits for each campus I work with throughout the year. It is just a narrative that reminds me what I did and any patterns, observations, or ideas I noted. I date each entry and refer to it as I move along with the coaching plans. I always try to include a “next steps” statement to keep me on track. At the end of the year, I can look back over the narrative and see the progress of the coaching. Sometimes, I find that I got off track at certain points or that things took a different turn than I was expecting, but it helps to reflect on what I can change or even what areas of support/training might be needed for the future.
As we enter this fall season of the school year, I hope this helps in thinking about how we may adapt our teaching and coaching styles to meet the needs of the teachers and students we support. I would love to hear how your coaching changes through the year!
Thursday, October 12, 2017
The term teacher has taken on many variations over the years. The term I hear most right now is “learning designer”. I like that. I mean, I wanted to be fashion designer for most of my life. So, as a traveling education coach to learning designers, I have found the best coaching advice from the one and only Tim Gunn. While I read a lot of books to hone my coaching skills, I learn most of the best stuff from my favorite place: Project Runway. Tim Gunn is basically my coaching guru. I just finished watching the Project Runway rewind episode of the best Tim Gunn moments, and I was reminded of all the things I’ve learned from this designing Yoda. So, here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from Tim Gunn:
- Tell the truth. The best way to build trust is to be truthful-even when it’s hard. Give people credit. They know when you are sugarcoating. Find the seeds of great, but weed the plant. Otherwise, it will choke. I think this is the hardest part of coaching. You want teachers to like you. I’ve learned that it’s not as important that they like me as it is that they trust me. That comes with truth.
- Believe in people. 99% of the time people are trying to do what they think is right. Sometimes they have a bad day or are influenced by things that lead them astray, but rarely are they intentionally trying to do something the wrong way. They may not know another way. Believe that they want to do what is good and help them do it ...in their way.
- See the person. Tim Gunn works with designers, but he sees them as individuals. His conversations and critiques address that person as an individual. Sometimes he consoles, sometimes he laughs with them, sometimes he celebrates. When a teacher that you are observing tells you her mother is in the hospital and she’s waiting to get a text to find out what’s wrong, put your notebook down and ask her what’s going on. Let’s face it. We all have lives outside of that classroom. There are deaths, sicknesses, divorces, marriages, babies, and just plain life that happens 24 hours a day. Sometimes you have to put away the notes, data, lesson plans and just listen or hug or hear.
- Let it go. If you give a harsh critique, you’re not going to be liked...for a minute. Let it go. Tim is the mentor because he knows his stuff and he knows how to help people grow. You don’t see him question himself after he’s given someone a hard critique. He lets them soak it in. He knows they know he cares about them. He walks out and comes back the next day like it is what it is...a new day.
- Use your save. I love that Project Runway enacted the Tim Gunn Save a few years ago. Sometimes, it is needed. There are those times when the judges don’t see the things that he sees. That save has gotten some designers to fashion week! (childhood dream...seriously...moment of silence) Sometimes, that is what a teacher needs. As a coach, I am often a bridge between teachers and admin. There are times when teachers need a Tim Gunn save. I see things or get to see the thinking behind decisions that admin don’t see. The fact that I don’t have admin training has been incredibly beneficial as a coach. I can look at things from a different perspective. At times, I have had to go to bat for someone. I’m okay with that. Sometimes, they deserve fashion week.
Teaching is hard. Coaching is hard. We all need somebody to be on our side. If you are a coach, I can recommend plenty of books that will serve you well, but you might start by simply watching Project Runway! After all, aren’t we all learning designers?
Friday, September 22, 2017
For the past few weeks, I haven’t blogged because I’ve been spending time in districts with some amazing teachers who are kicking off the start of the school year in various ways with varying amounts of stress. It has been a joy to see some teachers learn to LOVE teaching again. I am a firm believer that many teachers have been pressured to compromise what they know to be good teaching in efforts to get their students to pass a test. In the past few weeks, though, I have gotten to work with some teachers who have decided to do it differently...and are seeing awesome results. Kids are reading more than ever before. One teacher was so excited that her students were talking to her about the books they were reading without her having to even ask. I have watched skeptics turn to believers (but, but what if they choose a book that is not on their level?...to Wow! They are READING!) and encountered countless numbers of brave teachers who are willing to unlearn some habits in an effort to give their students a voice in the classroom. That is always an encouragement! But yesterday, as I was on one campus, a fifth-grade teacher told me he wanted me to come to his classroom so he could show me what they were doing. I couldn’t wait. Number one...he was pumped. You could tell this guy loved teaching.
