Other Duties, Not Assigned

20 April 2008

I told my principal this week that I was finally starting to feel "coachy." I've had a few people ask me for some specific support in the classroom---which is really what I want to do. I've been in the building for a couple of months now. People have gotten to know me enough that they feel comfortable letting me take the reins of their classes or wanting me to help in other ways. I like doing these things. I often wish I had a coach at the school where I teach---I'd love some help going from good to great.

But there are other things I am being asked to do, too, that I'm not really sure are within my provenance. I can't give any specifics; however, in general, these requests typically take the form of one teacher who is concerned about another and is asking me to do something about that. Now, I know that if the principal was to do that (which he never has)---I'd have to decline. That sets up a truly terrible agenda. "Hi, I'm here because our boss thinks that your teaching stinks and I'm supposed to fix it." Um, no thanks. However, if he encouraged a struggling teacher to seek me out for help, that's a different situation because the teacher is in control and gets to choose. After all, I'm the teacher's tool. The teacher to teacher requests feel murky to me. For now, I'm making decisions on a case-by-case basis. It's hard because people mention things with good intentions (to keep a peer from being frustrated or going down a path that may get them into trouble), but I don't know that I am really the one they should tell...let alone the right person to deal with the issue. However, I also don't feel like I can say, "It's not my job." If I'm there to support them, shouldn't I do what I can to make life in the classroom less of a drag?

I have lots of great coaching resources. There are all manner of books, websites, conference notes/handouts, and so on that provide a lot of insight about how to support classroom instruction. (There's also a nice article on instructional coaching here, if you're intrigued by the idea.) But there is nothing out there to talk about these unassigned duties others expect you to take on...the etiquette of it all. I'm hoping that I am using my powers for good, all the while wishing that job descriptions created clear---rather than fuzzy---edges around things.


Where Is the Love?

06 April 2008

In February, I posted about the Fine Romance I'm having with an elementary school. Two months in and we're still honeymooning, thank you very much. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm settling in nicely.

One of the teachers remarked about the "love notes" (her term) I leave in their mailboxes. You see, most of the time when I'm in classrooms right now, it isn't because I've been specifically invited. To be sure, the teachers are always gracious and they are used to having a coach around---but I am still imposing myself on their space. Meanwhile, there is always this underlying fear that a coach is the principal's lackey, sent there to spy and report on all of the ways the teacher is miserably failing in the classroom. The simple fact is that I am not anyone's boss and I am certainly not their evaluator. Whatever I see happening in their rooms---for better or worse---is a lot like being in Vegas: it stays there. Anyway, knowing all of this, I have been taking a few minutes after a classroom visit to write a thank you note. One thing I understand is that teachers feel unappreciated. Even if the kids adore you, they wear you down each day. Demands from parents and administration leave less time to be creative with lesson planning. And most of the time, when you are doing the very best you can---no other adults are around to see that...let alone say "Thank you."

The teachers are wishing that their principal would do something tangible like this. They have a need to be wooed and romanced---in a professional sense, of course. Everyone has settled into a comfortable relationship and they're hungry for that little spark again. They want signs that what they're doing is meaningful and appreciated. It's not always enough to know inside that you're teaching you're heart out and have the quiet acceptance of your peers and boss. We need someone to notice that we've done something new with our instruction...to be reassured that our partners don't want someone else. Their teacher hearts need nurturing. I'll see what I can do to talk to the admin and nudge him toward more reminders of this nature. He's a good soul. I know that if I call his attention to this and provide him with some ideas, he'll do the right thing by his staff.

As I've been pondering all this, I wondered if there's something more missing. I think that schools have become impersonal places to work. We are so worried about the professional image we give that we don't pay attention to the human elements lying underneath. I'm not sure what to do about that, except to spend time with each conversation asking about home life, special interests, and so on. Do I encourage a once-a-month potluck lunch for people to share a favourite recipe? Can I offer some activities (walking around the track after school, the occasional stitch-and-bitch...) without appearing like a cruise director?

What would honor you as a person within your professional life?

