“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
When I (Christy) started teaching twenty years ago, my school, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was called a “Writing Demonstration School.” At this school, it was expected that (after about three years of teaching) the teacher would open her doors for visitors to come and watch her teach writing workshop. This model created potential leaders out of every classroom teacher. My very first year of teaching, I was given the Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins, and I was on my way.
I was groomed–that’s right–groomed to be a writing demonstration teacher. That’s how it felt. It felt as if you were hand—chosen. My first year of teaching, the amazing Janie Guilbault came into my classroom every day for two months and modeled how to teach writing. But she also modeled how to teach–I learned so much from her.
After that, I was invited to attend a special writing camp for teachers and students, and then I was asked to have visitors in my classroom. That is where it all started for me. I had people around me that supported me, believed in me, and expected great things from me. Monique also had mentors when she was in the classroom as well that shaped her views, inspired her and believed in her.
These people made us who we are. They made us passionate, hard-working educators who stepped out of our comfort zone and became leaders in the field. In my situation, most people who taught at Rawlings Elementary are now leaders in some capacity–coaches, principals, district supervisors and staff developers. We need to build capacity, yes, but bigger than that, we need to build real leaders out of our teachers. Real leaders are invested, real leaders deeply know their work, and real leaders care.
1. Create time & space
- Set it up:
Teachers need time. They say it and we need to hear it. However, we can’t just give them common prep times, we have to schedule them and make something happen during those times. How to do that? As a coach, approach the principal with the plan so she can announce it to the staff. Then you create possible topics to study that the team can choose from. Some possibilities are:
~Planning a new unit together
~Looking at student work to create teaching points and refine our unit
~Planning our nonfiction read aloud together
~Work on our writing to use as demonstration pieces for our teaching
~Small group work the difference between guided reading and strategy groups and book clubs
~How to strengthen talk…from whole group to partnerships to club work
- Grade level studies:
Tell the school the plan. Give options around topics and let them decide. Then try to make sure you are attending as many as you can. If you can’t attend, then the principal or assistant principal should attend. If someone else is there, it sends the message that this work matters. Help create agendas. Help with engagement. Help assess the meeting. This week, the grade level team at one of my schools planned a unit while I was there. It was amazing! They each took a part of the unit to read and share out. The coach immediately started typing, while I simply facilitated. They read. They shared out. All were engaged and invested, and now they have a map that they created together. Now, they are more likely to start and end the unit together. You will probably see more consistency in the teaching and learning. And now all of the teachers have a better understanding of the unit, not just the one who read it. The principal was thrilled and is now looking at how to create space for this to occur on a regular basis. Once you have the space, the possibilities are endless.
- Inquiry studies:
A school in Brooklyn (PS 508) has inquiry studies. They brainstorm a bunch of topics as a school, and the teachers choose the one they want to be a part of. They stay with that team for a semester. They are cross grade groups. They meet once every other week, and at the end of the semester they do a “Job Fair” like presentation where some members stay and explain while others go visit other groups, and then they switch. Invested in a study, even if it is not one that you as a coach thinks that person needs, is so important because teachers are collaborating and big things can come out of that. Something you have tried to change in a teacher for years could simply be changed in an inquiry group like this. For instance, a fourth teacher having difficulty with transitions might hear how a first grade teacher sends her kids back to their desks from the carpet with special music and she may then decide that is the greatest idea ever and voila…transitions solved!
2. Discover passions and strengths
Find out what your teachers love or are good at. (By the way they may not know that they’re good at it, and maybe they are not good at it yet.) My second year teaching, my mentor and friend Janie (although she NEVER called herself a mentor/coach/expert, but she did call herself a friend) came into my class with a few teachers totally unexpected. They watched me read aloud a book. I am quite sure I did nothing special, but Janie said to them, “Have you ever heard someone do a read aloud better? Christy has a gift.” Believe me I had no gift, but I got it pretty quickly once she left. If Janie said it, it must be so. I lived up to that. I was a second year teacher!!! Janie knew what she was doing, though. She was building me up. She was helping me believe in myself. She was making me a leader. Learn from Janie. Find out your teachers’ strengths. You may see it right away, or it may need some fine-tuning… but find it and let everyone know. “Nicole is an expert at charts. You have to see them! Visit her room!” “Meghan is a master at small groups.” “Colleen can engage kids with her sarcasm during the mini lesson—everyone is on the edge of their seat.”