I walked with him down to his room where he told me what a different year he was having. “What’s different?” I asked. He said that in the past, he thought he had to be “the teacher”...kind of buttoned up and disciplinarian-ish, and he had always struggled. He said that he just decided that this year, he was going to be himself. His goofy-socks wearing, eclectic self. He also said he made a list of all the things he hated about school when he was there, and made the decision to not do those things. So, what happens in his classroom? Well, he said he knew he met his goal of collecting books for his classroom library when another teacher came in his room and said, “You finally did it...your room smells like a library.”
His kids read….a lot. And they talk about their reading. He told me about an email he got from a parent thanking him for whatever he was doing that turned her kid who hated reading into a boy who won’t put his book down to watch a baseball game. He showed me his system for taking informal notes when he meets with his students for reading or writing conferences and showed me the tabbed pages from The Book Whisperer (which he read recently) that gave him the idea that he adapted. I wanted to be in his class. To think this teacher...who has found a Twitter PLN to share ideas, who has created booktalks that authors have posted on their webpages, who doesn’t even need a discipline system because he knows his students as people...this teacher had been struggling in the past seemed inconceivable.
The best part of my conversation with him was when I asked him, “So, is teaching more fun this year?”....He said, “Oh...absolutely. My wife said I seemed so much less stressed. My planning is easier...it’s great.” YES! Because the kids are doing the work! And trust me...based on the evidence (anchor charts, reading/writing notebook entries, conference notes, etc.)...they are working! And thinking! When I said, “Man, I can’t wait to see your scores this year,” he just said…”Oh I’m not worried at all.”
Neither am I.
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
For many teachers and students, this month marked new beginnings- new year, new students, new classrooms, new schools. It is one of my favorite times of year because there is so much hope and energy at the start of the year. We plan, we decorate, we meet the teacher. Then...life happens. And everything changes. In an instant. This week, life happened hard, for a lot of people.
For Houston and surrounding areas, life happened in the form of crazy amounts of water rising up and taking away cherished possessions, homes, and in many cases, life as they know it. Our fellow Texans will be recovering for weeks and years, and the children and teachers will eventually go back to school. When they do, school will be different. It won’t be as big of a deal if homework is not done or if a reading log didn’t get signed. STAAR will take a backseat to reality...hugs will become much more important, and the need to introduce kids to books they can get lost in will take on new significance.
Perspectives always change when life happens. But, here’s the thing….life happens all the time. The kids in your classroom today have life happening every.single.day. It may not be flood waters, but it’s something. Teachers, too….that teacher that seems resistant to trying something new...guess what? She has life happening to her, too. Let’s face it. Life is capable of pulling some serious punches and kicking us hard in the gut when we least expect it. It hurts. There’s not always a silver lining. Sometimes it’s just crud that we have to trudge through. Sometimes a lot of us have to muddle through the same crud together, and other times, we have to wade those infested waters on our own. For many of our students, school is their place to get supplies so that they can muddle through a little longer. For others, school is, unfortunately, the place where they have to do their hardest fighting.
As the year begins, it is easy to get caught up in the need to jump right into content or find out reading levels or get every kind of data point possible on our students so that we can group and chart and intervene. But...I’ve never seen a test, or curriculum program, or even a leveled book jump into alligator infested waters to save a family, so….they can wait.
I challenge my teacher friends to just take some time as this year begins to get to know your students...and their families. Find out about their Life. What gifts has their Life given? What punches has their Life thrown? Let them in on your Life, too. All the other stuff will be there. Life happens hard-for better or worse. Let your classroom be the better.
