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Celebrating Our Edge


Recently I (Christy) had two amazing staff development experiences. Both were those times when you really could do good work.  There are many factors around doing good work. One big factor is a shared vision. Often for a coach (or staff developer) it is difficult to do the work you want, the work you know the best, the work you know that is life altering for kids, when the leader doesn’t share the same vision. The other factor for good work is nailing what Vygotsky calls “The Zone of Proximal Development.”   Often we present content to teachers and expect them to “get it” right away. Who “gets” anything worth getting right away? Especially something so important and hard as to teach kids how to read and write.

We should always try to outgrow ourselves pushing ourselves to our “edge.”  A yoga instructor I know talks about not violating your edge. This is a great philosophy. It simply means to push yourself, but only hard enough. Be truthful to your ability. Do not violate it by not pushing hard enough, or by pushing too hard because you are not willing to accept the limits of your ability. You judge the limit. You criticize and often try to push yourself beyond your edge.   When that happens, you can physically hurt yourself. And yet sitting back, doing only the minimum, you will never become stronger and grow.

It is the same for teachers. We need to accept where they are, and celebrate it, and then encourage them to go to their edge. Often we do not accept where teachers are, we want them to be where we are. Our leaders want that, too, and then we push teachers “over the edge.”

Like I mentioned earlier, a shared vision and awareness of the edge were both in place during some consulting work I did, and it was GLORIOUS!!!

The first example was when I worked with a large district in Pinellas County, Florida.  Pinellas County has two amazing leaders who I have known for years, Sandy Downes and Holly Slaughter.  We grew up with the same philosophy –you teach writing through workshop teaching. Therefore, when they asked me to work with their coaches, it was very easy to do so inside of writer’s workshop. I had two days (back to back) with them.

The vision: Work with coaches inside of writing workshop to support deeper coach work

Day one:

I modeled a full writing workshop in a classroom for the coaches to watch. While they watched, I taught them ways to support teachers in the midst of demonstrating a lesson–ways to help teachers grasp the work better. Often teachers watch us, but then they get lost when trying to do it in their own classroom. I taught coaches some moves that would scaffold teachers who are learning new content.

Support Moves to Help Scaffold:

  • Years ago, teachers came in to watch me teach, and I did just that exactly—I looked at the kids, taught my lesson, and focused ALL my attention on the class, NOT paying attention at all of the teachers in the back watching me (as sweat poured down my face!) Often I would receive good feedback, but would hear later when teachers tried what I did, it bombed. So I had to get over my fear of being distant and separate, and start including the teachers more. I told them things like: Good morning, colleagues! While I teach today, I will be talking with you as I go, naming what I am doing and why I am doing it so that we can have a rich debrief session afterward when all of this makes more sense. Look for my pacing my lesson (12 min. or less), my explicitness (can you tell what I am teaching—clearly?), engagement (are kids with me, how do you know?) I continued in that fashion, talking with the teachers while I taught. Interrupting along the way, pausing, and then returning to the kids and my instruction. It helps not to only see it, but to know what you are seeing in that very moment. This way you can say…hmm so that’s what that looks like.
  • Often teachers come in to watch you teach because you are the “expert.” That always bothered me when educators hold you as the “expert.” However, you have a job to do and it is sharing what you know so that others can strengthen their practice. One way to help engage, respect and uncover/dismantle this idea that “you are the expert” is to ask teachers for their thoughts in that moment when you are teaching. This works nicely in a conference. The coach/consultant asks the writer (child) what work are you doing as a writer? What is your plan/goal today? What are you trying to get better at or what are you proud of in your writing? Then the writer talks for a bit and the teachers and you are listening with bated breath. Then you say to the writer, I am going to talk with my colleagues about the amazing work you are doing, you can continue with your writing right here while we discuss. Then you turn to the teachers and say, colleagues, what are your thoughts? What is this writer doing well or almost well that we can help them do better? What do you now know about this writer? Turn and talk with someone near you about this. They do this for 30 seconds or less and then come back to you and you discuss it as a group. You can decide to try one of their ideas (that’s what I often do) or do something that you noticed. This kind of support is nice inquiry work; it gives teachers insights to what others think, and it helps them see that the coach doesn’t have to have the answer.
  • Nine years ago I started at the project and I was thrilled and scared to death. When you are new, the first few weeks you learn a lot. One thing you do is you meet at a school with one of the leaders (mine was the great, Amanda Hartman) and you fine-tune your practice. On this day, we worked in a first grade classroom and we perfected our small group work. Easy as pie, right? Sure, if you are familiar with first grade. Back then I had VERY little experience with first grade (luckily things have changed!) I remember thinking how would I pull this off? Will they fire me? I was having cold sweats. Amanda said to us, watch me do this small group and take good notes! Needless to say, I did. Then she said, you guys are going to do the same exact group with another group of kids. I remember saying to her, the same? With the same teaching point? Yup! This was amazing! I could do this—it was cake. I felt so good about my practice. I had knowledge sure of small group instruction, but not with first graders. So Amanda telling us that we could do EXACTLY what she did took a huge weight off. Sometimes teachers need a little more support. How often do they say to you I can’t wait to do that same lesson you just did? Lots! Just having them do the exact same thing right after you do it, can give lots of support.
  • Remember earlier, I mentioned engagement. I didn’t want to be engaged with teachers at all—too scary! Well, sometimes teachers are not engaged. They have a TON on their plate. If it’s the classroom teacher, they are watching every move their kids make and thinking of all of the teaching they still have to do. If they are not the classroom teacher, they are still thinking of all the teaching they have to do, along with scoring assessments, and planning, etc. It can be hard to have your head in the game. If you give each teacher a role in the work, they will PAY attention for sure! For example, you might have one teacher research the writer during a conference, have another give the compliment, have another do the teaching, and have another take notes. If you know you have to participate, you bring your “A” Game. For anything you are trying to teach as a coach, you can separate it into parts, assign, and watch the level of engagement lift.