Once you find different passions around your building, spread it–videotape or take pictures. Gina, an amazing principal that I work with, takes pictures of her teachers’ work. She has them on her iPad, and at meetings I have with teachers (which of course she always attends) something may come up–let’s say displaying student work. She finds a teacher’s picture in the building and says. “Look, this is how Tom displays his kids’ work. He made his own bulletin board.” She is honoring Tom, sure, but she is also demonstrating to her staff that she brags about her teachers. And she is giving an authentic example from their own building, so they feel really supported. She also walks around often taking pictures of classrooms in front of the classroom teacher. Having your principal come around and take pictures has to be one of the highest complements to give a teacher. Gina has changed the environment and the culture in her building in two months by spreading her teachers’ strengths.
3. Open classrooms up to others
Meet in classrooms often
Christy and I visit schools almost every day. Each of those visits consists of meeting times with any combination of teachers, literacy coaches, principals or other kinds of leaders. Lots of times, these meetings take place in a conference/professional development room, in the school library or in someone’s office (e.g. the literacy coach’s office or the principal’s office). Yes, there are perks for meeting in each of these places. However, we’ve found the most engaging and effective meeting places to be in the very classrooms where students and teachers work in. This will require that the students are in another room during your meeting time, most likely, they’ll be in a special for that period. The classrooms we hold our meetings in are sites where the teacher has taken on some of the work and is also welcoming and excited to share and learn. There is no need for the reading or writing instruction to be perfect. You may even select a classroom that is an example of both the teacher and the students growing in their own practices. Choosing this type of classroom as a host for a meeting with colleagues is so simple and yet so powerful. Before you know it, not only will teachers start taking pictures of libraries, charts or student work, but you, as the coach, will as well. This is way better than shopping on Pintrest or in any teacher resource store!
Showcase the actual teaching and learning
Another way to open up a classroom would be to invite observers in to watch a workshop or other component. This provides observers with an exemplar of the in-the-moment teaching and it can spotlight systems that support student independence (both of which are at the heart of workshop teaching). I remember many instances in my last few years as a teacher when there would be visitors stepping into my classroom right in the midst of my teaching. At times, especially when I was working with a child one-on-one or with a group, I didn’t even notice there was an observer in the room. There came a point when my students no longer announced, “Ms. Knight, someone is here!” They were used to seeing one of my fellow teachers or my administrators walk in and observe. My school had set up a culture of classroom visits and I tell you, that grew me as a teacher and as a learner. I wanted to learn as much as I could during PDs and workshops not only for my students or for myself, but also for my colleagues.
When setting up the visit, it is best that you, as the coach or lead teacher, accompany the observing teacher and establish roles when visiting the classrooms so that there can be a discussion around what you both witnessed. Be sure to provide the teacher(s) with specific lenses to look through when in the classroom. Here are a few examples of lenses to use when visiting classrooms with teachers:
- Study the structure of a particular part of literacy instruction (conference, minilesson, read aloud). How does it tend to go from beginning to end?
- Study systems for management and routines. This can include transitions and traffic flow, ways to get children’s attention, room organization (for example, the classroom library and book shopping routines), or tools and charts that help students remember routines.
- Study children’s talk. Look for how often, how much and how well students talk with each other. How many opportunities are there in the period for conversation and how does the teacher teach into the talk?
Of course, the possibilities are endless!
Host a school visit
Do you really want to grow your teachers? Invite another school to come in to visit a variety of classrooms in your building.
I’ve found that this occasion really helps to boost teachers in a powerful way. It becomes a collective effort and can be transformational for a building that has practiced much of the work and is working on consistency. Again, in this instance, your school does not have to be the ‘perfect workshop school’. So, it is important to communicate this with your teachers and the visiting school. Make it transparent talk up all the work you’ve taken on and all the work you have yet to develop.
Let the teachers in on planning for the day. How many teachers do they feel comfortable with in their rooms? How long should each class visit last? Give them a voice in setting the schedule and setting up parameters. Hosting a school visit creates a ‘buzz’ of talk around a building that centers around the work and the big, important priorities versus the trivial details of everyday teaching (which are also important but can also be draining). It gives the hosting teachers voice and ownership while helping them to be reflective for a purpose.