Thursday, August 3, 2017
It’s your first year of teaching! Congratulations! As you embark on this journey, let me give you a few words of wisdom...well, not really wisdom...just stuff you learn from teaching:
- You bring a lot to the table. There will be times that you feel (or someone else makes you feel) like your voice doesn’t matter, but trust me, it does! You bring the fresh perspective that we ALL (if we are willing to admit it) need.
- You will want to quit. There WILL be THAT kid that is hard to love, but you will love her anyway. There will be days that you do EVERYTHING wrong. There will be times (day after Halloween, day before Christmas break, Valentine’s Day) that you just throw up your hands and acknowledge you are simply hanging on until 3:30. But there will also be the last day of school when the kid who drove you nuts all year walks across that stage and you start to cry or that day when one of your students READS!
- You will fall in love. With THAT kid. You will fall in love with lots of kids. They do that to you. They drive you crazy and break your heart. Most of them you will never hear from or see again, but they are all worth it. Every bit. Some of them….you will become part of their lives. You will get to know their families (shout out Jimmy’s mom!), and you will have boxes of notes that they wrote to you when they were 6...10...15…Treasure those.
- You will learn more in one year than what you learned in 4...or 5 from college or any alternative certification program. There is nothing that can prepare you for your first year. Really, your first five years. I know that seems like a long time, but it goes by in a flash. Enjoy it. Learn.
- You WILL make us proud. The fact that you CHOSE this profession makes us proud. You have hundreds of thousands of teachers who have your back, so go out there and do your thing. There will be plenty of people who discount your decisions, who try to legislate your classroom (without knowing your students), who try to undermine your expertise...and YES, you DO have expertise. BUT...there will be others who support you, show you possibilities, listen, and make you better. Latch on to those people. They are what you want to be.
WE are glad you are here. Go make a difference.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
This is the time of year when campus and district leaders are gearing up for teachers to come back. There will be weeks filled with convocations, training, celebrations, and looking at data from the previous year. At some point, every teacher will be involved in either setting or hearing what new goals have been set for student success this year. I’m willing to bet a large number of those goals will involve increasing scores on a standardized test by some increment. That’s fine, but I encourage you to aim higher. I don’t mean aim for a higher score...that’s well and good, but I mean to aim for goals that help students rise and succeed above and beyond a test.
Last year, I was introduced to the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. It is a fast-paced read on how to be successful in business by rethinking some of our commonly held beliefs about work. One of the tips that I particularly like is “Be at home good.” The authors talk about the frustration that many of us have felt when we have compared 2 products and finally decided on one but when we get it home, it doesn’t live up to what we were hoping. It is not “at home good.”
In education, if we teach our students skills that help them to pass a test but don’t apply in an authentic context, then we are not being “at home good.” Let’s take vocabulary for example. We know that having a deep vocabulary helps with comprehension and communication. So, how do we learn new words to build our vocabulary? This question can be answered in several ways. Some will be ways that are “on-test good,” and others will be “at home good.” I could take the approach of giving students a list of words every week, having them look them up, write sentences (that generally don’t make sense), and test them on those words on Friday. They might do fine on the test, but they will likely never use those words in speaking, reading, or writing.
Another approach I could take is to teach them to notice and study words. Instead of giving them a list of words, I can have them collect words that they come across when reading...words that are fun, interesting, unfamiliar. We can study how those words are built (affixes, roots, syllables), how they change in different contexts, and how they are used in the texts where they are found. I can create language stems using academic vocabulary for students to articulate their learning. Anytime I ask them to write a response or turn and talk to their neighbor, I can follow the direction with, “...and it should sound like this…” I can then give them a language stem like “One thing that was emphasized by the author was _________. “ or “On page ____, the author says _____ which indicates _____.” By becoming aware of words, noticing how they are built, and providing opportunities (and scaffolds) for orally using new vocabulary, we can build skills that will benefit them far beyond a test.
A good indication of whether what we are teaching is “at home good” is if the students are transferring the skills. Grammar and conventions are great examples. Hours upon hours upon hours of instructional time is spent having students correct error-riddled sentences only to have those same students turn in writing that is full of the exact mistakes they have spent so much time correcting. If we are aiming for 100s on worksheets...then that approach will do it. If you are aiming higher- aiming to be “at home good” - then that approach fails miserably. Instead, we could use mentor texts to help students notice how authors use conventions and WHY they craft sentences in certain ways. Then imitate those authors. Look to writers and teachers like Jeff Anderson and Steve Peha for resources and explanations on how to take more authentic approaches to grammar instruction.
