When I began my career as a coach in 1995 I was thrown in with no training. Back then my title was technical assistance coach. I was given twenty-four schools to support and my charge was to help them implement a new program that required the teaching staff to make fundamental changes in classroom practice. I delivered job-embedded PD, modeled lessons in classrooms, observed teachers teaching and talked a lot. Over the years my title changed several times and I learned to observe quietly, listen more and ask questions. I learned the importance of learning with and from the teachers I was coaching.
Recently, in some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, I worked as a mentor coach supporting five school based literacy coaches. In the fifth and final year of the project a new literacy coach, Danielle Burke, became part of a well-established coaching cadre that had been working together for four years. The challenge was how to train and support a person new to coaching, get her up and running quickly and incorporate her into a long existing cadre.
While the more seasoned coaches saw it as their responsibility to help the new coach develop her coaching skills, it was really about developing and maintaining a disposition of learning together. I thought long and hard about how to incorporate Danielle in to the cadre and how to build the collective learning of the group.
The analogy of ensemble playing made sense to me. One definition of ensemble is, “A unit or group of complementary parts that contribute to a single effect.” In this case we were a quartet. We were four individuals coming together to create new understandings of our work in schools. Whether we read the same text or observed the same teacher, we each brought our own interpretation. By talking, questioning and sometimes disagreeing we came to common understandings and learned together.
By building a foundation of professionalism as well as a foundation of trust and respect the cadre became a strong learning community. As a cadre we visited each others’ schools, held pre-conference conversations with teachers, observed instruction in the classroom, and facilitated post conference discussions with the teachers. The teachers who were generous enough to allow us to use their classrooms as “labs” joined us in that disposition of learning together so we could all get better at what we do. By having a foundation of professionalism, trust and respect and a valuing of each other’s perspectives we were able to learn and grow together.
When I started in the position of Literacy Coach, I had to learn quickly in order to have a positive effect in my school. While others coaches had had the chance to absorb information over a period of years, through meetings, reading books geared toward coaching, etc., I needed to know things NOW. Through my experience, I have come to recognize that effective coaching is developed through observation and interactions with both teachers and other coaches.
Being part of a cadre allowed me to observe and interact with other established coaches who were founts of knowledge. Our cadre (as any cadre would be, I suppose) is made up of different personalities, and I was able to pull from each of these personalities to enhance my own (minimal, at this point) coaching abilities. For example, Catherine, my mentor coach, has a genuine curiosity in talking to teachers. Although she can immediately come up with improvements, she first tries to understand the teacher’s thinking. This nature of this kind of interaction leads to a more collaborative relationship with the teacher because the teacher feels valued. When this relationship is established, it is then possible to ask some of those more difficult questions that can clear up misconceptions and misguided classroom practice. Danna, another member of our cadre, has a nurturing personality which people quickly respond to. She is also equipped with an arsenal of strategies to share in a variety of situations. Jill, the last member of our cadre, is a technology guru who is willing to look outside of the box and try new things to improve classroom instruction.
A couple of particular instances of working with my cadre stick out in my mind. On a visit to Eminence school district, our cadre participated in a pre-conference, an observation, and a post-conference with a teacher. It was here that I saw the power of learning from others in my cadre as I listened to the questions they asked, the suggestions they gave, and simply the way they interacted with this teacher. I wasn’t getting this information out of a book; I was seeing coaching in real life.
When the members of our cadre visited my school, they were able to help me work through some solutions for a couple of instructional issues. Following the pattern we had established at Eminence, we spent a good portion of our day observing a teacher and conducting a post-conference. This particular teacher is an engaging teacher who really puts his heart and soul into his teaching. Students in his class, however, needed more opportunities to process the information they were given. At the time of our observation, the teacher used a lecture format while students were expected to instantaneously absorb the information given by the teacher.
We had some discussion as a cadre before the post-conference meeting with the teacher. At that time, we were able to brainstorm about the instructional issues in that particular classroom. Through our discussion, it became clear that academic dialogue would be a great concept to introduce to this teacher since it was clear that students needed an opportunity to speak and process information during class time.
During our post-conference with the teacher, we were able to have a productive conversation about incorporating academic dialogue, especially in order to reach those students who tended to be silent during class discussions. Catherine, who took the lead, asked some important (and difficult) questions about how to address those students who were less engaged. One important “aha” moment occurred when the teacher realized he was not truly trying to engage some of these students. In order to remedy that issue, I remember in particular that Danna shared the idea of a very structured pair share, where each student spoke for approximately 2 minutes. Before the close of the post-conference, I obtained a commitment from the teacher to provide an academic dialogue experience in his classroom. I think the conversation with the cadre led this teacher to not only incorporate academic dialogue in the classroom, but also caused a major shift in thinking about how to reach all of his students.
Soon after the cadre visit, the teacher and I worked together to incorporate the pair share structure that Danna outlined during the pre-conference. The exit slips from that first academic dialogue experience are memorable for both the teacher and for me. When asked if the academic dialogue experience was helpful, one student responded with the following statement: “Yes, it was helpful working with a student because you don’t have a teacher try and teach you a way you don’t understand.” Another student comment read: “”Talking to a partner is helpful. It can help clear up the information, and they could have a better way of explaining it.” The student responses to being able to share their ideas with a partner were overwhelmingly positive, and students were also able to recount important content information they had learned that day. When a test was given over the material, the students clearly remembered the content and performed extremely well.
Since this first experience, the teacher has had great success with academic dialogue. I have heard him enthusiastically describing his classroom experience to other teachers and encouraging them to do the same. In fact, he will be sharing his experiences at an upcoming literacy faculty meeting.
Again, since I was new to the game of coaching, I needed the support of the seasoned professionals in my cadre to be of academic service to this teacher. I think my realization from what I have recounted above is that coaching is not a job to be done in isolation. I think there has always been awareness of this fact and therefore, we had meetings focused on coaching at The Collaborative for Teaching and Learning. The cadre, however, offers a different group setting where very specific questions, circumstances, problems, etc. can be explored. A strong cadre offers a chance for everyone to continue growing and learning, especially when each member has a chance to contribute and feels her opinions are valued. Much of what I have learned through my cadre cannot be learned simply from a book. As we all know, true learning occurs through experiences and interactions with others who can share insights, provide knowledge, and help us process important information.
Catherine and Danielle
Some of the things we learned:
We’re better together than alone.
It’s important that coaching be job embedded. We were exploring and finding solutions to real problems in the context of where they were occurring.
It’s important to develop and maintain professional relationships that stay focused on the work.
The value in coaching is in recognizing the perspectives and experiences that people bring to each situation.