Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Literacy Coaching: Empowering Teachers as Agents of Change

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend a talk given by Diane Stephens, who was sharing her research on teachers’ attitudes toward literacy coaches in the South Carolina Reading Initiative. While I found value in the entire presentation of her findings, I’ve been mulling over this particularly powerful observation that she offered near the end of her presentation: “Change looks like agency.”

We know that in K-12 classrooms, change often looks far more like disempowering chaos than it looks like agency. From year to year, teachers are assigned different grades or courses to teach, or different spaces in which to teach them; curricula are adopted and abandoned; administrators come and go. From day to day, the composition of any one class changes with absences and transfers; from moment to moment, with late arrivals and early departures, mood swings (student and teacher), and shifts in activity.

I find it valuable to think about my work as a literacy coach in the terms Diane offered: helping teachers (amidst all of the day-to-day change that characterizes life in a school) become agents of reform in their own classrooms—to use student work to help them identify specific needs for change, and then to collaborate to plan for, enact, and reflect on that change.

As I learn more about the political history of this job called “literacy coach,” I’ve come to understand that not all coaches have the luxury of positioning themselves as teacher empowerers or supporters of change through agency. I won’t go into the gory details here, but reading the online comment sections on some recent findings about the efficacy of literacy coaching has been quite educative.

As a coach, I keep NCTE’s Principles of Professional Development posted near my desk, and I pay special attention to the principle I find most central to my work and highly resonant with Diane’s closing remark: “Professional development treats teachers as the professionals they are.”

Over the next few weeks while I’m wrapping up coaching cycles with some teachers, I’ll also be meeting with other teachers to start planning for next year. My mantra in those conversations as I listen carefully to them talk about their professional learning plans for the coming year will be “Change looks like agency.” What a great process to be a part of.


Unknown said...

I am a first year coach. I've spent most of my year building relationships. I feel as if our teachers don't trust or value the role of the coach. I also feel they don't know that I'm here for them. Would it be wise to post or publish another (I wrote one in August)statement explaining what I do? I feel like I'm not helping enough; it's frustrating!

Susan Adams said...

I have been a coach and I quickly learned that teachers who did not already know me saw me as a potential whistle-blower, and with good reason. The district often expected coaches to align more closely with administrators and openly encouraged tattling. In addition, there is so much traffic in and out of classrooms (walk-throughs were big at that time) that frankly working with a coach feels like just another interruption.
I decided to do a couple of different things:
1. Go where the door is open. Work with teachers who ask for your help and invest deeply in those teachers. Brag on them, encourage them, publish their successes.
2. Listen carefully to what each teacher says. Ask questions that show you respect them (Not "What were you thinking?!" but "Help me understand your theories behind this instructional decision.")
3.Bring resources, a big smile and a helpful hand when you visit. Maybe even a cup of coffee!
4. Stay informed about district initiatives, trainings, events, and decisions. Share what you know with the teachers. This is probably the most powerful move I made: sharing with the teachers what I learned in district meetings, explaining what was behind mandated changes and practices. Teachers were much more willing to get on board when I told them what was behind a decision. In fact, most said no one had ever bothered to explain those things to them and they were very touched.
5. Offer to plan, organize and deliver timely professional development that costs the teachers nothing and costs very little for the administrators to support. One principal I know provides lunch for teachers who volunteer to attend pd sessions during their lunch period. The sessions are quick, fun, organized and teachers always leave with a new idea they can try tomorrow. They do these monthly and the sessions are wildly successful.
6. Read, attend your own pd, stay abreast of what is happening in your state and across the country. Be a guest teacher in classrooms.
7. Meet with other coaches regularly to learn from and with each other. This is critical. Being a coach is a lonely job in many ways. I told my friends I felt homeless and childless. I found other coaches were my best support group.
Keep thinking, keep talking, and keep reinventing yourself. You will be great!

Mary Hudson said...

I have just finished my third year as a literacy coach, one year at one high school and two years at my current high school. (Funding for literacy coaches has now been cut for next year.)

The relationships with teachers are so important and take time to build. I met with such resistance trying to follow the district top-down model that I simply had to let go of it and take a more organic, bottom-up approach. It was only then that I was able to know what the teachers needed of me. They learned who I was as a teacher and colleague because I was speaking from an authentic voice and not the voice of the district administrators. When I was able to serve the teachers in the capacity they needed, we began generating positive change at the classroom level on a larger scale. As long as the teachers saw me as aligned with the district, bringing in strategies that the district had determined they needed, it didn't work for me.

I think of this as differentiation. We want to differentiate for our students, but every school within a district has a distinct personality, as well as every teacher within those schools. I have not seen the cookie-cutter model of coaching work at any of our secondary schools.