Have you ever watched the television show Undercover Boss? Each episode shows what happens when a high-ranking official of a company attempts to do an entry-level job in the company for a week. I am sure that you can imagine what happens. The boss blunders through the week, needing lots of support from the employees. At the end of the week, the boss has a much better understanding of how his or her company works and a lot more respect for the employees.
I thought about that television show when I was comforting a literacy coach after a self-described "disastrous demo lesson." The coach's school had previously participated in a project that strongly discouraged coaches from working directly with students. The coach had complied. So, after three years of exclusively doing "literacy coach tasks" (i.e., managing data, maintaining the book room, and delivering professional development), the coach believed that she had lost her knack for connecting with and holding the attention of a classroom full of students.
I tried to convince her that the disastrous lesson was an opportunity—a call to get back to regularly working with students for a part of her day. By making a commitment to work in a classroom or with a group of students daily for a period of time, she would not only regain her teaching skills, but also reap all kinds of other benefits.
Gain "Street Cred"
Coaches are famous for breezing into classrooms, doing fantastic demo lessons (present company excluded), and then breezing out. It's very likely that the demo lesson will be the only lesson that the coach teaches all day, unlike a teacher who has to have a day's worth of lessons ready and then do it again tomorrow. Of course the coach's demo lesson is fantastic. The coach may have spent an hour or two preparing that single lesson. She or he may have read and rejected a pile of books before making the final selection of the perfect book for the lesson.
Teachers don't have the luxury of putting that much time into a single lesson. However, when teachers see coaches working in classrooms, day after day, walking in their moccasins, teaching lessons with just a little less pizzazz, the coaches' credibility goes way up. This results in a tremendous boost to relationships with teachers.
Take Advantage of a Professional Development Opportunity
We don't learn most of what we need to know about teaching in methods or graduate courses. We learn to teach in classrooms. We need real, live children to observe and respond to. Those valuable in-the-moment decisions can happen only in the midst of a lesson. In my 20-plus years of classroom teaching, I learned something every single day that I worked with children. The best professional development opportunity out there is actually teaching in a classroom. Set up the Flip camera. Go home, play the video, and watch yourself teach (not one of those razzle-dazzle lessons). Reflect on your use of language, reactions, and responses. Share what you learn from your lesson with teachers. Your stance with teachers is that of a co-learner. They will really respect you for it.
Test-Drive the New Curriculum
Whenever a new superintendent (or even a new principal) comes to a school district, you can be sure that change will follow. With the average tenure of a superintendent being five years or less, instructional change is just part of life as a teacher. It could be subtle, like changing from D'Nealian handwriting to the Palmer method. Or it could be radical, like giving up a core reading textbook program for reading workshop.
It is difficult to coach someone on something that you have never done. The first order of business for a coach in this situation is to get into a classroom and learn how to do it. Reading the manual is not going to give the kind of information that you will get by working with students. Roll up your sleeves and work side by side with teachers to figure it all out. You can then approach problem-solving around the new curriculum from your own experiences.
Update Your Samples of Student Work
There is nothing worse than sitting through a presentation with outdated student work samples. I remember going to a session at a conference featuring a renowned speaker. I was surprised and disappointed when the speaker used scratched-up transparencies and children's writing samples from the 1970s. The same criticism is applicable to literacy coaches using writing samples from students who have long since graduated from the school. Working in classrooms will provide you with a fresh supply of writing samples and anecdotes from today's students to add life and relevancy to your presentations.
Things to Consider
Our mentors in literacy coaching continue to teach children. Jennifer Allen works with boys who are struggling in writing and students who are not reading fluently. Gail Boushey works with students in developing personal goals for their reading development. To be really effective in coaching teachers, you must maintain direct contact with students. There is nothing that you are doing now that is more important.
When should you do it? Do it now! The semester break is coming up in many districts. This is the perfect time for a schedule change. Allocate one period a day to working with a group of students. Which students? Not that eager group of students who finish their assignments almost as soon as they are given. Yes, they need special attention too, but let their classroom teacher work with them. You can work with the struggling learners in that class—the puzzle kids. If you solve any of the puzzles, be sure to share it with others.
Coaches are always looking for ways to get into classrooms. Although some teachers might be reluctant to allow you to observe them teaching, they have no problem allowing you in to work with a group of students.
We became eductors because we love to teach. When you have a pile of assessments to analyze, when the book room is a mess (again), and when everyone comes to your last book club meeting without having read the book, the best place to go to find solace is in a classroom. Every coach I know who works with children says it is the best part of his or her day.
If I were in charge of the world, every single person who calls him- or herself an educator would spend some time working with students. If decision makers had to actually carry out some of their mandates, they'd make much better decisions. Don't pass up the chance to be the best coach you can be: make time to work with children.