What a Title Doesn’t Say

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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.

Contemplation and Collaboration

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Two weeks ago, I found an amazing TED Talk that has really stuck with me.  It was Susan Cain talking about “The Power of Introverts“.  I would not consider myself an introvert, but what Susan had to say about taking time for contemplation is what really jumped out at me.  You see, as an instructional coach, I do a lot of collaboration with teachers, groups of teachers, and administrators.  That’s one reason I love my job – working with and serving others.  On the flip side of all of that collaboration, however, is finding the time for contemplation.  I love this definition for it shows me the importance of finding quiet time to mull, muse, and ponder over all of that comes my way.

Collaboration is wonderful.  I could not teach without having others to collaborate with.  My colleague, Michele  (@Mld13White) and I used to joke that each of us served as the other half of each other’s brain because we talked, shared, and collaborated constantly.  We would show up in each other’s doorway with a “what if” or a “what do you think about” question on a regular basis.  I would not have survived my first years of teaching with Michele!  We both brought our own creativity, practicality, and way of thinking to the world our world of  teaching, and together, we were better.  As important as that collaboration time was, I also knew that I needed time to mull over the things that we talked about.

15 years later, I’m still the same.  I love to collaborate, yet I’m realizing how much I need that time to contemplate.  If you give me time, I can be more creative with all of the thoughts that are swimming around in my mind.  Collaboration is a key ingredient in teaching, and I’m understanding more and more that contemplation is also a key ingredient.  Teachers need time to talk and they need time to think.  We hear so many ideas, read so many books, articles, or blogs, and we explore so many teaching methods that it can be overwhelming.  I want to take the time to step back, stop and think, and I want to be sure I give others that time as well.

In any coaching situation, there are many ideas being shared all at once.  It’s during those still and quiet moments when the thought-dust can settle that we find answers that we may have been searching for in the brainstorming stage.  I want to take the time and give others time to sit, think, and contemplate as we work together.  How about you?  What value do you see in contemplation?  When do you do your best musing and mulling?  For me, it is often during my drive home or first thing in the morning as I’m getting ready for work.  Share your thoughts below and be sure to watch Susan Cain’s TED talk!  I hope it means as much to you as it did to me.  Stay curious!

Pushing the Pause Button

I walked into a teacher’s classroom to check in because we hadn’t been able to meet for a few weeks. The paraprofessional in her room said she was meeting with the principal, so I said I’d come back at a later time. I went to my office to grab a quick bite of lunch before going to talk to the next teacher. A few minutes later, she walked through my door and had a seat. We ended up talking, but not about the work we had planned to talk about next time we met. Instead, we talked about the challenges she has been facing in her classroom and in life in general. I should rephrase that. She talked. I listened.

So many things are out of our control. At school, there are things like the support, or the lack there of, that students get in school and at home. The deadlines that loom over us. Progress reports are the most current one. The amount of face time we get with students. Tests and how to use the data that comes from the tests. In our personal lives, there are illnesses that befall us or our loved ones. We have struggles with our own families and friends. At times it is overwhelming and instead continuing to push through, there are time when we have to push the pause button.

Pause to think about how you are making a difference in the life of each child you have the privilege to work with. At the end of the day, the things that are imposed on teachers – grading, testing, test scores, lesson planning, curriculum, etc. – while important, are not what students will remember. What they will remember are the ways teachers showed them that they care. The time you took to have lunch with them. The game of kickball you played at recess. The way you took extra time to hear the story about their loose tooth.

I recently received a letter from a former student who is now in seventh grade. She shared some memories from when she was in my third grade classroom. She mentioned the Fiona doll I used to pull out when I was beginning to feel like an ogre. You know, those days when you feel like you’re being a big, old meany because you have to stop every ten minutes to remind the kids get it together?  She remembered the giant card she and the other students made me for my birthday and the smile on my face when they gave it to me. She remembered celebrations we had together in our classroom. Pause. Think about the memories you are creating with and for your students.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I hope that all who read this will push the pause button and reflect on all you have to be grateful for in your life. Pause before you leave school for the holiday and look at your students. Really see them. Look into their faces and see the hope within. Listen to their words as they share their hopes and dreams, and at times, their fears. Pause to remember that you are making a difference for every child you come in contact with. My dad used to say, “You have to stop and smell the roses.” That is so true! As Thanksgiving approaches, pause to enjoy your students, your family, and your friends, and the time you have making memories together.

What are you grateful for?  What special memories do you have of your students?  I’d love to hear about them!

Connecting Virtually

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I am not into a lot of social media.  In fact, I am one of very people few who are not on Facebook.  The reason?  My life isn’t that exciting, so I wouldn’t have much to post, and if I was on Facebook, my life would be even less exciting because I would be spending too much time looking at Facebook to see what others are doing.  I say this to introduce the fact that, even though I do not use a lot of social media, Twitter is a form of social media that I am totally on board with.

I am surprised by how much I’ve come to enjoy and rely on Twitter to connect with other teachers.  I follow many, many wonderful teachers I work with in State College Area School District.  When I am curious about what is happening elsewhere, I reach out to educators I’m following on Twitter.  People such as Kristin (@MathMinds), Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp), and The Two Writing Teachers (which is really more than just two teachers – @ClareandTammy, @Betsy_writes, @raisealithuman, @Tara_Smith5, and more) have taught me so much!  When I’ve tweeted or contacted them directly (DMed in Twitter lingo) with questions about teaching, curriculum, coaching, and/or professional development, everyone has been eager to share.  These are people whom I’ve never met face-to-face, but I feel like I know them based on their Twitter feed and blogs.  All of this has enriched my life personally and professionally.