4. Power Partners
During a recent meeting with a group of second grade teachers, our conversation centered around planning for an upcoming nonfiction reading unit. It was a tricky unit of study because the children were to read nonfiction books in text sets around topics. Our ideal would be to provide all readers with an abundance of choices of topics, but when we actually looked at the classrooms’ nonfiction library baskets, there were few choices at certain levels. We started to come up with a plan for gathering materials for their readers. One of the second grade teachers in the group, Lequan, suggested we go look through the first and third grade teachers’ nonfiction baskets, especially since those grades were not going to be reading nonfiction texts at the same time as second grade. Apparently, Lequan said he used to do this all the time last year, because his school had set up partnerships for each teacher – each teacher had a teacher partner that taught the grade below and the grade above – just for the purpose 0f sharing materials. This got me thinking.
We set up student partnerships all the time in reading, writing, word study, talk time, math, science, even for going to the restroom! We do this because we know a partner provides a certain level of support that sometimes a teacher cannot. It helps to get children to be independent problem solvers and workers. Here we were with teachers, faced with this big problem not enough books. A partner can help! Here are some ways you can bank in on teacher partnerships:
- Create formal or informal teacher partnerships, like this school had set up, for sharing materials and resources. When teachers need books, paper choice examples, supports for high needs or high achieving students, they can consult their lower or upper grade partner.
- Sometimes teachers form their own partnerships authentically. These are the teachers that gather regularly to talk and share their literacy practices or students’ work. This can be teachers across different grades, or within the same grade. Validate this partnership. Set them up with time to meet up with each other so that they can then share with the rest of their grade team at another time.
- Homogeneous partnerships can be helpful. If two (or more) teachers are trying to get better at something, connect them with each other. The connection doesn’t have to be an extra time to meet face to face (although that is always best). Share their emails with each other or create a Google Drive or Dropbox account for them to communicate often about how their study is going. They can share pictures, ideas, lessons, and even struggles with each other. It’s private and also powerful!
- Heterogeneous partnerships are just as helpful. Think of teachers’ areas of expertise. If one teacher is strong in one area where another is weaker, set them up as a teacher partnership. Perhaps the relationship can also be reciprocal, if possible.
Power partnerships are the way to go. I know this because I don’t know how I’d be able to do this blog without my own power partner, Christy! We all need partners when trying to grow. Give your teachers that support, and set them up for some strategic and serious building.
5. Doing PD
The other day, I was in a school in Palm Beach, Florida. This particular school has a huge focus on getting their children ready for summer reading and writing experiences so that the learning is not lost over the months of June, July, and August. In this effort, the school hosted a parent day where they presented topics about home reading and writing activities. When I asked Suzanne, the literacy coach, about the day, she told me it was most of the teachers who presented. They each set up their own activities, resources and Powerpoint presentations for the day. I imagined how the parents benefitted from the day, but also thought of how empowering it was for the teachers to be able to be teachers of their own practices to an audience of learners. Why not have these teachers present to each other and to their neighboring schools as well? Teachers need to be teachers for their colleagues as well.
I thought about Suzanne, and knew she would have been able to present that entire parent day all by herself. Yet, she handed over most of the responsibility to the teachers. We, as coaches and staff developers need to do more of that. Give teachers the spotlight more often. Invite them to take on some of the professional development. They can:
- Have 5-10 minutes in a meeting to facilitate a part on the agenda
- Co-lead a group with you – such as a school book club or inquiry group
- Co-present with you
- Co-present with a group of their colleagues
- Present on a topic they were taught (turnkey of information they learned)
- Present on a topic they’re learning and trying in their classroom
- Present on a topic they’ve independently studied in their classroom and have student outcomes and resources to share
Of course, in all of these possibilities, you are there, providing any support needed along the way. Some teachers are also reluctant to share or teach to their colleagues, so it may be beneficial to start with the tips from the top of the list and then slowly make your way down the list as your teachers become more and more comfortable with their leadership roles. This also requires some support from your principal and fellow teachers.
We’ve given you ways to grow your teachers into leaders, but realize they are also ways to change the landscape of your building to be one where many participants are the learners, teachers, and leaders all at the same time.
Christy and I hope we’ve inspired you to seek this transformation in your own buildings and look forward to hearing your feedback.
How will your coaching continue to grow and change?
Coaches, this is your challenge. We can’t do this all alone.
We need to start grooming teachers to be leaders, actually!
~Christy & Monique