After the demonstration of these moves inside the workshop model…

Mini lesson—Pause and talk out to teachers, naming what you are doing, and why you are doing it.

Conferring—Interrupt the conference and inquire with the teachers on next steps.

Teaching share—I do it, now you do the same exact things

I then defined each move, giving more information for them to take and then try.

I had the coaches try a move out with each other. I gave them the teaching point for a mini lesson. With 4 coaches, they each took a part, then practiced giving the mini lesson to another group–all while naming what they were doing and why they were doing it

Day Two:

The coaches went off and practiced the different coaching moves in classrooms with actual children. They divided up the workshop and the different kinds of moves to practice in front of each other and receive feedback. The majority of feedback was lots and lots (and lots!) of compliments. This was their first time doing this new work and doing it in front of their colleagues. Scary and hard. I needed to make them feel safe. I needed them to know it’s ok to mess up. Just the same way we create that culture for kids, we need to create if for adults. We need to celebrate failure in a way to say, this content is at your edge, your zone of proximal development. If it were easy, how would you learn, how would you push yourself to grow?

Between me and a few other leading coaches, we gave post-its with specific compliments. Things like, You paused beautifully to explain the BIG important things to think about during the teach. You were clear, ‘notice my language, notice how I broke the strategy down, notice how I used my own writing and slowed down the process, so the kids could really see my thinking.’ You were quick about it, and didn’t skip a beat going right into teaching the kids—beautiful!

Afterward we did some work with “coaching in the moment,” trying to coach each other with lean prompts. Whispering in prompts to each other just when we needed them. For instance, if we forgot to name the teaching point in a conference, the coach might whisper in, teaching point, repeat teaching point.

The coaches then planned out cycles of work considering the kind of support moves they might use to scaffold teachers. One cycle may look like this:

School Days/Dates Content Delivering Content Method
Grade 4 Oct 1-Oct 5 50 min. sessions 4 times across the week. Meet w 3-5 teachers each day Writing Work Day one: demo entire workshopDay two: Demo ML and one conferenceDay three: Meet and plan ML together

Day four: Teacher delivers ML and coach and teacher confer

Day five: Teacher teaches mini lesson and one conference. Coach can model a second conference (highlighting any work the teacher may need support with) and model a partner share coaching kids in their partner work

Day one: Name what and why mini lesson and conferringDay two: Name what and why and teacher gives a part (the link)Interrupt and Inquire: the conferenceDay three: Each take a part (coach takes C, T, teacher takes AE, L)Coach models a conference and teacher does the EXACT same.

Day four: Coach jumps in/pass on after teacher researches and compliments writer. You can also inquire

Day five: What & Why or Inquire the conference

Coach What & Why the teaching share especially when coaching kids in the conference


When I return in November, the coaches will share their cycles and reflect upon them and their coaching work.

For most, this was right at their edge. Most had been coaches and were very familiar with working with teachers. They were ready to learn something new and step up their game. They saw this as being the exact support they needed to help engage and excite their teachers in the work. Some were new to coaching, so this added layer may have seemed a little beyond their edge. That’s okay. They created their own cycles based on their own edge. They all were required to try something, but they could decide. If they only worked on freeze frame, fine. It is more than they did before, which is pushing and growing them. Next time they can add another move to their repertoire.

Since I have been gone…

I asked my former sort of boss (SOB for short) Mary Osborne, who works with these coaches, to give me an update. Here are her thoughts:

Since your last visit, I have only spoken with a couple of coaches about what they were up to.  However, I was very excited about both I spoke with.  Michelle Gallagher shared a few highlights of her work since your visit:

*Voice-overs have become a major emphasis when I model, especially with fishbowls

*I have just begun incorporating copycats

*I continue to make my notes to teachers detailed and big based on her work- a confirmation, maybe

*Uh- big stickies are my favorite!  Love how you can use to create a chart as you teach

*I am making my writing notebook important

Of course I am so proud of her and all the work she is doing out at schools.  However, I am truly amazed at the work a brand new coach tried out on her very first labsite at her very first school.  Here’s what Christie Katz did, “I modeled/fishbowl close read lesson with complex text and finding main idea/details of parts and whole.  Then I sent teachers to 4 Corners to copycat the Connect/Teach while I walked around and jotted compliments for them on stickies to give them after.   We debriefed after and discussed ways they could incorporate some of the strategies I used in their own instructional routines.  What did they notice that worked with the students?  What are they already doing or may want to try?