I am a firm believer that there are many ways to get students to pass a test, but not all of them are good for kids. That’s what I mean when I encourage us all to aim higher. Don’t settle for teaching in ways that will just get students to pass a test. As we set goals for the year, look beyond those scores. Consider how you might phrase these statements:
This year, our students will become readers who _______________________.
This year, we will strive to build writers who ___________________________.
This year, we will support our students as they become communicators who _____________.
Then, think...how will you know if you have reached those goals? If you say you want your students to become readers who purposefully choose texts and have the needed tools to navigate and learn from what they read, how will you know if they have become that kind of reader? What would you observe? What would be happening? You won’t be able to tell from just a test.
How would your students complete these statements? It might be interesting to ask them. Those students who have struggled for years may have some surprising statements. It will also give you a way to help them see growth and success beyond a test score. For some students, becoming a reader who has a favorite author might be a huge accomplishment.
So, as you reflect on how relevant (or “at home good”) your current literacy instruction is, consider these questions:
- What are your students' attitudes toward reading and writing?
- Where outside of the classroom or school setting will students use what they are learning?
- How do your teachers explain specific content skills?
- What materials do your teachers use to teach specific content?
- What do students say is the purpose for reading and writing?
Aim high. Then dare to aim higher. Your kids deserve it...and society needs it. Shoot for the moon and lead the way.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
When someone asks you what you teach, how do you answer? Do you say a grade level, a subject? Most of us do. We consider ourselves reading teachers or writing teachers or first grade teachers or high school teachers. The thing is reading, writing, first grade, and high school are things. They don’t need to be taught anything. ReadERS, writERS, first gradERS, and high schoolERS are people, and they do need to be taught. Reading and writing are tools that help people to become literate. Yes, as teachers and administrators, we need to know the tools that are most helpful, but we have to teach those tools with the user in mind. Even more, we have to help our students develop their own tools, and we can only do that by focusing on them. So, here are some ways that we can shift our focus:
- Prioritize choice...it DOES matter...A LOT.
We hear buzzwords all the time in education. Rigor, engagement, student-centered learning, etc. We hear them so much that they start to lose their impact. We become desensitized and don’t really think about what it means. In the past few years, “student voice and choice” has been the phrase that I have heard more than any other. There’s good reason for that. It matters! Motivation is a crucial factor in student learning, and being heard is a fundamental need in humans. Part of being a reader and writer is making choices about what to read and write. When we limit students to only reading novels or “real books”, we discount the value of magazines, graphic novels, and media. When we tell students that they can only read books on a certain level, we discount what research has said for years about the impact of interests on reading ability. In fact, a student who is interested in a particular topic, author, series, can often read more difficult text than what a readability test may show him to be capable of comprehending. It goes the other way, too. When we are disinterested or lack of background in a topic, we tend to have more difficulty reading it.
Our choices reflect our interests, so they essentially reflect us. When students choices in reading are valued, it sends the message that THEY are valued. The thing is, choosing what interests them may not come naturally to many students. They’ve likely never been given the opportunity. We have to teach them how to make choices about books. We have to teach them how to determine if a book might interest them, where to find the types of reading materials that they enjoy, how to build reading interests. The same goes for writing. We show students how authors work, then help them to make choices about how to get started, what to consider when making decisions about organization, word choice, etc. We don’t dictate a process; rather, we show them tools and help them develop their own process through making choices.
- Emphasize authentic purposes for reading and writing.
I once asked a fourth grader that I was tutoring, “Why do we read.” She said, “to answer questions.” My heart broke, then I got very angry, then I changed the way I approached teaching. That is NOT why we read. And we don’t write for a test. Those are both ways in which we may apply our reading and writing skills, but they are not the REASON(s) we read and write. As teachers of readers and writers, we have to model for our students what it is to be a reader and writer. That means...we have to read and write! Seriously. I’m not saying you have to have a novel on every nightstand or write creative stories every day….I mean we have to be people that can’t do life without reading and writing. We bring those experiences into our classrooms. When I am helping students to decide how to make a plan for reading, it is much more impactful when I can bring books from home that I am currently reading (or show my shelfie) and walk them through how I make decisions about when to read, where to read, how much time to give myself, and so on. When I can show students my blog or my notebook where I keep gems that I’ve highlighted from books or articles, it makes a difference. They see that this is not just something that they are learning in class, but that reading and writing are tools for thinking in all aspects of life.
