Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coaching Teachers

When I worked at my high school, I got made fun of for so frequently arriving to school with some new idea, enthusiasm, clarity or vision that was going to "change everything."  People imitated me and found my earnestness charming but unbelievable.  They were right to think so at that time - I was rarely able to apply anything I was so inspired by in any sustainable way.

In my new role as a Mathematics Instructional Specialist with New Visions for Public Schools, I see even more clearly that it is far easier to think about mathematics education, opine and discuss and argue, than to actually enact any measurable reform in a classroom.  Easier said than done pretty much sums it up.

At the same time, I have the support now, and I am the support now, that can turn inspiration into action, ideas into realities and old paradigms into new.  My hope is restored, and I treasure the shifts in my consciousness as they happen.

Tuesday I spent the day at a school where three of the four math teachers are new to the school, one is entirely new to teaching and one is new to teaching in NYC public schools, having taught for two years in Africa as a part of Peace Corps.  The fourth is the sole survivor of her former math department, and while she's familiar with the school and the kids she has a completely new department to support and be supported by.  In addition to the large adjustments all of these teachers are making this year, they have signed on (or been signed on by their principal) to be a part of the awesome project which the reason I'm there in the first place.

Our project, a2i (Accessing Algebra Through Inquiry) is bringing performance tasks, formative assessment and Inquiry (looking at student work to make instructional decisions) to the common core aligned unit.  We are providing a lot of support but we're also asking a lot in the name of student learning that they wouldn't be doing otherwise and they've been overwhelmed just orienting to everything entailed in their new jobs.  Every day I spend with them, they tell me how hard their work is, how much they are expected to do, trying to do, and I hear how unreasonable it is, how truly impossible the job of teaching is.  I see them doing their best, and I know they truly are doing their best with the understanding and resources they have available to them.  I also know that they are capable of far more than they think, far more than they know, and that as they learn and expand their thinking they will realize this potential.

This is why I blogged about two simultaneous truths the other day.  As I watch my teachers teach, I see both realities at the same time: the one in front of me, which is underplanned and overburdened, undersupported and oversimplified, and in which they are nevertheless (I am certain!) working hard and doing their best.  I also see that they could and should plan more, ask for (my) help, and do far more for kids than they are currently.  It's not like they have to teach for another ten years to be better.  They can be better tomorrow.  It might take an hour of planning.  It might take letting go of some idea they have about themselves as teachers or about education in general.

Again, it's easy for me to say as the observing outsider.  I know how imperfect my classroom was.    So how can I get high and mighty just by stepping towards the back of the classroom?  The two truths keep me humble and honest about what I'm seeing.

Teachers are pattern-making-machines just like kids.  They are making connections, doing what they're doing for reasons, and it's important to value where they're coming from and what they're thinking.  Teacher misconceptions come from observing unintended patterns or patterns that were perpetuated by their exemplars who also had misconceptions.  Teachers need to be given experiences in their professional development where the patterns they see assist them in making conclusions that drives their work to be more efficient and effective.  They need to be inspired, as I was, by the patterns they are finding, and then they need to be supported with scaffolding and structure and routine that helps them transfer that understanding into their own classrooms.  Transferring theory into classroom practice is a skill to be taught and developed.

All too often we educators assume that adults don't need the kind of structure that kids do.  Every teacher I know has experienced the irony of the two hour lectures in ed school about how people learn: better in groups and changing points of focus every 10 minutes or so.  When we're learning, adults need the same things that kids do.

So I'm learning as a coach to take my teachers under my wing; it doesn't matter what they don't know when they come to me, it doesn't matter why they didn't learn it before - it has become my task, my charge, to coach them.

On a juicy side note, the team of coaches that I'm working with is amazing, and through them I am learning so much about mathematics education, about coaching, about learning, about reflecting.  Our diversity as a group is always bringing out the perfect balance of multiple perspectives on things that helps us meet our teachers where they are and support them in making the next step.  Through their eyes I am learning better what best my service is and learning to see myself with the appreciation others have for me.  In turn, I see my sincere appreciation of my colleagues permeating them more and more fully.  We tell each other what we do well and it really sinks in.  Then all the stuff we need to do better just feels like a ripe and nourishing challenge.  THANK YOU.

I hope this finds you all appreciating yourselves and your work, which is big and hard and worthy and honorable in whatever manifestation it's taking, as you continue to push your own growth edges.  I hope you are compassionate with yourself as you strive to learn, and that your practice with yourself encompasses your students with the same sweet drive to be huge and the acceptance of wherever they are right now.

Happy almost Friday.

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