Retraining, Reexamining and Reestablishing


Peaches, lounging in our yard. The small, white flags in the background aid her in learning where the boundaries are.

My husband and I recently adopted Peaches, a 2-year old dog, from a rescue group.  Her story isn’t as sad as some animals that end up losing their home – there was no abuse or abandonment. Nonetheless, transferring her from her interim foster home to her forever home, requires some retraining. The retraining, however, isn’t just on her end; retraining occurs on our end as well.  We have habits that need to be reexamined and we have routines that need to be reestablished.

The biggest challenge we have right now is retraining Peaches on Invisible Fence. A technician was at our home this morning to help us with this, and he said over and over again, it will take a little time, but if you keep at it, she will learn the boundaries and be able to feel comfortable and safe in the yard.  Teaching and learning is much like that – retraining, reexamining, and reestablishing to accommodate others so that everyone can feel comfortable and safe in a classroom.

My intern and I will be meeting our new group of third graders in a few weeks. Third grade is a big year for growing socially and academically. Kids are expected to do more with greater independence.  In order to be independent, we have to figure out how we can establish a classroom learning environment that will support and embrace the challenges that come our way.  This will require us to think about relationships, routines, and boundaries that will be a bit different from they were in years past. Since my school has used a workshop approach K-5 for several years, some routines will be predictable, but with a new math program to implement, math workshop will require us to reexamine our past actions and beliefs and then establish new routines.

I have a vision for how I would like our classroom community to look, sound, and feel, and I am very aware that our students come with ideas of their own. As we get acquainted in our new space, we will work together to establish new relationships, new routines, and new boundaries. Some of this work will be rather easy, but other parts will take more time, care and attention. If we are respectful of where each person is in their learning journey – children as well as adults – I know we will find a way to support each other as we create a nurturing and safe learning environment.  One where we celebrate successes and embrace mistakes as a way to learn more.

Each year, I reflect on what worked well in the past and what I would like to change. In the weeks to come, there will be some missteps and corrections to be made by everyone – that’s just how life is. Classrooms don’t come with small, white flags and beeps to correct us or warn us if we go astray. I believe, though, that if we stay the course and remain patient, respectful and dedicated to each other, we will have a classroom learning environment that is comfortable and safe for all.

What I’ve Learned…

I’m at week five of returning to teach in a third grade classroom after five years of serving as an instructional coach. Yesterday I was talking to my former “boss,” whom I consider a mentor.  She asked me how things were going.  Such a simple question that required a complex answer.  “Things are going better.  Teaching is so hard!” was my immediate reply, and then I went into why teaching is so hard. I won’t spend time repeating all that I had said, but I will, instead, cut to the chase of this blog post. Teaching is hard because learning is hard.

I talked about implementing new curriculum, new teaching methods, and using new teaching resources.  All hard things to learn.  And then I went into all that I wasn’t doing, yet.  Hey, I included the word “yet.”  That shows I have a growth mindset, right?  I was reminded through this conversation that I am very hard on myself, that I have expectations that are probably unrealistic, and that I focus on what’s not happening instead of all that is happening.  So what has been happening these past five weeks?  What “new” things have I been doing?

First and most importantly, I’ve been getting to know 18 incredibly special and diverse eight- and nine-year olds and their families.  I’ve also been getting to know an additional 14 students in my math class and their families.  We’ve been creating a community where risks and “failures” are celebrated, and we realize that learning requires grit.  As the saying goes, kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.  I’ve been trying to let my students and their families know how much I care through conversations, communication, sharing my life stories, and listening to them share their life stories. That will continue all year-long.

Second, I have been learning how to use the Units of Study for reading and writing.  Great teacher resources based on what I am seeing and hearing kids do and say, but not the easiest resource to implement.  I want to do it all and do it all with 100% “fidelity” (whatever that word means) and with 100% success.  Pretty lofty desire, right?  Yeah, and pretty unrealistic.

Third, I have been learning what it means to teach a group of very capable math students who are ready for deeper and more applied learning of mathematics skills and concepts.  Math is my thing, so I love that part of my day, and I still feel like teaching math is hard.  Without a solid, quality core resource, I feel like I am figuring out how to use a map (our district curriculum), but have no Mapquest directions to tell me how to complete the journey.  Maps are great to look at.  Directions are helpful, too.

