Growing Teacher Leaders

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As the new school year begins, I am entering my third year as an instructional coach. This year I will serve K-2 teachers at two elementary sites within our district. This is a new coaching model that our district is moving to in order for our coaching team to have a stronger focus, impact student achievement, and achieve district goals.

In Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she outlines some specific ways that coaches can achieve success over time. These ways include knowing our purpose, sharing the vision, and maintaining a strong focus.  As our team embarks on this new coaching model, like Allen, we must ask ourselves, what is our focus and what are we willing to give up so that we can identify a small number of high-leverage moves that will help us reach our goals?

One of the challenges of this kind of successful coaching is scheduling. Being able to attend every grade level meeting is not possible. Allen acknowledges this challenge and the need for structures to be in place in order to “propel the momentum of our work.” For the work to be sustainable, it cannot only be dependent on one or two people. This is where teacher leadership must be cultivated in order to fill the gaps that having only one coach can leave.

Allen outlines a process that utilizes teacher leaders. This process provides a way for teachers to work and make meaning together and hold a common interpretation of the curriculum. The belief is that this raises the level of consistency in implementation of the curriculum, therefore, raising student achievement. The teacher leader facilitates the work based on what the team wants to emphasize.

Two reflection templates are provided with questions for teachers to consider.

  1. Reflecting on Curriculum Units

What do you notice?

What questions do you have?

What are the key understandings for the unit?

What do you still need?

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  1. Reflecting on Student Work

What does the student know in regards to the learning goal?

What are the next steps for instruction?

How will progress be monitored?

What does the student still need to demonstrate to meet the learning goal?

Are any confusions or misconceptions observed?

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I am excited about this process since it gives me another tool to use in helping cultivate leaders and help teachers take ownership over their grade level meetings. It’s that next step I have needed as I reflect on my previous experiences with grade level meetings. The idea of helping facilitate meetings that will give teachers direction, a shared understanding of their unit, opportunities to share effective instructional strategies, and reflect on student work with common expectations makes this coach excited to get started. Let the growing of teacher leaders begin!

What Did You Do Today?

Every day for the past two weeks since starting my new coaching position my husband has asked me this question.  Only knowing me as a classroom teacher for the past seventeen years, I think he is trying to wrap his head around what exactly it is that I do all day.  I think I am too.  

It feels foreign to not have a group of first graders waiting for me to get there each day.  I didn’t have to prepare a classroom for Meet the Teacher Day or think through how I would spend the first few days building community.   It is the weirdest feeling to walk on campus each morning and realize that no one is waiting for me.  This is freaking me out a bit.  I have all these insecurities and questions rolling through my head.  What if the teachers think I am doing nothing while they are in the trenches with kids?  What if my administrator thinks I am doing nothing all day because I don’t have lesson plans written or a room full of children?  What do I have to show for how my time is spent at the end of each day?  I’m pretty sure that my husband keeps asking because he is worried after leaving my “safe” job that maybe if I’m not looking busy enough unemployment is just around the corner!

This is why I am now holding on to, Chapter Sixteen: Nuts and Bolts-Scheduling and Budgeting, for dear life.  This chapter answers and confirms that my insecurities might not be far off.  That if I want to be perceived as an equal member of the school community, I have to find a tangible way to reflect the intangible things that have kept me busy and exhausted each day.  That teachers ARE probably thinking, What does she do all day?  Here are the things I have started working on and thinking about to keep myself accountable and to document my time so that all of those questions mentioned can be answered quickly and easily.

First, I am creating an amazing literacy space for teachers and students that started out two weeks ago as a room filled with boxes of books and empty shelves.  The mascot of our sweet little school is the Knights.  Therefore, I decided the space where the kids and teachers will come to find books and resources needed to look and feel like a castle.  It will be called, The Knight’s Nook, and children will be summoned by a princess (the head of our lower school) to come and be dubbed the Knights of the Reading Round Table (thank goodness that is the shape of the tables that got left in the room).  The transformation of this space is something tangible everyone can see and the fact that we are surprising everyone with a big reveal builds anticipation and excitement around reading.  This will be my first gift of literacy to the school.