- Shift from teaching to learning.
Years ago, I was watching Dr. Phil, and I remember him saying (imagine his Texas twang here) that every time we do something for a child that they COULD do themselves, we are indirectly telling them that we don’t think they are smart enough or capable of doing it on their own. At the time, I taught first grade, and I remember making a conscious decision to trust my students and let them learn. It wasn’t my job to do everything for them. It was my job to help them become learners. Far too often, we still do all the heavy lifting for our students. When it is time to read a text, we have already previewed it, picked out words that might be difficult, determined what background knowledge the students may need, and have put together an extensive lesson plan for helping them know the words and build their background. And we’ve done it all with the best of intentions. What do they learn from this, though? We’ve already made all of the planning decisions for them. What if we shifted from...
- “This book is about….” to…..”Let me show you how readers determine what a book is about…”
- “You need to pick books on ____ level…” to…”Let me show you how readers make decisions about what books to read”
- “Stop after each paragraph and write a summary…” to “Let me show you how readers decide when to stop and capture their thinking...:”
- “You need to read ___ number of books”...Let me show you how to think about and set reading goals…”
- “Write about ______” to “Let’s look at how some writers get ideas”
Do you see the difference? There is a shift in focus and the change in the role of the teacher in these lessons. The focus is not on the books or the level or the particular way of annotating. The focus is on the readER and writER and how to help them become independent.
So, as you reflect on where the focus is in your own classroom or school, here are some questions to consider:
- What are students interested in?
- When do they choose what they read and write?
- What do they say is the reason for reading and writing?
- How do your teachers describe their role?
- How many questions do students ask?
Thanks again for taking time to stop by and read part 4. We’ll meet again soon for part 5!
Monday, July 10, 2017
What has become increasingly clear through research that probes more deeply into the inner workings of effective classrooms is that the teacher is the crucial factor in the classroom. In fact, study after study points to teacher expertise as the critical variable in effective reading instruction.
Gambrell, L. B., & Morrow, L. M. (2011). Best practices in literacy instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Welcome back to part 3 of 5 in this series! As we continue to look at literacy leadership, I want to focus, this time, on how leaders can help to ensure that every child has a great teacher every year. Ultimately, that is the crux of it all. Teachers matter. A lot. Again...it’s not just me saying this. Research, including the quote above from Best Practices in Literacy Instruction, has shown this time and again with studies on how student achievement increases dramatically when they are in classrooms with great teachers. There is, quite frankly, no substitute for a good teacher.
Recently, I watched the movie Hidden Figures about mathematician Katherine Johnson and the other African-American women who were so critical in helping the American space program succeed. In the movie, there is a point where John Glenn is about to launch into orbit, but the new IBM computer that NASA purchased was giving numbers that didn’t match what everyone was expecting. At one point, John Glenn says, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” He also says that it’s hard for him to trust something that he can’t look in the eye. That is the trust our teachers need to be given, too.
In teaching, there are new computerized assessment programs, scripted instructional programs, and all manner of gadgets that we depend on to give us numbers on students or create profiles of students or to make decisions about students. The problem with that is that students are PEOPLE. When there is a people variable involved, then people have to be part of the equation. I can get a computer printout that shows a student is reading on beginner level and is considered to need tier 3 level of interventions (side note: tiers describe interventions….NOT students...soapbox for another day); however, is the computer able to consider that the student was up all night because his family got evicted from their apartment? No. A teacher can take that into consideration, though.
We simply can’t deny, minimize, or try to replace the impact of a teacher who can make good instructional decisions. In order to do that, though, teachers must have the tools, training, and practice in the thinking required for the level of instructional problem-solving that will have a lasting impact on students. So, here are three tips for building teachers capacity and expertise:
- Make time for learning.