Fourth, I’ve been incorporating and teaching my students about inquiry.  We use inquiry to learn about social studies and science, and even reading, writing, and math.  My teammates and I have decided to use student inquiry for goal-setting this year.  I’m excited about this, even though I know it will be VERY messy.  I’m ok with this messy work because I know it’s authentic.  I’m not ok with messy when it feels contrived and fake.

Fifth, I am now in a one-to-one Chromebook teaching and learning environment. My students and I have been learning not only about technology tools, but also digital citizenship etiquette and practices that go along with using those tools.  I knew the technology train was pulling away from me fast and furiously when I left the classroom five years ago, but…wow!  It really left me in the dust.  Thank goodness for my IT coach!

I almost forgot that all of what I am learning is occurring in a school where I am a new third grade teacher.  I’ve been an instructional coach in this school for the past five years, but being on the teaching side of the classroom door is different from being on the coaching side of the classroom door.  Now I’m responsible for thirty-two students instead of twenty-two teachers and their students.  Sounds like teaching my own kids would be less intense, but it is just as intense in a more personal way.  I didn’t communicate student progress or challenges with children and parents as a coach.  That’s a huge and very important part of my job as a classroom teacher.  Luckily I have amazingly supportive teammates, not just in my grade level and hallway, but all throughout the school, and in the principal’s office, to help me as I get acclimated to my new job in my new digs.

So, at the end of the conversation I had with my former “boss,” she told me to be kind to myself.  She asked me to think about the things I am doing and to choose ONE thing to focus on moving forward.  That’s the exact same advice I would’ve given the teachers I was coaching last year.  Funny how I can offer wisdom to others and I forget to heed that wisdom for myself.

I have my “one” thing to focus on for this week as I continue on as a learner of all that I mentioned above.  No matter what I learn or what I focus on, the well-being and happiness of 32 little ones who say good morning to me each day are what’s most important.  We will figure this out together.

What are you learning this year? What advice would you give yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities and challenges of being an educator?  I’d love to hear from you!

A Must Read in Children’s Literature

Barbara O’Connor’s (@barbaraoconnor) novel, How to Steal a Dog, is a memorable story of a homeless girl and the people and dog she meets on her way to finding a home.

Georgina Hayes is a young girl who has to face big people problems when she, her mama, and her brother are kicked out of their apartment after her father abandons them. Living in a beat up old Chevy is no way for her family to live, but her mother is doing the best she can to provide for all of them. It’s no fun going to school dirty and disheveled, missing out on ballet classes and girl scouts, being abandoned your best friend. It’s even less fun trying to pretend that everything is alright when Georgina realizes that things are definitely not alright. After noticing a missing dog sign in the area where she lives, Georgina gets the idea to steal a dog so that she can collect the reward money. Her plan seems to be going well until her conscientious begins to get the best of her – her conscientious and the words of wisdom from Mookie, a bum who travels through the area leaving “a good trail behind him.”

Barbara O’Connor has a knack for creating characters and storylines that make a reader think and wonder, “What would I do in this situation?” This is a great book to teach “Words of the Wiser” and “Again and Again,” if teaching the Notice and Note signposts for fiction. It’s also a great choice for social issues book clubs.

What good children’s books have you read lately?

Dedicating Yourself to Your Craft

I just watched a segment on 60 Minutes about Bruno Mars  as a lead up to the Grammy Awards. During the interview, he told Lara Logan about the hard knocks, hard times, and hard work it took to get where he is today – Grammy winner, Super Bowl halftime performer, stunning entertainer.  None of this came easy to him. As he was explaining how he wrote 24K Magic, Lara was amazed at his process. Writing, rewriting, working on one instrumental part, adding in another, and then adding the “secret sauce.” None of this was done in isolation; he has surrounded himself with a team of people who understand his vision.

As Lara expressed her fascination with the work he puts into his songwriting, he said, “Well, yeah.  It’s dedicating yourself to your craft.”  Wow. That sentence sounds so simple, yet it is so profound.  When we dedicate ourselves to our craft, whatever that craft might be, we learn that it requires being willing to put in long hours, searching for a better way to do the work we do, and collaborating with others who will push us to our outer limits.  It means there will be times when we make mistakes, and we learn how  to recognize those mistakes as a catapult to something better, not as an anchor to defeat.

What have you done recently that shows you dedicate yourself to your craft? What mistakes have you made that lead to something better? Who have you surrounded yourself with to help you along the way to greatness?



