I had never heard of the “achievement gap” until the summer after my first year of teaching. It was after reading Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap, that I became aware of the gap in educational achievement between white and minority students.
This stubborn gap has persisted throughout my career. I’ve managed to pick off a few percentage points at my different schools, but the gap largely remains the same. And this gap is only one of many gaps. There is the opportunity gap (as it relates to higher level course selection and access), the wealth gap, and more.
It seems that the world of education has somewhat shifted away from the effects (gaps) to the causes (inequity). To that end, the rest of my life in education will be committed to ensuring equity for every student.
It’s nearly impossible to put into words what educators feel when the bell rings on the final day of school. The sheer joy of entering into weeks of bell-free, kid-free, and paper-free days alone is almost worth entering into the profession. In June, the new school year seems so far away. But, August does come. And we find ourselves at the beginning of the cycle all over again. Even more, we find ourselves hitting pause each January to reflect and adjust our course.
The school year begins to come into perspective for me after the baseball all-star game and before the start of NFL training camps (can you tell that I’m a sports fan?). After July 15th, August comes into sharp focus for educators across the country. However, if you waited until July to actually begin preparations for the new year, you might’ve been feeling a little pressure.
And now in January, it might feel like you’re starting all over again, as you revisit and reflect on the progress you’ve made so far and forge onward with your new and improved plans for the second half of the year. But no matter where you are in your planning and preparation, collaboration is a very important part of starting — and finishing — strong.
From the first all staff in-service at the conclusion of summer, to the end of the year checklist session, teachers are inundated with meetings. More specifically, teachers are overloaded with meetings that see them as actors and doers rather than collaborators.
The teacher-centered pre-observation conference shifts this narrative. This approach to the pre-observation meeting is more collaborative and less intimidating and in order to call attention to the nuances of this process, I created two interactive videos for Tch Video Lounge to help you notice how I approach coaching with the teacher taking the lead.
In The Teacher-Centered Pre-Observation Meeting, I model what this may look like with a second-year teacher, Marquis Colquitt. What I hope you glean from our interaction is that the meeting is collaborative, learning-focused, and practice-centered. Additionally, I hope you can clearly observe the principles that guide an effective pre-observation meeting.
My internet browser always has extra tabs open. As I’m writing this blog post, I’m composing in one of approximately nine open tabs on my Google Chrome web browser. Nine may sound excessive, but it’s actually fewer open windows than my usual mode of operation. And I’m only talking about one application.
Usually, when I plan a lesson or conduct an observation, I’ll have ten or more tabs open, as well as a word processing program and YouTube or Amazon for background music. I admit this is probably not all that healthy when it comes to sustained focus, but there is a method to my madness.
My entire way of teaching changed dramatically when I went to a Barnes and Noble and picked out a book entitled, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap by Dr. Alfred W. Tatum. From that moment on, I engaged in a new kind of personal professional development.
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: