Category: coaching

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“Mark, what does it mean that you’re an instructional coach? Please explain.”

Coachfavicon I taught for 15 years, and now I’m an instructional coach, which means that few people (especially outside education) know what I do.

Lately I’ve been practicing my answer to the inevitable “What do you do?” question that comes up at dinner parties and other events. In fact, someone in the yogurt aisle at Trader Joe’s asked me that question last week. There I was, ready to debate the merits of Fage (superior) vs. Chobani (inferior), but no, this person wanted to know about my job.

Here are a couple things I say:

+ “I help teachers teach better.”
Though it’s a bit presumptuous — after all, I try to show up as a colleague rather than an expert — this response gets the point across. The problem with this answer is that it assumes that the teachers with whom I work need to improve, which is not true. They’re already great.

+ “I help teachers like teaching more.”
I’ve met a lot of teachers, and they do it out of a deep love of learning, students, and social justice. But there’s also a lot of pain in teaching. My job is to mitigate that pain and to help teachers hold onto what’s in their heart. There should be plenty of joy.

+ “I help great teachers stay in teaching longer.”
This one is related to the one above. The teaching profession, especially lately, is not respected at all. It pays piddling. The work is excruciatingly challenging. The current nationwide discourse on education makes teachers the scapegoat for our country’s ills. Despite the disrespect, the fact of the matter is that our young people need as many strong teachers to stay in the profession as long as humanly possible.

Where I work, my coaching colleagues and I talk about what we do, why we matter, and how we know whether we’re making a difference. Usually, we try to tie our efforts to student achievement, as in, we should see a link between our coaching and increased student learning. I think that’s important, but what I also think is a key metric is whether teachers feel effective, joyful, and alive — and whether they stay.

Which response do you like the most? Or, do you have a better answer? Please let me know your thoughts! Also, if you’re a teacher, I’m interested in whether you feel you’ve had a productive coaching relationship. My sense is that they are far and few between, and that’s partly why many school districts don’t yet invest too much money into coaching. favicon

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Two creepy new coaching approaches

favicon Instructional coaching is all the rage in education right now. That’s good for me because it means that I have a job. (Don’t worry, I’m a pretty good coach.)

There are definitely some best practices that I’ve learned over the past year and a half. Some of them are:

  • You have to develop a trusting relationship,
  • Meetings and observations must happen at least weekly,
  • Quick and specific cycles of inquiry are best,
  • You have to believe in the teacher.

Today I watched this video at Teaching Channel. It outlines two innovative approaches to coaching: “virtual” and “real-time.” Both are a bit creepy to me. Take a look:

The first approach, virtual, involves the coach watching a video of the class and typing comments that the teacher can see later. My feeling is that the coach is not in the room live when this is happening. She is watching this video later in the day, off site. At first glance, this seems perfect, right? The coach doesn’t even have to leave the office!

Unfortunately, the whole point about coaching is the personal relationship. There’s nothing wrong with commenting on video. It’s actually good practice, especially with teachers and their colleagues. You can pinpoint specific teacher moves and make quick changes to practice. And there’s also nothing wrong if a teacher wants to send her coach an additional video to look at. But virtual coaching should be an add-on, not the primary method of working with a teacher.

OK, then comes the real-time approach. That is one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a long time. The coach sits in the back of the classroom and tells the teacher what to do? With a walkie-talkie? And the teacher hides her earpiece with her hair so the students can’t tell that she’s saying exactly what the lady in the back is saying?

Though I understand the intention, this real-time coaching is madness. There’s nothing wrong with a coach showing the teacher a new skill. But this could be done alongside the teacher instead of clandestinely twenty feet away. And I’m not exactly sure how this helps the teacher; after all, she’s just repeating what the coach is saying. It’s true that having teachers practice in the moment and participate in role plays does help, but above all, this method is very strange.

Random Thought: What if you combined both approaches? As in: Your coach is not in the room and she’s telling you what to do? Hilarious (though more appropriate, actually, than being in the room).

Maybe I’m just protecting my job, or maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but what’s wrong with working with your teacher to set goals, then observing a class, then talking about it and making next steps?

Please let me know your thoughts. Teachers, would you like virtual or real-time coaching? favicon

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Putting on a book fair, the easy (and free!) way

2013-12-06 08.47.36favicon As a literacy coach, my primary job is to work with teachers to improve reading and writing instruction. But a related goal is to help promote a culture of reading among students.

So far, it’s been really fun — and we’ve had quite a bit of success!

Last June, the principal at my Oakland school had a dream that came from a warm childhood memory. “Can we have Scholastic come to our school and do a book fair?” she asked.