A highlight for me this year was meeting someone whom I follow on Twitter, Heather Rader (@HeatherRader1).  Heather is a literacy coach from the Seattle, Washington area.  She was just as smart and charming in person as she seemed to be based on her tweets and her blog.  When I met her, I told her that I feel like I already know her from our many contacts on social media.  It was easy to begin a comfortable conversation with her because, even though, technically, we had just “met”, we had really met many months ago on Twitter.

Recently, our district had a K-12 professional development day.  Part of the learning included teachers tweeting about what they were learning throughout the day and attaching a hashtag that we’ve used in past Twitter chats (#insplearning #SCASD).  It was great to share and learn together through this simple, yet powerful social media tool.  When I went home that evening, I read through the many, many tweets from the day and continued the conversations and the learning.

One final Twitter story.  (Can you tell I’m a hooked?!)  Something pretty remarkable happened this week that showed me, not only the power of Twitter, but just how small our world has become.  When I checked my Twitter feed Thursday afternoon, I saw a tweet and a picture sent by Tanny McGregor (@TannyMcG), author of what is, in my opinion, one of THE BEST teacher resources ever – Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading.  Standing beside her was a teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana whom I had met over three years ago when we both arrived in Washington, D.C. for an award ceremony.  I did a double take.  I was like, “Hey! I know her! That’s Laura!  And she’s with Tanny McGregor!!  How cool is that!?!”  I replied and favorited the tweet that Tanny had initiated, and throughout the evening, she and I exchanged several more tweets as we marveled at the connection we had made.

What do I have to thank for the fun and remarkable moments AND the ongoing learning that I’ve mentioned?  Twitter!  Lots to learn and enjoy 140 characters at a time.  #powerfulPDtool

How do you use Twitter or any other social media tool for learning and sharing?

The Power of Questions

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It’s interesting to me how sharing an idea after doing a little informal research leads to so many more questions. Even more intriguing is how, when you share the information you’ve gathered from your “research,” the questions and ideas of others deepen your own understanding.

Recently, a fellow teacher and I co-facilitated a session during a day of professional development.  We shared information on how to use peer revision groups during writing workshop. It was not anything that we had created, but rather, something we found on another blog that both of us follow. As we shared the blog and some short video clips, people began to immediately think about how this would look and sound in their own classroom. From there, questions began to emerge. Will this work for my reluctant writers? What about the students who are timid about sharing? How much time will this take? How often should this happen? When in the writing process do you see this occurring? Are there other steps in the process that would help? How do you determine your groups?

Wow! GREAT questions! What was even better was that, as the questions were being asked, we worked together as a group to extend our thinking. We shared ideas, not necessarily answers, related to the questions. As I reflect on that experience, it makes me realize that when we focus our teaching on learning, we do just that. We learn as we teach. There is not “one way” nor is there a “best way” to do anything. When we talk together and share our questions and understandings, when we push each other’s thinking, we find new ways to think and apply them in order to teach and learn with our students.

This experience also makes me realize how we need to trust each other when asking questions. We need to trust that questions are just that; questions, not a hidden way to manipulate and change the minds of those listening.  None of us has all the answers, so we must talk openly and honestly to push our thinking.  It’s not the answers that help us learn, it’s the questions, for without a question, there is no need to find an answer.

Stay curious! What questions do you have about teaching and learning?

Please note: The views and opinions I express in my blog do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or colleagues.

Learning with Others

I’m finding that the most powerful learning experiences come when I am not quite sure how a coaching session will go. Don’t get me wrong, I like to be and try to be prepared before meeting with a colleague. Afterall, time is a limited and non-renewable resource for all of us. I’ve found, however, that I can’t be completely prepared for every coaching session I have with a teacher. Many times when I’ve sat down to co-plan, debrief, or share the conversation takes a turn or twist that I hadn’t expected. It’s during those times that learning is rich and exciting for all involved. Just as making a twist or turn in the road can offer new and unexpected adventures, a turn or twist during a conversation can be the same – a great adventure.

Today I met with a teacher who wanted to explore how to create a writing checklist that includes visual representations for each area of writing. I had a hard copy of a prototype and some ideas to share in mind. When the teacher and I started talking, I realized pretty quickly I needed to step back and wait. I thought to myself, “Before I share the prototype, let me find out what she is thinking about this.” After all, every time I meet with her, we end up discussing so much more than I had ever anticipated. Her questions, thoughts, and ideas always push my thinking. I learn so much with her and from her!

As we began to talk, I realized I had an opportunity to learn something new with this teacher. I had the technical side and an idea to share (that another teacher had shared with me), so now I needed to hear more about what this teacher’s goal was. Instead of just using the checklist as written and adding a few pictures to make it more kid-friendly, she actually wanted to “customize” her checklist to what she had taught her students AND add visuals. Very cool! We took most of the language from the Units of Study, tweaked them to meet the needs of her young writers, and within 45 or 50 minutes, we had created a customized student writing checklist AND both of us learned more about the writing resource. The conversation was rich as we talked about how kids can bring characters to life, craft moves her students have noticed in mentor texts, and how we can connect what they do in Words Their Way to spelling during writing time.

This teacher now knows how to create a customized student checklist.  We both know that the Units of Study CD already have checklists with visuals.  She has a document to share with her fellow first grade teachers, and I have a document I can share with other teachers and coaches. Win, win situation? Yes, yes!

Yes, it is good to be prepared, but it also good to be surprised by what can happen when you let a conversation and/or coaching session unfold in ways you hadn’t anticipated. While we both had the same goal in mind, neither of us would have predicted how much we were going to learn and discover in that 50 minutes together.  This was a partnership and collaborative coaching session at its best!