Like many before me, I was a lead teacher who said goodbye to the classroom and hello to the front of a staff room. We traded our well-oiled systems for scaffolding student growth and were asked to differentiate learning for a community of adults. Any given year, this group could include 30-year veterans, bright-eyed 22-year-olds, people battling cancer or going through a divorce, paras, resource and special area teachers, and many times, administrators themselves.
Though the group we were serving drastically changed, our job description didn’t: Be nice. Guide them. Grow them. Nurture them. Create a thriving community. And do not forget—under any circumstance—to communicate clearly and often. I don’t know about the master coaches that I learned from, but for this chick, the shift out of the classroom was anything but graceful. When I was a lab host, my beloved students were the ones illustrating our work to guests. If visiting teachers wanted to see what discourse looked like, we grabbed the current read aloud and I was able to simply sit back and let my students facilitate the conversation. If teachers wanted to unpack the workshop model, they were welcomed into a classroom whose ebb and flow moved smoothly between each member of the community. Suddenly, when I became a coach all the illustration for our work was gone and I was left with mere words to explain exactly how “it was done.” I felt like a stump of a teacher, without any arms or legs.
I remember the first day of school as a coach. I wore my favorite watermelon dress— the same I had worn on the first day of school for the past 11 years. I greeted students and guided them down the hallways. However, when the bell rang, I was alone. I had no students calling me “mine.”
I returned to my coaching closet (why are we always in a closet?) and asked myself, “How can I align what I know about students to build a community of adult learners? What ‘teacher’ tools do I have that will also serve my adults?” Seven years into this coaching journey, here are a few beliefs that fostered my students and have continued to influence the way I work with adults:
- Teaching is deeply personal. Our passions and beliefs about humanity greatly affect the quality with which we engage with our learners. As a teacher or leader, there must be a tension between being transparent and vulnerably sharing stories of our own journey while maintaining a complete focus on our learners. Warm transparency levels the playing field and knocks down perceptions that we are the sole experts in the room. Who we are directly impacts who they will become. We are ears to listen and a voice to respond. To borrow Sam Bennett’s words, at the heart, “Teaching is listening.”
- Community is the pillar on which every foundational brick attaches. A teacher and coach can plan beautiful workshops complete with multiple opportunities for discourse, data collection, feedback and gradual release, but without a safe community, all that well-intended work will land like a seed on concrete. Both the student classroom and teacher community must spend a large chunk of time nurturing relationships and building community. This work begins in August, but must continue to happen throughout the school year.
- Long-term growth requires grit. In grad school at Columbia, I was honored to learn from middle-school guru Donna Santman. Her brusque New York demeanor cut straight to the chase when she said, “Trouble. I love it. If you don’t have trouble, you have a problem. Trouble is where growth happens.” It is this friction that allows seeds of intention to push through the soil and grow. It is the same tension that happens as the roots and systems within a school building stretch and become stronger and wider. Teachers and students need colleagues to wrestle with. My teaching craft as well as my student’s growth would have been minimized if it hadn’t been for the large group of colleagues who pushed our thinking further, clarified our confusion and pumped their fists in the air at our success.
Dear Friends, though we might feel out of place without a group of kids to belong to— no back-to-school sign with our room number and name—we are not empty handed. We must gaze into the eyes and hearts of those we serve, open our ears and use our trusty teacher tools to craft and facilitate a community of learners. Though we may be stationed in a closet, our coaching of teachers can matter for students. And that after all, is why we are here.