Our last post centered around the power of teachers. This time we wanted to focus on coaches, professional developers, district leaders, etc. Monique and I have both been influenced by literacy leaders — as the school year comes to a close we want to dedicate this post to them.
So much of who I am as an educator is because of the influence of my number one mentor, Mary Osborne. She came into my life during my first year as a teacher in Pinellas County, Florida, and changed it forever. If Roy Peter Clark is America’s writing coach, then Mary is the definitely America’s teacher of teachers — in fact, no “ifs”; Mary is the Teacher of Teachers. She reaches every teacher. And she’s seen all kind, too – the eager, hard-working teacher, the one who is on Facebook during workshops, the one who sits whispering to his neighbor during labsites. She’s worked with the pleasers, the perfectionists, and the workaholics. Not to mention the union reps, the principals’ pets, the know-it-alls, the …. well, you get the picture.
Yet, no matter what type of teacher she is faced with, Mary always treats every teacher with the utmost respect.
Her motto has always been “confidence before craft.” She shared that with teachers when referring to teaching kids writing, but this is really her motto for teachers more than kids. Teachers are her audience — they are who make up her classroom. She wants to build their confidence.
After all, even today, most teachers have not had a great experience around writing for themselves. Most never had a teacher reach out to them, confer with them, give positive feedback, encourage revision to improve and grow. Most were red-penned-up, and felt as if “you were born to write, and if I can’t get an A, then I guess I wasn’t born to be a writer.” So sad, because we now know that anyone can be taught to write well. We also know that now, more than ever, kids need to be writing well.
For example, in order to be accepted to a four-year college these days you have to submit an essay with your application. Often it’s a different essay for each college you apply to. I have read many college essays, and let me tell you, most kids in high school are still not learning how to write well. We have to do something about that. The Common Core State Standards have now made writing just as critical as reading…we have to get on board.
Scary — especially when we ourselves were probably not taught how to write well. Now, as coaches, we have to support teachers in this scary thing. How can we do that?
How can we learn from Mary and build confidence before craft?
1. Through Empathy: Mary always takes on the feelings she knows teachers have. For example, she talks about how scary it is for her to write and share her writing…with kids no less. She validates your feelings. Helps you to feel less alone.
2. The Power of Positive: Mary finds the smallest things to compliment teachers around. She’ll walk into a teacher’s classroom and say something right away how amazing this class is….”must have something to do with the teacher,” she’d say — or “look at these charts…I love how they are engaging, easy to read, give so much support for kids.”
3. Respect for All: Mary makes every question, every comment, feel like it was the smartest thing you could have said.
4. It’s not a competition: Mary never acts as if she is the smartest writing teacher in the room (duh, she is though). When Mary first left the classroom to support the district, she started at a school in Pinellas Park, Florida — Rawlings Elementary. Now, this school was special. It was a writing school. They called it the “writing demonstration school” for the district. It was basically Mary’s job to grow the teachers at Rawlings to be the best writing teachers they can be (and in turn the best teachers.). She and her work partner at the time, the amazing and much-missed Janie Guilbuilt, grew phenomenal writing teachers and educators. The teachers at that school went on to be principals, kindergarten supervisors, reading and language arts supervisors, district coaches, book authors, and even a teachers college staff developer. Many of them have seemingly surpassed Mary — at least if you merely looked at her title as writing coach. She did that. She never was threatened by any educator. She lifted them up and expected them to do great things — and because of her support, so many did. How can we push our teachers to do great things? To see greatness in them?
5. Connect/Have fun/Be in the Moment: Mary has fun. She lets her hair down. She doesn’t take herself or this writing stuff too seriously, which makes you feel as if it isn’t that hard to achieve such a thing as being a writing teacher. Every year the day before the state writing test, Mary dresses up as Dr. Watson (as in Waston and Holmes—check out pic!) and visits as many classrooms as she can to remind young writers all they know about writing. She does this because she knows that teachers have worked tirelessly to prepare their young fourth graders for this test and they are ready. What more can you do, but have fun!
How can we have fun in our teaching even during test prep? PS 139 in Queens figured it out. They partnered the primary classes with the upper grade classes. They gave cards, made banners, created cheers to help alleviate stress. You might extend it across a week so the partner could also give cute gifts to support not only the kids but the teacher.
6. Consistency Matters: Mary’s support was not a one time shot — it was ongoing. She would schedule a series of visits across a month to check in, continuing to support.
There were other coaches that influenced my teaching. One in particular was Cathy Beck. Often when we support teachers, we are asked to support new or struggling teachers. This can be a problem for many reasons. One large concern is that it sends the message that only few need to learn. One year I was asked (or maybe I volunteered) to contribute in a study across several weeks. We would meet once a week to learn the work (it was around small group reading) and then the leaders would come to your classroom and model and coach you. It was the perfect model–a focus, heavy support, modeling, and then trying it with feedback. Cathy, my coach, always gave me specific feedback and it was always in a complimentary way. I knew nothing about small group work — I remember her coaching me in the moment and changing my practice immediately. Cathy and I spent at least 6 days together focusing on this one thing–small group work. She had a focus, was consistent with it, gave positive feedback as well as next steps, and I grew! She even ended the focus sending a gorgeous full-page email to my principal CCing me. I loved her from the get go, but after the email I was hers!
Not only have Monique and I each had literacy leaders influence and support us when we were classroom teachers, but we have also witnessed a countless number of coaches we have admired over our years as TCRWP staff developers. We were both fortunate enough to work with an amazing literacy coach at P.S. 40 in Manhattan–Melanie Levy.Melanie is ALL of the above when she works with her teachers, but the thing that stands out the most is her admiration for the teachers she works with. She continually reminds them of what they are doing in their practice instead of what they are not doing. She is sincere in her compliments to them. All of her teachers want to work with her, and she wants to work with all of her teachers. Why? Because she truly loves her teachers — and they feel it.
When you have confidence you believe you can do it. The craft comes. You have to have confidence, though — you’re teaching kids. Kids have to believe you know your stuff. Even if you let them know that you’re learning this right alongside them. At least you’re gaining confidence along the way, you’re in control of your writing journey. You know it and the kids know it. As coaches, we need to build confidence in our teachers first. And know that with confidence, they are more open to learn, more passionate, and empowered. The craft will come. Just wait. It comes faster than you can imagine.
Thanks, Mary Osborne, for showing us how to coach, actually.
Christy & Monique