Mostly, teachers are surprised at how to get all of a “minilesson” into 10-15 minutes.  When students are not asked to raise hands to volunteer questions, and are given SPECIFIC instructions about what to turn and talk about during Active Engagement, we are able to streamline our lessons and get them back to work independently ASAP!”


My Second experience was in a school setting. Again the principal, Mike Riley, had a vision–one I wasn’t against, but one I wasn’t sure how would turn out. I had a long-term relationship with him, so I knew we trusted each other. I listened and honored his request, and added my spin to it. He seemed very pleased. Honestly, I wasn’t sure where it would end up. He not only had a vision, but he also trusted me to carry out his vision in the way that I thought was best. Therefore his support was with me the whole way. It was thrilling. It went like this.

The vision: Build capacity. Take my lead teachers (or potential lead teachers) and grow the work.

Two days back to back of professional development

Day one:

I met with all of the teachers. I told them right away why they were here: “They are doing great things. Their principal sees great things in them and we want to grow leaders in this school.”

I did similar work with them that I did with the coaches above, only I knew it would be their secondary job, so I showed fewer moves.

I modeled in the writing workshop classroom. While I modeled that, I also modeled: What & Why, Inquiry, I do, you do

We came back and debriefed. Then I had them plan for the next day. Because they were such a small group, I tried to get them to try at least two support moves each. Since these teachers are the cream of the crop, they went to town. Their work ethic is impeccable. Not once did they push back. They were a bit nervous, yes, but got right to work and tried it. These teachers taught all different grade levels, and most had never taught in front of each other, so just doing that took looks of courage.

Day two:

To set the tone for their work in the lab site, I started on day two with a getting to know you activity. I shared my favorite song/artist of the moment, and asked them to do the same. They all saw things in each other that they hadn’t seen before learning lots about each other just form this single activity. I then played “Brave” by Sara Bareilles and gave them all compliment cards with fancy stickers on each when they finished.

After that, we decided together how we would move forward. The group came up with a name–Writing Study Group. This is important because I wanted the group to be something like Creating Leaders. They didn’t want others to be resentful of that, so they came up with the writing focus. So smart.

Then we talked about the work they should do between now and my next visit in December. They are planning to visit New York City schools in October and to attend the Reading and Writing Project’s Saturday Reunion. We used that as a mid-way point. What can we accomplish until then? They decided that they will meet at least twice with similar grade levels to practice the work we did that day. Then they would partner up across grades–a lower would partner with and upper to continue practicing the support moves. In addition, this will deepen their understanding of the other grade level’s content. Beautiful. Then, by the time I arrive in December, they will have had a celebrating breakfast inviting another layer of teachers to join. They will each select a partner who they feel could grow alongside of them. At the celebration the principal, will share a bit of the work the teachers have been doing in this. Then the teachers will welcome their partner with a literary gift and they will meet with them at least once before I arrive to do a demonstration mini lesson with them practicing their coach moves.  Throughout all of this, their phenomenal literacy coach, Linda Marshall, and Mike will be visiting and meeting with them to support them along the way.

I return in December and will work with this next layer of teachers along with the original group. The principal wants all of the teachers to be leaders. He does not want it to feel as if it’s an elitist group, but rather a group that is excited, passionate, and working hard to grow as educators.

Since I have been gone…

I am the reading coach at the school that Christy was talking about. When my principal told me his plan, to have Christy work with the new teachers to develop them as lead teachers, I thought, “OK, they are really beautiful teachers, but some of them have only taught 1 full year!” Then he told me he wanted Christy to do some coaches training with them and I will admit I was quite skeptical! I confess I was wrong to be. It was two days of really excellent work with hard working, beautiful young teachers completely dedicated to their craft and to the kiddos and to themselves as professionals. Working through the coaching moves deepened their understanding and also formed a bond among them. They have since been visiting one another’s room, coaching in and giving feedback. It is pretty wonderful to watch. They have even volunteered to help with a brand new teacher (in the words of one “it will give me coaching practice – and it’s the real deal”) and to lift up a team member. We head to New York this weekend for the reunion and our next steps. We are looking for a school to visit on Friday – anyone willing to host a team of eager young teachers and their old coach?

Celebrate your edge coaches, actually!

~Christy & Monique



2 responses »

  1. Wow, Christy! This post is so timely! I have been planning coach trainings and you have provided a clear structure and a sequence of coaching moves that make so much sense. Your quote from Neale Donald Walsch is also timely because this is a talk I just had with some teachers who are out of their comfort zone and needed some help realizing that this is okay and that this is part of the growth process, no matter how experienced we are. Thank you for this gift!


    • Hi Ann! Thanks so much for your positive comments. Don’t you LOVE that quote? I have been thinking so much about “the edge” and how perfectly that describes how we learn best. Your teachers are so lucky to have you. You provide that safe feeling so that teachers can fail and know they will not be judged. How else will they learn? Huge.



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