- Lead the way.
- Coach them to their best.
Make time for learning.
If you are an educator, you are a learner. We would never expect a doctor to leave medical school and never learn anything new in the field. They would be irrelevant in months. The same is true for us. Learning has to be a priority. Campus and district leaders have a huge impact on whether learning is valued. It seems odd to think that learning might not be valued on a campus, but it happens more than we would like to admit. Numbers are valued, data is valued, growth plans, compliance, and engagement may be valued, but is learning? For teachers?
I’m not asking if there is a designated “PLC” time. More often than not, those are just meetings. Lesson plans are done, data is reviewed, frustrations are vented. That is necessary, I understand, but I’m talking about time dedicated to learning something new. PLCs are a fantastic vehicle for the kind of learning that I’m proposing IF they are intentionally planned and structured. I have had great success with PLCs in the past, but it takes a commitment to stay the course and some serious planning upfront.
Aside from PLCs, though, principals and leaders can use staff meetings, book studies, Google Classroom, school Twitter hashtags, blogs, learning portfolios, article studies, Pinterest, and so many other tools to promote and encourage learning. Focus on one or two initiatives or let teachers design their own learning networks. Provide designated times for groups to meet and various ways for teachers to share learning. Then, stick with it. Don’t let those learning times be usurped or pushed aside for more “important” things. Follow up on learning. Expect high levels of learning...students deserve it.
Lead the Way
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway)...we lead by example, not words. We can talk about the importance of learning all day, but if I, as a leader, designate a time for PLCs then go to my office to finish work while they are going on….I’m not leading by example. I know that administrators have insanely stressful and busy jobs. I don’t want to discount that at all. Time is precious...and so are students.
One of the leaders that I most respect in this world and had the opportunity to learn from for many years once said that time is not the constant variable that everything else revolves around. I remember her talking to a group of district administrators and saying that students are the constant. Everything else must revolve around them...even time. That stuck with me through the years.
Time is malleable. Use it for things that matter. Be the lead learner. What are you reading? What are you blogging about? What Twitter chats are you involved in? What new tools have you been playing with? These are not things to just do on the side or when you have time. When teachers have administrators who talk about things they are learning, who try out lessons in classrooms, who write as a way to express learning….it makes a difference. It implies an expectation for learning without having to have a stated learning policy. It just becomes part of the school culture. If you want your school to be a place of learning, start learning.
Coach them to their best.
Coaching is a realm of professional development that is growing tremendously in education and other arenas. Why? Coaching truly offers the “in the moment”, job-embedded, personalized learning that helps us recognize factors that affect our decisions and helps us to develop tools for making better ones. Watch any NFL game on a Sunday, and you will see coaches for various players and groups of players. You have defensive line coaches, quarterback coaches, receiving coaches. They work with the players before, during, and after the game. They show them things to tweak in the moment and help them to reflect and refine their talent at every point along the way. Educators need the same thing. Our game is constantly changing.
Many schools and districts have instructional coaches, but there are still far too many that don’t. In those that do, it is often someone who was appointed to the position because he was an exemplary classroom teacher, and it is assumed that he would be a great coach. That can certainly be true, but coaching requires a completely different skill set. Being a great classroom teacher does not mean you will be a great coach. In many cases, these coaches are set up for failure because they receive little training, if any at all, on coaching skills. The same is true for administrators. With new appraisal guidelines and the emphasis on growth, it is imperative that administrators are also skilled coaches. That is not usually emphasized in administrative leadership programs or in subsequent training they receive. It may be necessary for administrators to get coaching in order to hone their skills, as well. Imagine the impact that would have on teachers’ willingness to receive feedback!
As you reflect on how you might prioritize learning on your campus or in your district, consider the following questions:
- When do teachers learn? How do they share their learning?
- What am I reading/studying?
- What are the teachers reading/studying? What are you reading/studying?
- What topics and types of training have been prioritized?
- What do staff meetings/PLCs look like?
- Who are the literacy leaders on campus?
I hope this was helpful, and I would love to hear ways that you are seeking to develop your craft or ways that you are encouraging learning on your campus or in your district.
See you next time for part 4!