As a literacy coach, I am very interested in the progress of our students and value that data as an indicator of the success of my work. I also solicit more direct and specific information about how the teachers felt about the job I am doing as their literacy coach. So, I developed a feedback form for teachers to complete and return to me anonymously. You can access it by clicking here.
The feedback form focuses primarily on relationships. I want to know if the teachers feel like our working relationships are growing. This gives me interesting data to support the impressions I have of our year working together. I also want to know if teachers feel like our professional learning sessions had been productive and valuable for them.
In addition to the feedback I pursue, I notice and collect unsolicited evaluations. These are the pieces of information we get from teachers and administrators that tell us they think our work is effective. When a teacher hugs me and says “thank you,” that is an unsolicited evaluation. When a child writes me a poem, it is also an unsolicited evaluation. Unsolicited evaluations can be positive or negative, but I encourage coaches to cling tightly to the positive.
Anytime a teacher asks for a literacy coach’s opinion, asks the literacy coach to visit his class, asks the literacy coach to demonstrate a lesson, or asks the literacy coach to listen to a child read, the coach is getting feedback on the work she is doing. I encourage you to let these pieces of informal, evaluative information pile up in your head. Literally give yourself a mental image of something that accumulates: old newspapers or the letters to Santa the post office receives every year. If we took all these pieces of positive information that we receive and let them pile up, if we recognized the magnitude of the work we and the teachers with whom we work are doing, and if we understood that we can intelligently and systematically take care of ourselves, then we would be able to do our jobs even better.
Burning the Past
Focusing on our positive feedback, solicited or unsolicited, isn’t always easy, and we tend to let the negatives pile up in our minds and send the positives out with the morning trash. When I was first out of undergraduate school and I was teaching, I moved up with a group of students for three years. Among that group was a child, we’ll call her Jane, who struggled terribly. I honestly had little idea of how to help her. I had been taught that if I just surrounded children with books they would learn to read from sheer exposure. In my undergraduate work I received little, if any, specific information about how to help children learn to read. In college, I learned of some lovely children’s books and I made a game to reinforce vowel sounds, but this did little to equip me for the real world of literacy instruction.
Jane’s parents grew angry with me and I couldn’t blame them. I was never able to help Jane, and the dismay associated with that effort was what pushed me to graduate work in literacy.
Toward the end of our third year together, her father wrote me a horrible note. He was furious and the contents of the letter were unkind and even inappropriate. However, on some level, I felt that his harsh words were justified. To some extent they assuaged my guilt.
One night when I was working on my doctorate, I was out with some other teaching assistants. Something triggered my memory of Jane, and I told my friends the whole story. Then, to their amazement, I pulled the letter out of my purse and read it to them. They were taken aback, not by the father’s harshness, but by the fact that I carried this horrible note with me everywhere I went.
My friends made me ceremonially light the letter on fire in the candle at our table! This felt good, not so much because I was getting rid of the note, but because my friends had given me permission to let go of my sense of hurt and failure, and they had validated me enough to help me move forward. To my surprise, each of them had taught a “Jane” and received a similar note. It is difficult in our most dejected states to recognize the universality of most human experiences. Unlike me, however, my friends had shed their guilt years prior, or at least had figured out how to put their culpability in “Jane’s” situation into a place that was safe for them.
Why What We Hold Onto Matters
Needless to say, I have received many kind notes from parents during my time in education and these never make it into my purse for long-term reflection. It is much easier for us to hang on to our failures than our successes, and our really big failures we hold onto very tightly. This is a habit most of us have developed; perhaps guilt is the currency with which we buy our way into our “success” — driven culture.
I am a different person now. I keep positive relics stashed all over my life. I am strategic in psychologically setting the hurtful messages ablaze in my head, and I try to linger over gestures that are emotionally reinforcing. I’m not always successful. There are too many people in my school and in my life for them all to be constantly satisfied with me; so I receive my share of negative messages. However, I usually get enough positive responses to keep my psyche afloat, and I am learning to tread water myself a little bit, too.
Coaches should literally collect positive souvenirs of their work life. There are encouraging artifacts that stamp our lives and we need to save them and let them accumulate. Anytime someone tells us in writing something positive about our work, we should hold on to it. Perhaps, if we literally collect bits of positivity and file them, our minds will develop the habit of looking for the positive in the work we do.