I said sure, but Scholastic is better known for its books for younger kids. Their selection for urban teenagers of color is extremely limited. Plus, their book fairs are either expensive or tough to manage. There’s a lot of set-up and upkeep and takedown and drama.

So I countered. “How about doing our own book fair?” The principal agreed but wondered how we would pull it off. “Won’t it be a lot of work?”

It turns out, no, it didn’t take a lot of work. Actually, it was pretty easy, thanks to the wonderful teen librarians at the Oakland Public Library. The vice principal and I called up Brian Boies, the lead TeenZone librarian, and his staff pulled 150 high-interest titles (both fiction and nonfiction) for us to borrow for the book fair. I drove over in my Honda Civic and loaded the back seat with mountains of books.

Then, we elicited the help of our student librarians, who have already gained fame this year after founding the school’s new library. They sorted the books into genres, got tables and signs ready, and double checked the day’s schedule. English teachers brought in their classes in 20-minute installments, and each student got to browse, talk with the student librarians about books, and write down three titles they might want to read.

Here are a few more photos from the day:

Here’s the best part: The principal has decided to allocate funds so that all students will receive, right before Winter Break, at least one of the books on their list! Not a bad way to go into vacation!

Even if the book fair did not lead to the purchase of new books for students, it would have been a big success. Students got connected to good books. More important, students got connected to other students who like good books. There was much joy, and the joy was about reading. favicon

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Back from summer vacation, ready for the new school year

favicon Hi again! I hope all of you had a great summer and are ready for the new school year. I am! It’s been a busy summer. But it’s also been fun to relax and recharge.

Let me catch you up.

The biggest news is that my partner and I moved from San Francisco to New York. After spending my entire life in the Bay Area (except for a year in graduate school and several summers in other cities), I wanted to try out a new adventure. It’s a little crazy — and some of my friends and family have made sure I know this — but so far, I’m feeling great feeling stretched.

Unfortunately, the move meant having to leave the great job I had last year as an instructional coach. Though I don’t reveal my employers on this site (to honor their policies regarding technology use), I can say that it was tough to leave the teachers with whom I worked. Together we made significant progress in figuring out what it means to teach high school students how to approach reading in a new, joyful, visible way.


The good news is, I was able to find a new job here in New York that is extremely similar. Instead of working at four schools, however, I will work exclusively with teachers at one school in the Bronx. Along with another instructional coach, my role is to promote the teaching of literacy across the curriculum and to help develop teachers’ confidence in teaching specific reading strategies.

The only major difference (as I see it, though this might change) is that I’ll likely be working with more beginning and inexperienced teachers than I did last year. My preference, of course, is to work with veteran teachers (for many reasons). It’s more easily and immediately fun. Yes, that’s selfish. Nevertheless, I also understand how crucial it is for teachers to receive high-quality coaching at the beginning of their careers. I remember my mentors in Cambridge and Fremont, and I hope to return the support and inspiration I received.

The weird part is, I always have trouble starting at a new job. Maybe that’s one reason I stuck around my San Francisco school for 12 years. (There are many other reasons, too!) It’s hard for me to get to know people; they probably feel the same thing about me. Doubts creep up: Um, do I really know anything about literacy, anyway? Where’s my credential? What makes me think that the teachers will find me helpful? I’m no expert, after all.

But over time, I trust, things will smooth out and take care of themselves.

Sort of rambling here, but I’ll leave you with one last thing (and go into more depth in an upcoming post). The Kindle Classroom Project has seen steady growth over the summer, and I’m happy to report that I’ll be receiving the 70th Kindle in the next few days!

All of the Kindles safely made the transcontinental move, and I’m eager to get them ready for the new students. Why didn’t the Kindles stay in San Francisco and Oakland? After tons of thought, I decided the program would be stronger if I’m nearby. Keeping all the Kindles up and running — not to mention the ebook library — takes constant care, and troubleshooting across the country just didn’t sound right. I look forward to meeting with the ninth grade teachers at my new school to get them hugely excited about getting their students involved.

I am also very happy that some of my passion for reading will not leave the Bay Area. My friend and former colleague Nancy Jo Turner, who works in Berkeley and is an excellent! excellent! ninth grade teacher, has agreed to take care of my physical book library and to launch a significant independent reading program with her students. She just completed cataloging the books — there are 512 in total! I can’t wait to share her updates from her classroom.

Update: I’ve decided to move back to San Francisco. More details in a future post.

