My first year as an instructional coach was a learning year.
I was experienced as a department chair, but the role of an instructional coach was a bit different. For starters, I was in a different district. The District of Columbia Public Schools have a robust approach to coaching called LEAP — Learning together to Advance our Practice. This method of coaching almost mirrors how assistant principals observe, except for the evaluation component. It was an adjustment at first, but LEAP has helped me to hone my craft as an intentional observer.
The school where I coach and teach, the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was America’s first Black public high school. In the first half of the twentieth century, this school was an elite institution, which attracted an extraordinary faculty. (Watch as I give a tour of the school’s museum.) Today, we remain a committed and extraordinary faculty; however, like many urban public schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is a high-poverty school that has historically experienced high staff turnover. Nearly half of my ELA department is either new to the building or new to teaching.
Finally, understanding the human dynamic present within the feedback cycle is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Teachers are humans, just like every other professional, and their humanity must be maintained throughout the observation and feedback process. At the same time, however, instructional coaches and other school-based leaders must see the potential in each teacher and design learning opportunities that help them to see potential in themselves as well.
The climate, or culture, of a school is one of the most important factors in its success. In fact, you can almost feel the climate of a school within seconds of ringing the buzzer for entry. A culture of collaboration and excellence provides the climate for consistent success for students and increased job satisfaction for teachers. Working towards creating this generative environment is a worthy, yet difficult goal.
Whenever you invite humans into the process of any complex work, there’s the inevitability of error, miscalculation, or failure. What’s also possible in this space, and I think what makes this process so messy and beautiful, is the potential for teachers to change, grow, and create transformative teaching experiences.
If you’ve ever taught in a classroom, you get what few other people understand — there is no such thing as summer vacation. Yes, we do receive that precious eight to ten weeks (depending on where you live) of time without children in the months of June, July and early August. But, depending on where you are in your career and whether you’re working summer school, those months can look drastically different.
I’ve always loved the summer; not just because of the weather and the holidays (Hello, 4th of July!), but because of the time it gives me to rest, recover and reevaluate what happened in the past academic year. Each summer of my career has looked different, and this one is no exception.
The life of an instructional coach is a balancing act. On the one hand, you are still a teacher. You still plan lessons, they’re just called agendas. You still assess the effectiveness of your instruction, but now refer to the process as follow-up professional development sessions. On the other hand, you are a part of the instructional leadership team with the assistant principals and principal of the school. You have “crossed over” to the other side, to use teacher parlance.
This straddling of two perspectives can help you craft initiatives for great teaching that work for both teachers and the instructional leadership team. The beauty of this duality is that it allows teachers and leaders to work together to determine what the initiatives will be. The improvement of teaching is best realized when teachers are involved in the conversation, rather than summoned to the table. Here are four ways I’ve worked with teachers and administrators to create room for teacher voice and collaboration:
My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.
You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:
School and life push a three-letter word
Lessons are created,
Assignments are crafted,
Discussions are started,
“Is poetry alone big enough to teach Language Arts?”
I posed this question to a room full of graduate students at the Notre Dame of Maryland University a few years ago. As a first-time college professor, I had never experienced a conversation so rich and generative, and it was all about poetry. My lesson, which focused on teaching poetry in the secondary classroom, was really on the form and function of poetry and how much students naturally gravitate to it. Then, the lesson took wings.
“I suppose it can. If you recall, poetry predates the novel and short story,” replied one of my students.
You cannot have great teaching without great teachers. Any education reform that seek to separate one from the other by means of technological advancements, all-in-one assessment systems, or overloading effective teachers, will have long-term, massive consequences. Although we can engage students with devices, tablets, and modules, they make real connections to human beings. To teachers. The human dynamic in teaching is vital, and the connection between students and teachers is a powerful and important bond.
However, in establishing systems to support great teaching and great teachers, the human element may cause the most difficulty. Teachers are humans first, which means they have emotions, pressures, and realities that can’t be hidden away, even from a dynamic principal (or instructional coach) who’s implementing a new initiative. One of the lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach is that you have to be able to work effectively with a range of personalities and experiences in order to create a system that supports and unleashes great teaching. This is tough! Through my work as a teacher, I’ve seen three obstacles that can slow or stop the creation of this system: empathy, followup, and assessment. These obstacles will serve as running themes throughout my getting better together journey this year.
Great teaching is special. There might be comprehensive rubrics to measure it and best-selling books to define it; but there is something intangible yet deeply felt when you see the eyes of students in the middle of a powerful lesson, delivered by a powerful teacher.
Students’ eyes are on the teacher, on the work, and looking to each other. Students quickly and intentionally discuss and debate the learning of the day. At the conclusion of such a lesson, the bell seems like a surprise and an interruption all at once. This type of environment is special to witness and shouldn’t be a unique experience. We want all students to experience this, every day. This year, through my work as an instructional coach, I am more convinced than ever that the best teachers grow out of rich and empowering systems.
There is no greater respect you can show a student than to respect his or her culture. As an African-American male, I’ve lived through examples — and nonexamples — of what it truly means to be culturally relevant.
I became fully alive in the 10th grade when my Language Arts teacher opened the pages of the Harlem Renaissance to me, and introduced me to Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. But beyond those authors, she made Shakespeare relevant for me. She also made many other writers that are traditionally outside the canon of Black authors available in ways that made sense within the context of my own life.