I’m doing a variety of consulting work in New York, and get a lot of questions about what it is, exactly, that I do. In some schools I do math coaching, but here’s a summary of a typical day for me when I wear the Literacy Coach hat. All identifying details are changed, of course, and the teacher profiles I describe below are fictionalized constructs.
Arrive at the school after an hour commute and check in with the principal. She tells me they’re short-staffed today and there will be limited classroom coverage for me to work privately with the teachers. I smile and tell her it’s no problem, I’ll go into their classrooms. Flexibility has always been the name of the game in education. The fact that she ever finds classroom coverage is pretty miraculous in my eyes.
Meet with the 2nd grade teacher. It’s her first year and she’s totally lost on the curriculum. She bombards me with 3,628 questions every time we meet. How do I teach the kids to peer edit? Should I give them the word when they can’t sound it out? Are three reading grades each week enough? How do I get them to understand main idea? I love being her sounding board. Like most new teachers, she’s afraid of bugging her co-workers and keeps a notebook of stuff to talk about when I come. She has a huge, relieved smile on her face at the end of every session.
Meet with the 6th grade teacher, who is completely on the ball. She has extremely high standards for her kids and gets frustrated when her expectations aren’t met. We look over some work samples and see how well the kids have done with creating appropriate conclusions for their essays. Their grammar usage has improved, thanks to a series of strategies we developed and implemented together, but the essays still aren’t persuasive. We decide to have her class analyze their essays. She selects some student work samples and I type up portions of the essays so that they’re completely anonymous. She’ll put these on an overhead transparency and the class will assess them together. I’ve modeled this for her in the past and she’s really comfortable with the technique. After, she’ll teach the follow-up lessons we planned based on the weaknesses we saw in their work samples.
The 6th grade teacher is thrilled because now her literacy lesson plans are done for the next two weeks. She goes back to class while I finish typing up the writing samples for her class to to analyze. My hope is to finish this morning so I can show it to her this afternoon, but if I run out of time, I’ll email it to her tonight from home.
I poke my head into the 3rd grade teacher’s room. The kids start whispering excitedly, “Mrs. Watson’s here! Hi, Mrs. Watson! Mrs. Watson, are you teaching us today?” They’re in luck: this morning I’m modeling how to teach students to incorporate dialogue into their writing. The teacher and I planned the lesson together last time, and today she’ll observe me teaching it and take notes. She understands what to do, but wants me to show her exactly how to facilitate the discussion and expand on kids’ responses. I love modeling lessons–it’s fun to pretend I still have a group of kids to call my own. Since the classes are departmentalized in this school, the teacher will have the opportunity to teach the same lesson to the next group of kids who come in. She used to ask me to stay and observe her, but lately we’ve just been analyzing the kids’ work samples. We mix all the papers up, and if I can’t tell which class of students I taught and which class she taught, then we know for sure she’s internalized the teaching techniques and made them her own. I absolutely love that and am so impressed with how she’s done!
Lunchtime. I used to think that once I got out of the classroom, I’d be able to kick back and enjoy leisurely hour-long lunches, perhaps at actual restaurants. Eh, not so much. I scarf down a sandwich in the teachers’ lounge and try not to make anybody uncomfortable. Some of the staff who don’t work with me seem innately distrustful of an outsider who’s presumably there to tell people how to do their jobs. I don’t blame them. The more often they see me, the less guarded they are in their conversations, and I really hit it off with some of them. The room empties out around 11:50 when it’s time for them to head to the cafeteria, so I start gathering materials I want to show the next teacher I’ll meet with. It seems that it’s just not possible to enjoy a duty-free thirty minute lunch in a school building.
Meet with the 1st grade teacher. Like many students in this school, her class mostly speaks English as a second language and they’re really weak in vocabulary. The teacher has always wanted to use a word wall, but isn’t sure how. I show her some photos of word walls that I’ve downloaded from the Internet and we choose a layout that makes sense for the limited wall space she has in her classroom. We select the words we want to add for this week and I write them on chart strips and alphabetize them for her. I give her a bunch of games she can play with the kids to introduce the words. She’s excited about it, but definitely out of her comfort zone. I promise to do a model lesson the following week to show her how to teach with the word wall.
The last teacher of the day comes in just moments after the 1st grade teacher leaves. At this point, I feel like my brain is pretty much fried. I haven’t had much time to just think during the day, and there’s so much gear-switching as I adjust to the personality, grade level, and particular challenges of each teacher that comes to me. Fortunately, this teacher comes right out with what she wants: center activities. She’s used the small group management techniques I’ve modeled and observed in her classroom, and it’s time to try ability grouping during reading, which isn’t mandated at her school. We set up a plan and schedule for what each child will be doing while she teaches small groups, and then when her kids are at specials, we go into the classroom and set-up her center areas. I’m not able to stay for much of this time, but I’ll check back in with her in 2 weeks when I return.
Time to make copies of the lesson plans and materials I showed some of the teachers earlier. At this school, I have no copier restrictions, which is a beautiful thing. I organize, paperclip, and sticky note everything with reminders for the teachers, then head around to each of their classrooms to deliver. It’s getting close to dismissal time, so I don’t engage them in long conversations, just hand them the stuff. I realize I could’ve just put the papers in their mailboxes, but I like touching base one more time, and saying goodbye to the kids.
I gather up my stuff from my work space and try to catch the principal. She’s crazy busy all day long, but always makes time to talk with me about how things are going and makes sure I have what I need. She signs off on the logs I have to keep for the DOE to pay me, and we talk a bit about when I’m coming next and what I’m hoping to accomplish. We’re going to try introducing some school-wide vocabulary words, which I’m going to email to her tonight.
Today the trains were too crowded for me to type up my reports during the trip, but at least they’re running regularly and I’m home within an hour. I spend about a half an hour writing up the professional development logs I keep for each teacher. This is an important part of documenting what I do and the effectiveness of my work. I enjoy seeing a summary of what I’ve done for the day.
I’m tired at this point–it’s a non-stop day and my brain has to be performing at its peak every moment. I think for the thousandth time how I really could not do this as effectively on a full-time basis. 2-3 days a week is plenty, and I feel so blessed that I can arrange that. I need to find resources to share with the teachers next time I come, but I can wait and do it over the weekend since I won’t be back to that particular school for another week and a half.
As I think back about the day, the best word to describe my feeling is exhilaration. It is immensely satisfying to feel like I”m making a difference in education and I’m actually helping teachers. The vast majority of “professional development” I’ve been forced to endure was worthless, and it makes me genuinely happy to know that this coaching format is valuable for the teachers I’m working with, and that (most) of them look forward to my visits and value what I’m showing them. I have earned every penny I got today, and it feels really, really good.