It’s the day before school starts, hours before the kindergarten classrooms will be filled with parents and students excited to meet their very first teachers at a meet and greet night. The kindergarten teachers are frantically tying loose ends, stapling up final touches, and cutting out laminated bus tags.
In the midst of the chaos, I offered to help and was given the task of compiling parent folders for the meeting that night. Stacks of information were arranged in a semicircle around me. On the left of the ring was a pile of manila folders, on the right was a pile of neatly labeled filled folders.
As a writing coach I’m sometimes hesitant to do this kind of work. I’m concerned about what others will think when I’m making copies, building bulletin boards, and stuffing folders. It would be unfortunate for others to believe an instructional coach doesn’t have enough work to warrant a full-time position. At the same time, I knew this was the most pressing need for the kindergarten teachers.
This is a delicate balance for a coach. To put aside our own to-do lists and instead spend our time relieving stress from teachers by rolling up our sleeves and doing the crucial tasks that they need to complete.
I was in a rhythm, stuffing folders for three teachers, when a voice from the doorway startled me. I jumped when she said, “Are you making writing folders? I’d like to see what you’re putting in them.”
I turned and offered a smile to the teacher in the doorway. “No, I’m making parent folders for the meeting tonight.”
“You do that kind of thing?” Although the question was innocent, I could feel the assumptions being made, the jumps in logic, leading to the wrong conclusion. I could imagine the misunderstood message forming; Coaches are expendable because they don’t have work of their own to do.
Keeping my smile in place, I said, “Today I do.” I finished stuffing the folders. I labeled bus tags. I created sign-up sheets. I wrote a letter to parents. I made copies. I used the paper cutter.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t their gratitude that made me smile. It was the short conversation about launching writing workshop. “Will you come into my classroom and help me?” one of the teachers asked.
“Me too,” the others said.
I smiled. “Absolutely, when do you want to start?”
“How about day two?”
This is the reason I stuff folders and make copies. Those were the most pressing needs at the time. It is a universal truth of humans; until our basic needs are met we are not at our full capacity to learn. By making time to work alongside teachers doing the menial, yet essential tasks, I sent the message that I care about their work. The teachers and their goals of preparing for students were more important than an agenda about writing workshop.
This is the message I trust will prevail. As coaches, how do we move from classroom assistant to an agent of change? Often it doesn’t happen as quickly as it did with the kindergarten teachers, and sometimes it can feel almost magical.
It’s not magic though, rather it is intentionally building relationships. By asking ourselves a few questions, we can nudge into our role as a coach while assisting with needed tasks.
- Can I get to know more about the teacher’s life? Since my position is a writing coach, it’s expected that most of my conversations will be about teaching writers. However, while stuffing folders or building a bulletin board, I can engage in a conversation about life outside of writing workshop. I like to get to know things like: Why did you become a teacher? What do you do after school? What are you reading right now? These kinds of conversations give me a better-rounded glimpse into the teacher. If she became a teacher because reading was hard and she wants to help others learn to read, then I’m able to angle our discussions about writing with this in mind. If I’m building a bulletin board to house writing workshop charts because the teacher wasn’t sure how to go about creating a space to collect writing instruction, then I’m better prepared as a coach.
- What are the ways I can use these tasks to develop a conversation about instruction? If a teacher needs help with a conferring record, I can then step into a conversation about conference structure. When a teacher wants help arranging their classroom furniture, I look for an opportunity to talk about establishing a meeting area or a place for small group instruction. Perhaps I take advantage of the opportunity to help the teacher organize small groups instead of rows. We also talk through procedures for empowering collaboration within the classroom. These are rich discussions that wouldn’t happen if I weren’t willing to roll up my sleeves and help with a to-do list that (at first) doesn’t look like it has anything to do with teaching writers.
- Should I say no to this task? Sometimes I’m asked to do something that doesn’t align with my philosophy of instruction or the goals of writing workshop. If I’m asked to copy a rote drill and practice grammar worksheet, I might ask, “What are your plans for this?” Usually the teacher wants to help students learn and correct an issue in their writing. This gives me the prime opportunity to extend an invitation to teach a minilesson based on student need. Depending on my availability and relationship with the teacher, I might offer to join their workshop and teach a lesson instead of copying the worksheet. Other times, I’ll take a deep breath and copy the worksheet, but also make plans to work together in the near future to incorporate grammar instruction within writing workshop rather than secluded to a worksheet. The tasks that make me prickly are the ones I’m most thankful for. Teachers are doing these things regardless of whether I’m helping them or not. At least I have a realistic understanding of the practices being used in the classroom. This way I can be intentional about the lessons I model and the resources I pass on to teachers in order to nudge growth toward a more genuine version of writing workshop.
- How will I follow up? If I only offer to assist teachers with their to-do lists and never venture into conversations about teaching writers, I become an assistant and fail to do my job. I make notes in my calendar to send an email or set a meeting in order to begin moving more fully into my role as a coach.
Most importantly, I genuinely care about people. If we treat teachers like projects, manipulating them with kindness in order to shove into our coaching roles, their shackles will rise and our efforts will be counter-productive. Rather, be patient. I remember life is full and sometimes life outside of school is even more chaotic than life within the classroom walls. Every minute I spend time with a teacher, whether it’s about writing workshop or something else, is one step closer to building a solid relationship. When relationships are established and trust is built, an effective and strong teacher-coach partnership is established. It is at this point that we both can begin growing as teachers of writers.