Coaching IS Teaching

It can be hard to describe just what an instructional coach is and does.

For the past two years, this has been the opening line to my context – or welcome-back – letter to teachers. This past spring, it became the opening to my cover letter as I applied to a new school, and it was no surprise that it was part of my answer to their first interview question. As it does in my letter, this line leads into a vision for coaching:

When my husband talks about my job, he starts by saying, “She’s a teacher’s teacher.” And, as usual, he’s right; I am constantly seeing and seeking the parallels between my job as coach and yours, as teacher.

So, with this, let me introduce a new category for the blog: Parallel Practice.

Parallel practice: The idea that, as coaches, our practices reflect the interactions we expect to see between teachers and learners in our classrooms.

Here’s how that sounds in this year’s letter:

Just like you do for your students, I design and enhance learning experiences – for whole-group, small-group (think PLCs) and 1:1 coaching opportunities – to ensure that you realize a year of growth.

Sometimes this process crosses over the mid-line of parallel, especially as we navigated uncharted waters in the past year. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, I added this to my context letter:

Last March, when we were all sent home, I got stuck.  Unsure of what to do, of how to help, of where to focus (even how to focus), I got stuck. The only thing that pulled me out was a question I find myself asking more and more these days:  

If it were me – if it were my classroom and my students – what would I need? 

What followed was several days of making lessons, not for the outcome necessarily, but for the practice.  It’s something I’m coming to realize about coaching: When I get stuck, what I  need is to lean in and do the work that you are doing.  Likely not as well as you do, but to coach you, I need to understand the work.  To coach you, I’ve got to get into the arena with you.  To coach you, I need to learn from your experience as if it were my own, from your students as if they were my own.

Little did I know last spring that I’d spend this past year putting my money where my mouth is, teaching 6th grade remotely all the while trying to maintain a coaching presence. It has helped me to affirm my beliefs about coaching, helped me to set intentions for the coming year, helped guide my initial interactions with teachers at my new school in a way that I hope parallels what teachers intend for their students come fall.

To teach and learn well, we must be well.

Right now, as someone new to this crew, this one means that when our school hosts a literacy event at a pizza place up north, I take my daughter along and spend a summer evening with a few teachers, our principal, a few families, and Humphrey, the hamster, from the pages of our “One Book, One Family” summer read. Just like we might on a back-to-school night, I am starting to get a baseline for well-being, not just for the people who are becoming more familiar, but for the community and culture I am now a member of.

To coach you well, I must get to know you well.

As a teacher, this one leads us into one-on-one conferences with every student within the first days of school; as coach, it will bring me into every classroom for a visit on the same timeline. For now, I am making sure to take note of who used to teach at my former school, who is excited to integrate units of study next year, and who are my Days of Our Lives fans. It’s the details that make the difference.

What I know grows as we learn alongside one another; I am not the expert.

Yesterday, I finished the second day of a summer institute about integrating reading and writing units, a choice for summer learning inspired by the teacher noted above. Hosted by Ellin Keene, Matt Glover, and Georgia Heard, this workshop has propelled me toward the fall with a better vision for how I might connect what I know about literacy workshops, an authentic purpose to dive back into our district’s curriculum documents after years guided by a literacy program, and a few new things to grapple with as I start the new year (and start drafting a new book).

I am so excited to get started together. Here’s to an amazing year!

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