Second, I have made it a goal to have my schedule visible to all by the end of the second week so everyone knows where I am and what I am doing.  The first few weeks I wanted to give the teacher’s time with their students to get to know them, finish assessments and build a classroom community before I inserted myself.  In the meantime, I have been stopping in, offering teacher’s coverage for bathroom breaks or to refill their water bottles and reading aloud to the kids so I can begin to get to know them in my own way.  I have been complimenting the amazing environments teachers have set up for students, noticing how much they know their students already and empathizing over how tough the first few weeks of school really are. This has helped teachers see that although I haven’t started my “real” job yet, I am not sitting in a room by myself doing nothing while they are in the trenches.

Third, I have been collecting questions and ideas so that when I meet with my administrator we can have a specific, smart conversation about my role as the literacy coach.  We can decide bottom lines, non-negotiables and where I fit.  She will be able to see through these questions and observations how I have been spending the last few weeks-knee deep in observation and reflection to help decide next steps.

Finally, I am going to take Jennifer’s advice and start documenting my day.  Even though I will have a visible schedule, it will be important to write down all that I am accomplishing in a day when I am not in a classroom.  The conversations, the planning both short and long-term and the gathering of resources.  I want anyone who asks to see how valuable my position is to the literacy reform of the school.  To quickly see that even though my day is more flexible, it is full.

In doing all of these things as my next steps, in this new position in a new school, I am hoping that my day is transparent, people see my worth and are excited and able to trust me to help them grow as literacy leaders themselves.  I am hoping that this will calm my anxieties and the questions running through my head (and my husband’s as well).  So, what did I do today?  Sit back and get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to tell you!

Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

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While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.

Individualized Coaching

I am going into my third year as an instructional coach and  what a journey it has been!  I must confess that I was completely comfortable with being a classroom teacher.  I knew how to be an effective teacher; I knew and understood my district’s and state’s standards and expectations; I could teach the curriculum;  I could manage my students (and their parents);  and I worked with a great team.  I had this teaching thing figured out, life was good!

Soon, an instructional coaching position became available.  To make the situation more lucrative, the position was available at my current school.  So, I applied.  Then, after a few rounds of interviews, I was offered the position.

I soon found myself in the world of coaching, and it was a different world for me.  Here is why coaching was different for me..the teachers.  I was faced with motivating, encouraging, and helping/coaching teachers.  How in the world does an instructional coach do that???  See, I didn’t have any previous experience with working with adults.  Most of my teaching was to six or seven-year olds.  I was now faced with communicating with adults.

Out of all my fears and uncertainties, I was certain of one thing, I wanted teachers to grow.  From my perspective, the most important aspect of my job is to provide opportunities for teachers to grow.  

Well, there could be a wide range of teacher’s abilities within one school.  There can be novice teachers and there can be veteran teachers.  It is essential for each group of teachers to be equipped with skills and strategies that can be readily used within their classroom.

There are so many ways to coach teachers.  You can coach by grade level, by content, and through book studies.   The question then becomes,which method is the best method.  One practical way to coach teachers is with individualized coaching..  

Individualized Coaching is a great tool to use to offer differentiated support.  This will allow you to support your veteran teachers and your novice teachers.  Let’s take a look at how individualized coaching will look for novice teachers first.

Novice teachers need guidance.  They need to understand the state’s standards and the district’s expectations regarding their respective grade level.  They also need to understand what they are expected to teach children.  

Jennifer Allen explained one way her district helps their novice and new-to-the-district teachers.  She states that within her district teachers new to the district are apart of  a “monthly release day with other teachers who are new to the profession or new to our district…it is intended as a gift of time to support them and help keep their heads above water in the craziness of starting the school year and entering our fast-paced profession”.  Don’t you remember your very first year of teaching?? Did you feel like a fish out of water?  I know I did.  Giving new teachers an opportunity to collaborate together builds camaraderie, it also allows you, as an instructional coach, to give specific, directed direction towards their needs. If you are not able to support a monthly release day, it is still beneficial to meet with those new teachers.  I am sure any help with planning would be greatly appreciated.

Beginning of the year assessments is another area of need. Allen mentioned that she works with her teachers three times a week.  My heart smiled when reading this because I often worry about being in a teacher’s way if I am in their room too much.  Here she provides heavy support for teachers with assessments in the beginning of year.  

