Supporting Teachers Today: Honoring Yesterday While Looking Toward the Future
There’s a sense of optimism in the air today. It’s one of those false-spring days we tend to have once or twice in late winter in the Northeast; the kind of day often surrounded by colder days where the sun is shining, the temperature rises above 60 degrees, and everywhere you look, people are outside just trying to soak it all in…because we know, no matter how much we try, the beautiful day will escape us before we’re ready. In some ways, it’s like Mother Nature sends us those days as a way of saying, “Hold on, spring is just around the corner.”
This week marks the two-year anniversary of what the education community at large thought would be a brief disruption to in-person instruction. From today’s vantage point, however, we know that we are only beginning to understand the scope of what actually occurred, and generations will continue to feel the ripple effects of the pandemic for quite some time. And while each person and individual has experienced the past two years in a nuanced way, one common thread that may unite us is that we have all been somehow changed. Our perspectives have shifted and evolved, and we are bringing them to everything we do, including the way we teach, coach, and lead others in our educational communities.
As instructional coaches, we have been thinking a lot this year about what is different, why things feel so difficult for many of our colleagues, and how we can work to honor the changes that the pandemic has prompted in so many of our lives, all while continuing to forge ahead. So while this March might signal us to reflect back to a pivotal moment and simultaneously spark the feeling of hopefulness in looking ahead, we think it’s also the perfect moment to acknowledge and embrace the changes within us. We’ve started to imagine how our work as instructional coaches will be guided and shaped by these truths by asking two simple questions:
First, what do teachers need the most right now?
And second, how can we, as instructional coaches, help them get what they need?
Initially, we pondered these questions together and brainstormed the more obvious solutions that many other educational leaders have also recently suggested—additional prep time, temporary reprieve from new initiatives, relaxed requirements on components of the job that are compliance-driven, such as lesson plans. While all these are valuable suggestions, we quickly recognized that many of these are not necessarily getting to the “heart” of the issue.
So we leaned in a little further and reflected on our most recent coaching conversations with teachers and school leaders. What follows are a few fresh suggestions that we have and plan to continue to implement with teachers to help sustain them through this year and well into the future.
WHAT TEACHERS NEED: Validation of the good work they are doing, paired with customized support to keep going.
We’ve all heard reports and participated in conversations this year about teacher burnout and the mass resignation from the education profession. It's not a false narrative; it’s happening every day in schools across the nation. As instructional coaches whose job is to support teachers, we are determined to contribute to helping the pendulum swing back in the other direction. In recent months, we have both experienced countless coaching meetings and conversations in which a teacher has confided that they are feeling stressed and unsure that they are making any impact on their students. This got us thinking about how often teachers receive validating and meaningful feedback about their daily work in their classrooms. We know from our work with students that when we create the perfect blend of high expectations, scaffolded support, and meaningful feedback, we can empower our students to reach just about any goal. This is true of our teachers too.
HOW COACHES CAN PROVIDE THIS: Build in time to discuss and validate practices that are already working well for a teacher and their students. Celebrate and highlight that work before using it to plan out the next steps in your coaching work together.
Celebrate what IS working
During coaching meetings, grade-level team meetings, and professional development sessions, we have found it beneficial and productive to open with a few simple open-ended questions: “How is it going?” “What can you celebrate about your mathematicians this year?” “What is working well in your writing workshop?” When we visit classrooms across our district we specifically look for what is working well in each room for both students and teachers. We make it a point to leave personalized notes or send follow-up emails to teachers celebrating the good. Modeling this asset-based approach in our coaching work has strengthened our relationships with the teachers we support and improved the quality of the time we spend together.
Offer specific, meaningful feedback before discussing next steps
Another way we might try to mirror our work with teachers to the work teachers do with their students in their classrooms is during our conversations about moving instructional practices forward. Just like we would provide specific and transferable feedback to a student during a writing conference (i.e. “You used a comma in this sentence; that’s important because it helps me, your reader, know when I should take a breath.”) before we teach that student the next steps, we think teachers benefit from this model as well. By taking the time to understand and name the important work that has already been done with students, coaches can better guide teachers to set customized professional goals that play off their strengths and include the “best fit” next steps.