So there it is, a rough update about what’s been going on this summer. I look forward to hearing from you, loyal Iserotope readers, and to share with you more stories this year. Let me know what you’d like to read about! favicon

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5 things I learned as an instructional coach this year

favicon Some of you may know that I was an instructional coach this year. After 15 years in the classroom teaching students, I focused this year on helping teachers improve their literacy instruction. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. Here are some highlights:

1. Coaching is infinitely easier than teaching.
Coaching is predictable, while teaching is not. The introvert in me prefers stability over chaos, and while coaching certainly isn’t as scintillating as teaching, it’s undeniably easier. There are no papers to grade, no lessons to plan, no late nights, and no early mornings. My stress level plummeted, and as a result, my energy was almost always high (which made me better at my job).

As a coach, I probably worked 30 percent as hard as I did as a teacher. We all know that teaching is a challenging job, but until you’ve done it and then not done it, it’s impossible to tell. Compared with teaching, my full-time job as an instructional coach seemed like a fully paid sabbatical.

2. It’s not easy to be a good coach.
Even though coaching is much easier than teaching, that doesn’t mean being a good coach is particularly easy. There’s a fine line that coaches must balance — between being an expert and being an colleague. Some coaches, perhaps in attempt to legitimize their position, present themselves as too “knowing,” too much like an expert. This is the wrong approach. It does not honor teachers or teaching.

But the flip side is also problematic. If you’re too much of a “friend” — and if you hide your experience and your years of struggle (and epiphany) — then you’re not appropriately serving as a coach, either. The teachers I worked with reported that I mixed wisdom (maybe my graying hair?) with collegiality — and that humor also didn’t hurt. Most important, I learned that establishing rapport is by far the most crucial step in building a strong working relationship.

3. I’m pretty good at coaching.
It helped that I had a great boss who helped me hone my skills and an excellent coach colleague that I bantered with every day. But what I learned is that while I still struggle with large professional development sessions (facilitating a group of 10+ teachers is not easy for me), I’m pretty good at seeing teachers as they improve their practice.

One thing I did at the beginning of the year was observe each teacher for an entire period. Apparently, this wasn’t standard practice. In the back of the classroom, I took informal notes, and nearly all of the teachers told me that they expected me to stick around for just part of the period before moving on. This little (and easy) gesture built trust quickly and easily.

4. Coaching makes me a better teacher.
When you’re a teacher, you rarely get to observe other teachers. All you know about your colleagues is what they report and what students say. What happens in the classroom, then, is filtered through the eyes of others. (That’s partly why more teachers are filming themselves now.)

As a coach, I get to see good teaching and learning every day. I get to talk with students about what’s effective, about the best ways they learn. I get to talk with teachers about what excites and sustains them. And I get to advocate for strong literacy instruction every day. Nobody thinks I’m a crazy person when I champion the importance of reading. It’s my job.

5. I miss teaching.
Yes, coaching is easier, and it means my nights and weekends are free, but it’s not as fulfilling or exciting as teaching. There’s a once-removed piece to the real work of supporting students to reach their goals and dreams. Teaching was always a struggle for me. I had as many failures as successes. But as cliche as this sounds, there’s nothing more important.

For the time being, I’m sticking with coaching, maybe for a couple or few more years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll get too used to the ease of coaching and not return to the classroom. But I hope not. It’ll be better, I think, to figure out how I can forge a new chapter of teaching that is good for both me and my students. favicon

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Coaching so far: Way easier, not as fulfilling

favicon People have been asking: “So how’s your new job?”

I like it. I get to work with teachers and talk about reading all the time. Plus, there’s no anxiety on Sunday nights. Or papers to grade. Or parent phone calls to make. And I can go to the bathroom whenever I want.

But so far, coaching is not nearly as fulfilling as teaching. Whereas teaching is too much and too fast, coaching has been too little and too slow.

A quick comparison:

Teaching: 5-15 minutes of free time per day
Coaching: 60-90 minutes of free time per day

Teaching: 100+ human contacts per day
Coaching: 5-10 human contacts per day

Teaching: 1-2 hours of anxious feelings per day
Coaching: 1-2 minutes of anxious feelings per day

Teaching: 60 hours of work per week
Coaching: 40 hours of work per week

Teaching: 2-5% chance that something crazy will happen at any moment
Coaching: 0% chance that something crazy will happen at any moment

So what do you think? The comparison makes it seem like coaching is the better gig, right? For this year, the answer is definitely yes. I needed a slower pace so that I can pause for a bit and focus on where this reading thing will take me.

But there’s a simultaneous empty feeling. After 15 years, I miss the classroom, and I miss the students, and I miss the directness-of-purpose that teaching affords.

It’s been just three weeks, and I’m sure that coaching will pick up. But I’m afraid that it won’t be “enough.” The problem is, Full-time teaching is “too much.” favicon