Here are a few other areas to think about when working with your new teachers:    Is there a school wide discipline program?  What are the instructional expectations for teachers?  How will they (the teachers) be evaluated?  These are all questions that will help your teachers become acclimated with your school’s culture.

Working with master teachers looks a bit different.  It is a collaborative effort.  For example, a master teacher may come to you and want help with using mentor sentences to help with teaching grammar.  Instead of you researching and reading and modeling, this step is done together.  You and the teacher work together towards the same goal.  

When modeling in the classroom, it may look more like co-teaching.  You may begin teaching the lesson to students and then the roles may switch.  This requires trust!  Teachers will need to view you as a partner in learning and understanding, a facilitator.

Both groups of teachers will need your support.  It will just look a little different.  

What is your ultimate goal in coaching teachers? My goal, as stated above, is growth.  It may be growth in the implementation of small groups, or assessments, or classroom management, or the workshop model.  I strive to help teachers grow….which means they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone.  

The greatest growth I have achieved as an educator has been working as an instructional coach.  It’s not because of the title, it’s because this position has pushed me outside my comfort zone…..way outside my comfort zone.  I wasn’t comfortable; I was uncomfortable, and this caused me to learn…to grow.

So, take a deep breath and use your coaching time as opportunities to push yourself to do something new…take a risk…do the same for your teachers and your students…and watch yourself, your teachers, and your students FLY!

The most important feature of an educator is to provide the conditions under which people’s learning curves go off the chart.  Sometimes it is the other people’s learning curves:  those of students, teachers, parents, administrators.  But at all times it is our learning curve.

– Roland Barth from Becoming A Literacy Leader

What has PD done for you lately?

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As I come to the end of my third year as an Instructional Coach, I realize each and every day that there is so much to learn not only about the content of professional development but how to “hook” teachers into attending professional development.

Face it, we have all been there when we have attended professional development that we feel like is being done TO us instead of FOR us. Time and resources are precious, so as literacy leaders in your building or district, you are charged with the task of creating and delivering relevant professional learning opportunities.

What I loved about Jennifer Allen’s chapter titled “Study Groups: Developing Voluntary Professional Development” is that she spoke candidly about how teachers often are “thirsty” for professional development, and what they receive isn’t quenching their thirst with the perfect drink. Providing professional development should be about meeting the needs of your audience – whether it is a school faculty, a grade level team, or an individual. Professional development should be about learning, which takes instruction to the next level and leads to gains in student achievement.

However, professional development has to be more than this. It is the literacy leader’s job to create an environment where support is given, communication is open and honest, and teachers feel safe to try new practices. Teachers have plenty to “do” already. Professional development shouldn’t be just one more item on the “To Do” list to be checked off and move on; it should spur us on to be better at what we do! I have loved this entire book and have written so many notes in the margins that I have an additional notebook titled “Ideas for 2017-18”.

This book has challenged me to become a better instructional coach and literacy leader for the teachers I serve. Chapter 4 hit a chord with me, especially when Jen said:

Our goal is not to ‘become’ the teachers who we are exploring but to gain insights from their best practices in literacy.

She hits the nail on the head. This is the drink to quench us all, and it’s the opportunity to individualize the learning for all involved. She outlines perfectly what our role as literacy leaders is in study groups, how to pinpoint a focus our resources, planning, and scheduling, and establish a predictable routine. Jen outlines a possible agenda for professional development offerings:

• Discussion/Sharing
• Video Clip
• Reading Excerpt
• Toolbox
• Putting Ideas into Practice
• Follow-Up Between Sessions

Perhaps my favorite portion of the chapter was the section titled “What’s Not On a Study-Group Agenda”. Jen addresses the essential but unwritten components of environment and appreciation. Carving out time to create both a personal and professional side to the study group will allow teachers to feel appreciated and valued. Most people would be willing to work much harder for a group, team, or organization if they know that they are cared for as a person and a professional.

We can never underestimate the importance of providing some great snacks too! “It is collegiality, collaboration, and safe learning environment that make study groups work as a viable form of in-house professional development”. This book has challenged me to take my coaching to the next level, to take what this book has taught me and lift my skills to become a more effective literacy leader and for that, I will forever be grateful of this study.

Summer Book Buzz

As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!

In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”

I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.

Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something  from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.

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As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.

Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
4. Comments:

Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!