Offer your perspective
Recently during our coaching conversations with teachers, we find that it is helpful to not only validate their feelings, concerns, and efforts but also to let them know that they are not alone. Because we work in all K-5 classrooms across our district’s four elementary schools, it’s often easier to notice and track patterns when it comes to instruction and assessment simply because we are engaged in conversations with colleagues district-wide. We often find that the challenges one teacher shares about student learning in a certain unit of study are shared by several teachers across the district. This “global perspective” is a gift coaches can offer their colleagues and we are finding that simply reassuring teachers that they are not alone helps to ease worries and simultaneously creates an environment that is far more open to collaboration.
WHAT TEACHERS NEED: Intentional time together
For so many of us, the pandemic was isolating. We lost time with each other and we are desperately trying to reconnect. However, finding time to re-engage with colleagues can be difficult given the constraints on time in education. If you have spoken to a teacher in the last two years, then you know that teachers are constantly grappling to find time. We’d like to argue that teachers don’t just need time to complete the never-ending tasks of the job, but they also need intentional, structured time with their colleagues. Coaches can play a critical role in helping facilitate intentional time together, rebuilding collegial relationships, and fostering new partnerships.
HOW COACHES CAN PROVIDE THIS: Coaches can help arrange time for deliberate collaboration to unpack new curriculum, design opportunities for teachers to observe each other, and provide time for colleagues to reflect together.
Build in time to unpack new lessons and new curriculum
The idea of implementing a new curriculum after two unprecedented years can be daunting. Coaches can support teachers by providing opportunities for teachers to read through and make sense of the new curriculum. During these deliberate sessions, teachers can plan together and even act out challenging new lessons. This allows teachers to anticipate misconceptions and to formulate assessment and differentiation ideas. The coach, who was likely involved in the writing of the curriculum, can facilitate discussions and share important insight about pervasive themes that transcend units and grade levels.
Facilitate opportunities for teachers to see others teach
Teaching is an art form and like any other artist, teachers can hone in on their craft by witnessing and learning from the work of others. Because coaches are in every classroom, they often have a wider view of teachers’ strengths. This insight allows coaches to be intentional in orchestrating classroom visitations that pair teachers in ways that play to these strengths. In addition to the benefits that come from observing another teacher’s instructional moves, partnering teachers for classroom visits also fosters relationships and builds support systems beyond their grade-level partners. Coaches can arrange for teachers to see their peers teach in other ways, too. Individual and small group coaching cycles provide countless opportunities for teachers to watch each other test out new ideas and grow together. Through demos, co-teaching, and labsites, teachers can learn alongside their coach and each other as they test out new ideas in a low-stakes environment.
Provide time for teachers to reflect and debrief
The uncertainty of the last two years has left many of us without the time or the mental capacity to pause and reflect. Coaches can encourage teachers to reflect by building time to debrief into coaching cycles and classroom visitations. Coaches can also host lunchtime or after-school sessions that provide teachers with the chance to connect with their peers and reflect together.
To be clear, the above strategies can’t be implemented without support. Creating these experiences for coaches and teachers has been an “all hands on deck” effort in our district. In order for these important conversations to happen, we have relied on principals, supervisors, and each other to cover classes. We know that it is through this precious time learning together that we will improve our collective efficacy. As warmer days return and we move toward a new normal, acknowledging, validating, and supporting the work that’s being done in our schools will continue to remain paramount to improving our outlooks and our outcomes. Hold on, spring and brighter days are ahead.
Kristin currently works as an elementary instructional literacy coach in New Jersey. She is passionate about her work supporting teachers to provide equitable and responsive literacy instruction for all students. Prior to working as a coach, Kristin worked for nearly a decade as a 4th-grade classroom teacher and a special education teacher. She holds two Master’s Degrees from Montclair State University, one in Special Education and one in Educational Leadership. You can follow her on Twitter @mrskgomez.
Nicole is an elementary instructional math coach in New Jersey with a passion for making math engaging and meaningful for all students. She graduated from The College of New Jersey with degrees in elementary education and mathematics and holds a Masters Degree in special education from William Paterson. Nicole’s teaching experience ranges from elementary education to high school math, and she is committed toelping teachers feel confident in their ability to make math accessible and fun. You can find her on Twitter @MathCoachNicole.