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Over the past week, I’ve been unsubscribing to email notifications. Each day I get at least ten emails that serve no purpose other than to remind me that I used my email address to sign up for something a long time again – hotel points, on-line courses, home products.  You get the picture.  I read recently that one decluttering technique for your home is to hold something in your hand and decide, “Does this bring me joy?” If it doesn’t bring you joy, you get rid of it.  If it does, you keep it.  The same is true for email subscriptions because, to me, words are just as real as objects.  

I realized the process of unsubscribing to email was a way to declutter my life.  As I was doing it, I realized there was a life lesson hidden in there as well.  If I can choose to unsubscribe to email that doesn’t serve me well, I can “unsubscribe” to messages in my head that don’t serve me well.  The job of instructional coach sets us up for both joy and criticism because, let’s face it, the job is all about change – change in practice, change in thinking, change in resources, change in beliefs. Instructional coaches aren’t hired to promote the status quo.

Change is hard. Not everyone is going to be happy and embrace those changes, so there will be resistance and negativity. That’s a natural part of the change process.  I will be understanding and empathetic, and find a way to meet people where they are, and I will subscribe to and revisit the moments that bring joy.

Above All, We Must Have Trust

Today was a day to get some decluttering done at my house.  I had been ignoring that task the past few weeks.  Let’s face it, anyone would rather hang out with friends and family, bake, shop, and decorate as opposed to clean and declutter, right?  Well, now that Christmas day is over and New Year’s Day looms in the not-too-distant future, today was THE day to clean up, clear out, and pitch the stuff that has been piling up this past month.

As I was clearing off a side table, I found a stack of birthday cards.  I’m (a little) embarrassed to say that they’ve been there since my birthday in early November.  Oh, I haven’t completely ignored cleaning my house since then – honest.  I’ve given the housework “a lick and a promise,” as my mom always said. I’m glad I kept these cards because after looking at them and reading them once again, I was reminded of all the friends and loved ones I have in my life.  People who care.  People who support me.  People who share a history, and those who are helping me create new memories.

What does any of this have to do with teaching, learning, and/or coaching?  Well, everything.  As an educator, nothing happens with children or colleagues without first establishing trusting relationships.  Teaching and learning is very personal, so those with whom we work must be trusted.  One of the most special cards I reread today is from my husband of 28 years.  He wrote, “I’m so very thankful to have had such a wonderful, loving, caring person to travel [through life] with.”  Isn’t that what we all want – to have someone to travel through life with who will care for us and help us as we navigate the complexities of teaching and learning?  Don’t all of us need someone who will celebrate the ups and also lift us up during the down times because, let’s face it, there will be down times when you are an educator.  This career we’ve chosen is not as perfect as those on the outside looking in seem to think.  (“It must be nice to work 8:30 – 3:00 and have your entire summer off.”  Yeah, right.  If only.)

As this calendar year ends and we prepare to ring in the new, take a moment to think about all those who have helped you along the way.  Those you’ve trusted and those who have supported you through the thick and thin of teaching and learning.  After all, no one survives this work without first establishing trusting and honest relationships with the people around us.

Happy New Year and Blessings to all!


Help Along the Way


As I read more and more children’s literature, I realize how important it is to share a love of reading with children.  If we cannot get kids to want to read and enjoy reading, how will they ever learn the lessons that characters in great books teach us?  As I finished reading Ida B. …and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and Possibly Save the World? by Katherine Hannigan, I realized how much Ida B. could help someone grappling with the sudden news that someone they love (or even theirself) has been diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness.  Ida B. Applewood tries to handle the life-changing news of her mother’s diagnosis with cancer alone, but, eventually, she realizes that shutting out the rest of the world was only harming herself, not helping her.  None of us are expected to get through life without leaning on the love, understanding, and wisdom of those around us.  That made me think about my own life.

As I was going through the pile of “junk” mail that had accrued over the past week, I found a letter from a therapist I was seeing to help me navigate my own chronic illness.  I sought her assistance after a friend who has also struggled with chronic illness suggested I do so.  I must admit, at first I was very anxious about opening up to someone I didn’t know.  It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that it was nice to have an empathetic and understanding ear to listen as I asked some tough questions that had no easy answers.  During my time with her, I learned how to find the answers I needed through reading, reflection, meditation, and exercise.  She did not give me the answers, but instead, she helped me find the answers.  In the final line of the letter she recently sent, she wrote, “I hope you continue to find solutions to your concerns and wish you all the best.”

That is exactly what we can do for each other and what characters in books can do for us and the children we teach – help find solutions to our concerns so we can get on with the “best” that life has to offer.