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Of Ring Rust and Good Instincts

22 March 2008

This week, I organized and presented my first staff meeting in nearly a year. While classroom teaching is its own form of presenting, I had to shake off a bit of ring rust where working with adults is concerned. This is still very much a new-to-me staff and we are learning how to play well together. I did the kinds of things I would normally do---made sure that treats were available, set out some supplies (highlighters, sticky notes, pencils...) within reach at every table, and constructed a short powerpoint using a pretty template. There was some music playing as people wandered in. We had some opportunities to vent about some things and laugh about others. I don't know that I hit a home run, but I think we all learned a lot about working together along the way.

I learned that I planned one too many activities, but at least I know where the line is now. I learned which person on the staff is the barometer---when that person starts to show stress, it's time to pull back and wrap things up. I now know who The Paper Grader is and have identified those who are going to hang in there with things every step of the way. I know where people expect to sit. Those are all good things for me in my presenter/facilitator role to keep in mind. But I also learned more about what a dedicated group of teachers they are. This is not a group to make excuses about why kids might not be learning---this is a group who looks for solutions.

In the meantime, I'm pleased to be finding out that I have very good instincts for this coaching gig. There's a lot that I don't know---it is, after all, an elementary school and I have been in secondary for my whole career. It's a different district with its own unique demographics and approach to supporting student learning. But the issues which are getting tossed my way seem to have simple solutions---which I find later to have been the right choices to make. This includes everything from how to work with kindergartners on their abilities to distinguish which quantity is larger/smaller to helping second graders recognize when it's okay to play with the math manipulatives and when it is time for math business to developing some talking points so one teacher has the confidence to work with another on testing decisions. I am sure to make some wrong choices here and there, but overall, I'm not as afraid that I'm going to be a total screw-up.

There is a lot of fun to be had along the way, too. I got to watch a gym full of second graders do The Chicken Dance this week. I saw some first graders get their very first Easter baskets. I laughed with my principal and met many of our families at this week's Math Night festivities. I helped a kindergartner tie his shoe while he excitedly told me all about his new Spiderman shirt. I think once my staff development ring rust is finally gone and my instincts for elementary honed more finely, there will be even more joy to find in the job.

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Coaching in the Classroom

18 March 2008

Instructional coaching is a bit of a murky business. The overall goal, of course, is to improve student achievement by supporting the implementation of best practices. But there is no magic formula or step-by-step guide out there. As a newcomer to building, grade levels, and district, I am trying to be very humble and respectful in my approach. All of the wonderful things which happen there (as well as the not-so-wonderful stuff) is a product of the culture they've created over the years. I may be there to add my own flavour to the mix, but I have to work from the inside. So, I'm spending a lot of time just observing. How do kids work together? What are the building norms? Who plays which role in the "family" of staff? I'm in "seek to understand" mode---not judgment mode.

I've recently been combining two ideas I've picked up elsewhere and using them to test the waters in classrooms. I have some index cards with me when I visit classrooms. I wish I could find the post on Leader Talk which mentioned this, but I've been unsuccessful. Whoever wrote the post designed and printed cards which had specific targets s/he was looking for. It was their way of collecting data for evaluations. I'm not in an evaluative role and for now, the cards I'm using are blank. Anyway, toward the end of my visit, I write a note to the teacher on one of the cards. This is where Part II of things comes in, as I structure my feedback in the same way I do with students. I try to give very specific and positive comments about the instruction first. Then, I pose a question. (I never point out the big but in the classroom.) What would you think about trying...? Have you ever thought about...? I wonder what would happen if...? or something else along those lines. My goal is simply to cause some thinking and reflection---something we teachers rarely have time or energy for. But perhaps a single question isn't too overwhelming.

Is this the right thing? I honestly don't know. I just think it's a simple way to start. Have I seen anyone actually make use of my suggestions via questions on those cards? Yes, I have. I feel like that's a good thing. It means that the questions I pose aren't too big or threatening and that they fit within the culture of the school. Meaningful change doesn't have to be overwhelming. Will it make a difference? That remains to be seen. For now, it's just one way to make coaching happen in the classroom.

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