A literacy coach writes to us with the question:
How do you work with a teacher who refuses to be a collaborative part of a team? She does her own thing without regard for other team members. Her students are not exposed to the same curriculum as the other students but she feels they are learning at their own pace. She has a literacy coach working with her but doesn't follow through on any suggestions to improve her teaching. She believes kids will learn when they are ready. Any suggestions?
Remember the days when innovation meant closing your classroom door, doing whatever you pleased, and not answering to anyone? Those days are long gone. We define good teaching in many ways, but there is no question that part of that definition includes a willingness to collaborate with colleagues around shared goals and standards.
Yet not everyone plays well with others, and there can even be some very good reasons for resisting mandates or going against the flow when it comes to mandates and teamwork. The challenge for literacy leaders is to figure out how to bring everyone together as a community, yet still find room for innovation. Not to mention the sticky issues of personality differences and ego that emerge when colleagues refuse to conform to standards.
We asked some of the Choice Literacy contributors with mentoring experience to share their advice for working with defiant teachers. Due to the sensitive nature of the question, we've disguised the identities of the responders, so that they could share freely from their own experiences of working with colleagues who wouldn't budge. What's common in their answers is an acknowledgment that there are no easy answers.
This response from a college professor who leads a new teacher mentoring group affirms that we can't reach everyone:
My basic response is that perhaps the toughest part of the job of literacy coach is to recognize that we can't "fix" the teachers with whom we work. You can't make them collaborate or "get it." My stance with these teachers is to change my relationship with them to that of colleague in the workplace that I hope to have a good relationship with, rather than collaborator or support system. In my experience, continuing to place timely articles in their mailboxes or suggesting good dvds or curriculum help is not accepted as continued interest, but more with irritation.
I would seek to maintain a cordial relationship–maybe somewhat superficially, chatting about things like checking in on family or garden, or other interests. Down the road, she may be more interested in being involved in the good stuff the rest of you are doing and you need to make sure she doesn't feel isolated. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't waste a lot of time on her. It's better to focus your energy on the people who do want your help and are eager for collaboration rather than trying to drag her along.
A contributor with experience as a literacy coach, curriculum coordinator and classroom teacher writes:
I have been thinking about this as I watch people accept or reject new teaching technologies. It is interesting to me to watch from the outside and to see what makes people jump in or avoid moving forward. One of the hardest things for me, as a coach, was to jump into what I considered "bad practice." I have since learned that jumping in to support the teacher at the place where his/her teaching is right now, is the best idea. So, I go in to support, coteach, plan, whatever for a study that might not be something I think is right/good/inline with district or state standards. But I use it as a way to build a relationship, learn about the teacher. Often, I find that these teachers are far more thoughtful than we give them credit for. They have reasons for doing what they do and working together in any way helps me to learn more. Then, hopefully, our next project is a little closer to what I am working toward as a coach. Supporting them where they are–without judgment–seems to be the key. I believe that 99% of the time, teachers are doing what they believe to be right for their kids. Often, when we get into their thinking a bit, we find out what that thinking is and then we can begin conversations.
Does that help? I worry that even coaches now are starting to teacher-bash. This teacher sounds like someone who may be standing her ground against this testing environment. Or maybe avoiding leveled books for all. Who knows if she is avoiding something because she is protecting her students from something she sees is harmful? I worry that coaches are going to lose sight of learning from teachers and being colleagues with the current pressure on them too. (My thinking from the email was that this was from an administrator who wanted the coach to do more and was almost putting the two against each other, which can never work . . .)
The coordinator of a large literacy coaching network has no easy answers:
We have had more coaches in tears over this issue than any other. Unfortunately, there is no short-term answer. The first step is building relationships. The teacher has to trust the coach and feel safe with the coach. It sounds like the teacher has taken a defensive stance. Jennifer Allen has taught us to spend less energy on the teachers in the outer ring (see below).
Hopefully, a coach who is focusing on building relationships will draw that teacher into one of the inner circle. Diane Sweeney has taught us to keep the focus on children's work, rather than teacher skills. It's long- term work.
From a classroom teacher with extensive coaching experience, it all comes down to relationships:
I had many personal relationships with people that never spilled over to a professional one. I had to accept that the friendly chatter with no professional focus was all the colleague wanted.
The biggest successes I had as a coach/mentor were the times that people really wanted me in their class — they wanted to study the workshop model, and how it would work for them. That's where my energy as a coach/mentor came from.
Ironically, some of those hard-to-get-to teachers would see the successes of colleagues, and dip their toes into better practices — it could range from starting to identify genres with kids, to incorporating a reading log with their students, to developing lessons together within a workshop framework for focused writing units, to having students look back at their reading logs for a trimester and reflect about themselves as readers, to asking me to find some good short text to use with kids, to actually starting to meet with strategy groups based on need during reading or writing time.
Even with those successes, I never got 100% buy-in. I work in a district where literacy workshop model is the mandated model for the last two years, and I know there's still not compliance with that. I do feel like we need our school administrators to be more informed about best practice in language arts. Without administrators' support, I think this is a large burden for a mentor/coach to shoulder on their own. When we are someone's peer, we can assist and encourage and can reflect with other teachers about best practice, but the final decision is not ours.