Wish – More Great Children’s Literature

I recently finished reading Wish by Barbara O’Connor.  During this time of year when friends and family gather to give thanks for all of our blessings, it is fitting that I have been immersed in this example of wonderful children’s literature.

WishWish by Barbara O’Connor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Four leaf clovers, yellow freight cars, three birds on a wire, and loose eyelashes – all of these have been vehicles for Charlie Reese’s wish. When she goes to live with her aunt and uncle in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the sad, sorry buildings and “squirrel-eating hillbillies” in her new community begin to take on a new look after she adopts a stray dog and makes friends with Howard Odams and his family. She realizes that wishes can come true, if you take the time to see all of the blessings life has bestowed upon you.

For anyone teaching the Notice and Note signposts, this would be a terrific instructional read aloud. There are many examples of Words of the Wiser, A-ha Moments, Memory Moments, Again and Again, and Tough Questions.

View all my reviews

Getting Acquainted with Children’s Literature


In my job as an instructional coach, I have been working hard to get to know characteristics of various levels of children’s literature.  To do this, I’ve read and studied the work of Jennifer Serravallo (@JSerrivallo)  along with others who are influenced by all of the great work that happens at Teachers College.  Reading ABOUT children’s literature is good, but actually reading children’s literature is GREAT!  I recently finished the book Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana.  I am compelled to share this in my blog because it was a fantastic book of bravery and resiliency in the midst of unbelievable tragedy.  It is a book that made me feel a range of emotions – joy, fear, compassion, anger, and sadness. When I found myself crying at the end, I knew this was a book that would change me as a reader and a person.  Here is my review from @Goodreads and the reasons why I gave it 5 out of 5 stars.

Armani Curtis never dreamed that she would grow up instantly the day she turned ten years old. Then again, she never dreamed her home in the city of New Orleans would be wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina. As Armani and her family try to survive, Armani realizes that help can come from the most unlikely people. She also realizes that some promises live on long after the one who made the promise is gone and forgiveness is possible in all situations – even situations where you find yourself upside down in the middle of nowhere.

Five stars for Julie T. Lamana’s first novel. For teachers interested in using this book as a classroom instructional read aloud, you will find examples of all of the Notice and Note signposts for literature sprinkled throughout this book along with symbolism, and foreshadowing. It would be a great book for character development, author’s craft, theme, and, of course, how the setting affects a character. It would pair perfectly with an informational nonfiction book about Hurricane Katrina to show the personal and emotional devastation that resulted from this historical event.

What good children’s literature have you read lately?

What a Title Doesn’t Say


The title of instructional coach doesn’t really tell the story of what I do each day.  It doesn’t say anything about how often and how much I advocate for teachers and students, nor does it hint at the “behind the scenes” work that is done to try to make the work of teaching and learning more manageable for those who are in the trenches doing the actual work.  It’s hard for others to understand my job, especially if they are not or have not engaged in any ongoing work with a coach.

We’ve considered changing the title to “peer collaborator” or “teaching partner” or “professional learning associate.”  No matter the title, I’m still not sure others would understand what I do until we have had time to plan, teach, and reflect together.  So the question becomes, what does my title say and what doesn’t it say?

The word coach can connote a whistle and clipboard wielding individual running up and down the sidelines calling plays while players are on the field are engaged in the game.  The way I see the word coach, in regards to what I do, is a knowledge wielding individual sitting or standing side by side in the classroom co-planning, co-teaching and observing or co-observing.  All of this work is done, not in order to call plays, but rather, to serve as a second set of eyes to understand how children are responding to the teaching that occurs.  The “plays” are determined WITH teachers based on data, conversations, questions, and reflections.  Nothing in my title really speaks to any of this.

My title doesn’t say anything about all of the behind the scenes work that occurs outside of the typical work day.  It says nothing of the research and reading that I do to help teachers think more deeply about what puzzles them.  I’m not necessarily trying to find answers because I believe only the teacher can find the answers.  Instead, I believe my work is to read and research in order to provide opportunities in my coaching relationships for teachers to find the answers.  That can occur through a shared teaching experience, an article, an excerpt, or simply a conversation that starts with the two words, “What if…?”

No title could possibly convey all of the work I do as an instructional coach because underneath that title is one that I value even more – teacher.  I am a teacher, and I approach all of the work I do as an instructional coach first and foremost as a teacher.  A teacher who cares deeply about those she works with.  A teacher who thinks about and puzzles over things long after the coaching session has ended.  A teacher who cares and wants to make a difference, not just for the adults, but also for the children in my schools.