Friends and colleagues often ask if I miss working in the classroom. My first answer is always “Yes. I will always miss the classroom because my heart is there.” Most people who work close to me know I was a literacy coach years ago and returned to the classroom because I missed working alongside a community of students. Most people know I am passionate about the work I do with young learners—especially when it comes to literacy.
Yet, to be honest, returning to coaching this time feels different. When I am asked if I miss the classroom, I know there is a deeper, more honest answer for me now. When I hear myself say, “Yes. I will always miss the classroom because my heart is there,” I know I haven’t left the classroom this time. I work hard to find opportunities to be in classrooms where I still find my joy. Additionally, I have to say I have truly found a love for working alongside adults who constantly push my thinking, even when that work is hard. Since leaving the classroom most recently, something has changed: I have transformed my teaching heart into a coaching heart.
I know many of my coaching colleagues wrestle with this same challenge. It can be hard to find where we fit. Our sense of belonging can feel very different from how it did when we were surrounded by a group of 25 young learners. Coaching is certainly a gift in partnership. As coaches, how lucky are we to have the privilege of working and learning alongside our colleagues? Often, however, the road to coaching can be bumpy. Many of us are encouraged to take positions as coaches because of the work we have done in classrooms alongside students. We’ve been successful at growing learning communities with young learners and developing our practices in teaching.
There are certainly things about teaching we can apply to our coaching. Whether sitting beside a student or beside a colleague, we know that every learner is different. We’ve learned the art of growing conversations across our communities, differentiating for small groups, and digging deeper while sitting side by side with others. We know that listening is essential in supporting both. Much of what we learned and applied in our classroom communities can be applied to adults, but there are differences.
Toward a Coaching Heart
For each of us, our first steps in coaching have been different. Districts certainly have varied ways to support our first steps and provide opportunities for us to grow in our work. Teachers entering the role of coaching have often been selected because of their heart for the classroom. When I think about our team of coaches, I know that every one of the coaches has a heart for the classroom. I think it’s essential. It’s what builds the thirst to be beside children in their classroom communities. It’s what pushes the drive to reach out to our colleagues in partnership. It’s what others notice when they hear a coach talk or watch her work with students. It’s the magic.
That being said, as we transition to our work as coaches, we have to have a heart that is big enough to grow into the work of coaching. To be a successful coach, having a heart for the classroom isn’t enough. I have worked alongside coaches who were amazing classroom teachers and could do the work with adults, but never really found a love for it. There are certainly a lot of factors that play into the success of growing our coaching hearts.
A thirst for learning. Often teachers move into positions of coaching because of their knowledge of particular content. They often possess a knowledge of learning development for children at a particular stage or age range. Although this knowledge builds a helpful base, it is the desire to always learn more that helps a coach be successful.
A reflective stance. In moving toward a coaching heart, we have to be reflective about our own strengths and the areas we need to grow as a learner. An awareness of self is required to help us step away from our work and ask ourselves hard questions.
The ability to revise our definition of community. One of the biggest obstacles to shifting our teaching heart to a coaching heart is community. As teachers, we’ve learned the rhythms of shaping a community in a school year. We’ve learned to lift the voices of children and weave them together to knit a community of learners. Coaching can be lonely work, if we aren’t careful. Our community is no longer a classroom of children, but an entire building. Our community is full of adults and children. No longer is it shaped by a school year; instead it is carried across multiple years. To grow a coaching heart we have to be able to find the love for this larger community.
Opening Doors for Others
The final step toward growing a coaching heart is understanding our role as a partner in learning. We would all agree that we learned a lot from the children we taught across the years, but we can learn even more from the adults with whom we partner. Shifting from a classroom teacher heart to the heart of coach means always having an eye toward opening the door for others; it’s having a vision for what lies ahead. As coaches we often feel we have to have all the answers, but haven’t we accomplished more if we’ve helped someone else find their own solution? There’s something about that feeling of flow in a conversation we have with a colleague in which we know we are learning as much as the person beside us.
One of my favorite books to think about opening doors for others is Mutlipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman. This book talks about the ways we unintentionally close doors for others while also shining a light on the ways we can open them. In talking about multipliers she says, “Multipliers liberate people from the oppressive forces within a corporate hierarchy. They liberate people to think, to speak, and to act with reason. They create an environment where the best ideas surface and where people do their best work. They give people permission to think (loc 1165).”
Coaches Open Doors
Coaches open doors as they do the following:
Learn to use language to shift the power to the person beside them. As coaches, we use language to create a space for reflection. We learn to ask questions that give colleagues the opportunity to think through the teaching and learning happening in their busy learning communities. We stay away from coulds and shoulds, knowing that everyone will need to find their own path.
Enter conversations with curiosity. Maintaining a stance of curiosity positions the person you’re sitting beside as the leader of the inquiry. It allows us to learn alongside colleagues and dig into questions with interest. Entering with curiosity makes the work interesting and helps us find a common space.
Use the feedback from others to shape opportunities. Requesting feedback is one thing; actually using it is another. A coach always wants the time colleagues take for meetings, conversations, and coaching opportunities to be valuable to our partners. For this reason, we listen carefully and ask for feedback to constantly shape and reshape the work we do.
Recently we asked a group of coaches and one of their partner teachers to come and talk about what they have learned together. Teachers talked about the times they were really stuck with a student and the coach walked alongside them to puzzle out new possibilities. They shared times the coach helped them see progress they had missed in their day-to-day work with students. They shared about really hard times when their class wasn’t going as they thought it should and the coach came to walk alongside them. They shared about times they wanted to try something new and their coach supported their interest. Finally one teacher, sitting beside her coach, looked at the group and said, “The best thing about working with Melissa is that she helps me maintain a bigger vision in the work I do. She reminds me that I am shaping readers, writers, and mathematicians when I get caught up in the little skills and bumps along the way.”
Listening to the teachers share their stories as coaches talked about all they had learned in these same partnerships was reaffirming. My coaching heart just smiled. Although I will always carry fond memories of the classroom communities I’ve taught and will continue to feel a bit awkward on first days, last days, and celebratory days at school, I know that I’ve finally found my coaching heart.