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  • John Altieri

Coaching Inspired By a Free-Range Childhood

As kids, my friends and I would look for any wildness we could find hidden within our village’s suburban landscape. Through backyards, along streams, we survived bouts of boredom to eventually discover all kinds of ways to spend our time. Can we make a fort with all these branches? Can I jump my bike across this stream? What will this firework do? Can we cut through their yard without getting caught? In all these experiments we found something to focus on, worked together to make it happen, and then revelled in the successes and failures.

There are elements of those childhood days in my job as an instructional coach and more broadly speaking, in my coaching life. I see coaching as taking an active role in any learning relationship. As a classroom teacher, I watched my students support each other in these ways. I found myself engaging in this kind of curiosity with my students. Coaching is constantly happening without dedicated coaches. But with the title, “Instructional Coach,” I’ve committed to show up each day to say yes to trying the next thing.

Find Something to Focus On

One way I show up as a coach is I seek others out and say, “Hey, look at this! Let’s try...” It’s the teacher version of, “Should we light this firework?” Often a teacher will find me and set the focus. “What if we do this?” or “Can you help with this?” Thankfully, I work with curious people who are continually trying new things to develop their practice.

But these opportunities are not always delivered to my door that easily. Just as often, I am out looking for them. This is where questioning comes in. Just as my friends and I would curiously explore our neighborhood, I’m openly interested in classrooms, student work, teacher’s methods, etc. and this interest is a pathway to discover what to explore more deeply.

Work Together to Make it Happen

With something to focus on, it’s time to give it a try. When out playing with my friends, things could get in the way… curfews, rules, fears, older brothers. I’ve found that schedules, a lack of focus, and an uncertainty about roles can easily erode a coaching cycle. This is where coach leadership is key. Here are a few key coaching moves:

  • While it seems simple, being clear about the schedule and sending reminders is a powerful way to set up the physical time to make coaching happen—and sustain it. The coach is often the one to step up to make sure we all follow through.

  • Use questioning as a tool for getting clear on the focus. Ideally the focus comes from the teacher. I often use some variation of Michael Bungay Stanier’s (2016) focus question: "What's the real challenge here for you?" If we’re looking at math lesson methods, we want to discover the challenge. Through this conversation we’re likely to identify our focus. From here, I restate what I hear, giving us a chance to consider it. If it doesn’t sound right, better to adjust now rather than later.

  • Help define the roles. This is a great place to ask, “How do you want me to support this?” or I might ask it in a way that we can visualize our roles, “How do you imagine it going?” The same was true out in the neighborhood. When it was my turn to jump my bike over the stream, each friend took their place. One gave a push, another watched to see what worked, while another got ready to handle the aftermath. True team effort.

Revel in Successes and Failures

Once we’ve given it a try, it’s time to tell the story. It’s in the debrief that we take turns sharing our perspective and considering next steps. I’ve found that these conversations are key to keep the learning going. For example, modeling a lesson once can offer some support, but some of the most important work is in developing routines, habits, mindsets, and so on. These take time to develop and therefore require sustained focus.

I’ve also found that a willingness to allow things to be real, for the lesson to not necessarily go as planned, is important. I want students to make mistakes because mistakes are more interesting. They offer a path for growth. The same goes for me when modeling lessons. I prefer to model the reality of teaching, which is steeped in a fair amount of uncertainty. That’s what makes teaching thrilling (and exhausting).

It was a good thing my friends were there when it was my turn to jump my bike over the stream. Not only did I need help to drag my bike out and find my missing shoe, but I needed them to help me get set up to try again. There were others there to bear witness. Someone to playfully joke with me about the mud on my face, keeping my spirits up, and another to go next to show what else is possible.

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