I stopped by Monroe School to see the literacy coach, Kate, before the school day began. I was in her office for about five minutes when second-grade teacher Leah burst into the office sobbing. Apparently, a co-worker had insulted her in the committee meeting. Kate listened sympathetically, offering tissues and chocolate. She didn't agree, disagree, or even attempt to give any advice. She asked questions like, "What are you going to do to let Yolanda know how you feel? Do you have any ideas about how you are going to resolve this and get on with your good working relationship with Yolanda?" Leah eventually pulled herself together, thanked Kate for listening, and returned to the meeting.
Kate and I had only briefly resumed our conversation when Yolanda came in. She was also very upset. Kate listened to her, too, and asked her similar questions. Yolanda grabbed a handful of chokisses, thanked Kate, and went to find Leah. When Kate and I were finally alone, I commented that the faculty at Monroe School clearly trusted her. It isn't often that two feuding factions seek out the same party for solace.
Later that week I visited Terry, a new literacy coach. Terry said that she has been spending most of her time hiding in the bookroom. She reported that her first whole school professional development session on writing workshop was coolly received by the faculty. When she came upon two teachers in the lounge talking about how to juggle mini-lessons, conferences, and responding to student papers, she offered to help them plan. They immediately replied, almost in unison, "No, thanks." Terry attends all grade level meetings. She says that the teachers are non-responsive to her suggestions. When she discovered an experienced teacher struggling with a new assessment, Terry offered to help her. That refusal sent her running back to the bookroom.
What can Terry do to develop the kind of relationships that Kate has with teachers? First, Terry and I started with the words of some of our favorite mentor coaches. Jennifer Allen advises coaches to go where you're invited, be on time, follow through, don't make a teacher wait, take time to talk, and build trust (Allen, Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning And Change, p. 109). Cheryl Dozier says that she places artifacts on her desk — things like photos, a feng shui box, sculptures, cards, and books. Cheryl says that the artifacts invite conversation, and conversation opens the door to relationships (Dozier, Responsive Literacy Coaching: Tools for Creating and Sustaining Purposeful Change, p. 7). Then I thought about techniques used by the successful coaches in our network. Here are eight of their sure-fire relationship building strategies.
1. Begin with Book Clubs
Middle school coach Barb discovered that book clubs were a great way to build relationships. She invited teachers to read a YA book that was currently popular with the students attending their school. Barb was surprised that she had a full house at her early morning book club meeting. The book club talk often led to conversations about the members' personal lives. Members began connecting with each other. The word got out about the breakfast book club. When Barb advertised the next book, she had so many people sign up that she had to form two groups. Barb thinks the key to the book clubs' success was starting with a non-threatening book. An added bonus was that teachers got to practice the same literature discussion strategies that they are teaching their students.
2. Bond Over Life Outside the Classroom
It started innocently enough. Literacy coach Denise was engaged in small talk with a couple of teachers who had arrived early for a grade level meeting. The conversation drifted to American Idol. Each teacher had strong ideas about who they thought should win, and before you knew it, the American Idol pool was started. The teachers got together every morning after American Idol was broadcast to discuss the show and see who was still in the pool. No, it isn't related to literacy, but it helped build the solid relationships that Denise enjoys with the teachers in her building.
3. Realize "Crunch Time" Support is Most Valued
Many teachers show up at their school buildings a couple weeks before the school year begins (without pay) to do some of the dirty work and heavy lifting involved in getting started. There is furniture to arrange, libraries to organize, closets to clean, and classroom displays to create. Literacy coach Julie has discovered that this is the perfect time to connect with teachers. She contacts teachers and offers them her assistance for a block of time on a certain day. Of course, nobody turns her down. Julie rolls up her sleeves and pitches right in. Teachers who are willing to reveal their messy closets have already demonstrated a level of trust.
4. Use Information from Icebreaker Activities
One of Sarah's favorite icebreaker activities for whole school professional development sessions is "three truths and a lie." In this activity, the speaker makes four statements and the audience attempts to identify which statement is the lie. Through this activity, Sarah has learned interesting things about the teachers at her school. One teacher gives dog obedience classes on Saturdays. Another teacher's goal is to run a marathon in all 50 states, and she has run in 28 states so far. Another teacher is in a cousin club and has 100 cousins.
You might think that this activity would just leave a coach with a list of useless, trivial facts. However, Sarah has found that these facts have been wonderful resources in supporting teachers. The "dog trainer teacher" was always quiet and a little stand-offish with Sarah. However, Sarah got involved in a lively and animated conversation with him after she read Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog (Grogan, 2005), the story of an unruly yellow Labrador Retriever. After that conversation, he now smiles and greets her every day. Sarah successfully used running training metaphors to support the marathon runner during writing workshop. The teacher was impatient because her students became distracted and started chatting after about 15 minutes of writing. All of her professional books suggested that students should write for 40 minutes. Sarah remarked that her students needed to build stamina. She reminded her that she didn't run 26.2 miles on her first run. The teacher immediately understood, and worked on a plan to build her students' writing stamina.
5. Learn from Communication Experts
Joanne came to education as a second career. Before becoming a teacher, she was a corporate communications director. She finds that her knowledge of communication is a key to her success in building relationships. Joanne says that she always hears other coaches talk about having conversations "on the run." She resists this behavior. When teachers talk to her, Joanne not only listens to what they say, she pays attention to nonverbal cues, too. She notices their posture, eye contact, facial expressions, and attentiveness. In addition to noticing nonverbal cues, Joanne also "actively listens." She maintains eye contact and a relaxed posture. She smiles, nods, and never interrupts. When the teacher finishes talking, Joanne always tells the teacher what she has heard. She acknowledges the teacher's emotions and doesn't rush to jump right in with suggestions. The value of using these communication strategies is that teachers feel that they really have been heard. Often, that is enough.
6. Fetch Books and Get Gratitude in Return
What does a teacher do when s/he needs a book to read aloud during the westward movement unit? S/he asks the literacy coach! One of the best ways to build a positive relationship with teachers is to find the materials and resources that they need to do their job. Sometimes, a coach has to take the initiative and just show up with the right book at the right time.
7. Be a Bathroom Break Provider
One of the dirty little secrets of the teaching profession is that teachers can't always get to the bathroom. Literacy coach Bonnie makes a note on her daily schedule listing the teachers who have no preparation periods that day. She tries to pop into their room mid-morning (when the coffee kicks in) or mid-afternoon (when the can of diet soda kicks in) with a book and offer to read aloud to their students. Bonnie reports that the grateful teachers often make a beeline for the bathroom and usually returns in less than five minutes. Such a little thing goes a long way towards building strong relationships. An added bonus is that Bonnie gets to test new read alouds with children.
8. The Answer to Any Problem Often Begins with Chocolate
I have noticed that successful coaches always have chocolate. Cheryl Dozier reports that she always has chocolate on her desk, and so does Kate. So Terry is going to go out and buy a bag of kisses, give teachers bathroom breaks, work on effective communication strategies, and think about a quick, light read for a book club. We'll see how she does.