Another veteran literacy coach considers the issue from the viewpoint of the teacher resisting the mandates:
I have often tried to put myself in the shoes of veteran teachers. It must be unsettling to have many years of experience and to be required to take on or nudged into new practice that may be in stark contrast to the methods that you know well, methods that have "worked" for students. I think back to my mentor Janet, who helped me when I was a first-year teacher. She was very traditional. You could say that we approached literacy differently. I implemented a workshop approach and she implemented a more individualized reading program. She had 30 years experience on me. But what struck me over the years of working together with her on the third-grade team was her knowledge of her students. Let me tell you, she knew kids, she knew reading, and she knew how to get them to read. Does it really matter that we approached literacy differently? Isn't the bottom line student learning? I guess the more I coach the more I believe that the focus should be on what students are doing and student work–and if students are learning and growing then we should celebrate.
I also worry about teacher bashing . . . I am sure I could be observed and bashed too as a coach who is always learning, trying new things, and sometimes making mistakes. I am far from perfect. It is so easy to judge when you are out of the classroom and observing others.
From a two-person coaching team:
We also think this is a really tough issue and in some of the most difficult cases only gets better with some administrative intervention. However, here are some strategies we have tried and found successful:
When a teacher does not want to work on curriculum with his/her team, they may be willing to collaborate with the literacy coach around a student that is struggling.
We ask the teacher to talk with us about a student they are "worried about." It tends to take the pressure off of the teaching and onto a teacher's concerns. We then schedule a visit to the classroom to watch the student during literacy time so that we can observe the behaviors that the teacher shared with us. After that we meet with the teacher to look at the student's work. During this meeting, we listen carefully to the teacher share her concerns. At a certain point in the meeting, we turn the conversation by asking, "What do you think we could do to help this students during literacy time at school?" We try to get the teacher to talk about any strategy that he or she has the power to try. Then we try to make a collaborative plan to support the student. Perhaps we will work together with the student during our next coaching sessions. We also set a time frame for this work. Here is an example: Let's work with this student together (two times a week) for 20 minutes at a time for the next three weeks to see what improvements develops. Hopefully, progress is made and during those sessions we can build a relationship with this teacher.
If the plan above fails, we sometimes force ourselves to have an honest conversation with the teacher about how the coaching relationship is not working at this time. We ask what is not working for them and we try really hard to listen and not become defensive or justify our past actions. Once the teacher has shared his/her concerns, we share a few of ours (we try to use lots of "I statements" during this time). We also state that we want this to work and ask if we can make a new plan. We try to take a piece of paper and construct a plan with a very specific goal, action steps and a time frame. After that, we document the plan with a follow-up email and we stick very closely to the plan. We hope this type of specific plan keeps us focused and helps build a relationship.
As for team building, one thing mentioned is that this particular teacher is not working with his or her colleagues. We think this problem deserves some dialogue. While we certainly agree with everyone that teacher bashing is not helpful, we have also seen instances when one team member is thwarting the learning of all of the other team members. This teacher may be an exceptional teacher but if the mission of the school is about collaboration, then one teacher's refusal to work with others may compromise the principal's efforts to promote a collaborative culture. If the principal is trying to build a learning community, then we believe all faculty members should support each other in learning.
- When this happens we try to understand why the teacher is not working with his or her colleagues so that we can get at the root of the problem. Once we understand some of the reasons we have tried the following ideas:
- Talk to the teacher before grade level meetings/PLCs about specific strategies and skills that they could share.
- Talk to them about the specific leadership qualities they do possess and how their skills could positively impact lots of children's learning.
- Talk to the teacher about the impact of their refusal to participate in group work impacts the school culture.
- Give that person a specific role during team meetings to support their collaboration.
Sometimes we find that some of our best teachers need coaching and support in order to learn new ways to collaborate with team members.
From a principal who has also worked as a teacher, curriculum coordinator and mentor:
Teachers are working so very hard. As you well know, sometimes it is a thankless job. I respect those teachers that are reflective practitioners – those who are constantly thinking about the impact they can make in the classroom. It is easy to work with these folks. Thank goodness! They inspire and motivate us.
I think relationships are critical to any learning process. The best coaches and administrators know this and work hard to build and sustain those relationships. Relationships open windows of opportunity for conversations and new learning. When we don't have all teachers engaged, our job is harder.
Building collective wisdom can go a long way. No one wants to be the odd man out. If they try that hard to be non-compliant, there are bigger things to worry about. So we try to schedule lots of conversations that define common understandings about learning and teaching. We try to set the tone by celebrating the accomplishments of our children. We lean on the staff members who are eager to share and support each other.
In any school culture, we can benefit from a sense of urgency – to improve, to help our students be successful, to help them understand themselves as learners. So I think most of the time we keep an open invitation to those teachers on the edge. We try to draw them into the conversations, we share materials and ideas with them, we talk to them about their students. And for some it takes time.
However, I do think that if we put things in place and the teacher is still not compliant, it may be time for the administrator to take a strong stand.