Amanda Seewald offers a spoonful of thoughts from a teacher coach
The most creative people I know are educators of some sort. As educators, we are trained to be flexible, attentive, driven, motivated, and always ready… for anything. But why did we all become teachers and enter into the field of education? I am sure you would agree that the answer is to ultimately find ways to open thought up for learners, to give them the tools, information, and guidance they need to build understanding.
This is no simple task, as we all know. The thing that we forget is that teaching is truly an art form, and each one of us is painting or sculpting our own version of a masterpiece every single day in every classroom. But the reality for educators today is that our ability to take hold of the artistic and thought-provoking career we have chosen is hindered by the constant change, the scrutiny, the stiflingly rigid curriculum requirements, and, of course, the high-stakes, potentially career- or life-altering testing that cripples motivation and growth for teachers and students. We know that these issues only serve to move us and our students farther from the true goal of encouraging thought, creation, and innovation. So, how do we work to put the art back into teaching and the innovative spirit back into learning? How do we move away from the urge to “cover” the material and instead uncover learning experiences that will be unforgettable to our students?
I believe that one of the answers is to change the way we provide and accept professional development within our schools and across districts and regions. Rather than the traditional model of full-day or half-day “one and done” workshops, consider how dynamic professional development could be with a more organic, collaborative-facilitated, and consistent learning experience.
Teacher coaching can be a powerful tool to make this change a reality. Over the past few years, I have been privileged to serve in this role for a few groups of incredible teachers whose challenges varied class to class and subject to subject. Their schools had unique personalities and cultures that required attention as well. All of these teachers brought with them, as we all do, their own cultural norms, personal academic and classroom experiences, and cognitive proclivities for ways of learning. What these teachers needed was not a PowerPoint presentation and an additional layer of expectations, but instead an ongoing and consistent sounding board to provide guidance, and support and a reflective partner to be their eyes when they were in the thick of instruction. They needed someone on the sideline but fully invested in the outcomes… a coach.
The word coach brings up different images for people and often expectations of providing encouragement, imparting knowledge, unlocking potential, and elevating. This is true for sports, and is valued quite highly in our culture. Why not apply this same concept broadly to education? A teacher coach can be a pivotal change agent in any school environment, but, as with sports, coaching success requires some very important conditions:
A. A culture of collaboration, not evaluation
B. A focus on iterative reflection for growth
C. A clear and deep knowledge base to share
D. Consistent opportunities for planning together
These conditions are essential and also difficult to achieve in many cases. In a coaching situation, it is the responsibility of administrators to communicate the role of the teacher coach clearly to teachers at the onset, and it is the responsibility of the teacher coach to present and construct an environment of collegial collaboration and trust. My experiences with teachers over the last few years yielded what I would consider everything from small steps to monumental leaps. These experiences drastically affected me in addition to the teachers with whom I worked and can truly call colleagues and friends. I am confident that this work was successful only because all of those conditions were present.
In one school, I arrived in April, three quarters of the way through the year, and I was brought in to assist teachers who had been frustrated for a while without enough support in a developing program. I had to find a way to help them build success for themselves and their students, but in order to do that, I first had to get to know them individually. I had to prove that I was really there just to help. To build this trusting relationship, it was important for me to make the following ideas clear:
I am not…
• here to evaluate you
• demanding or requiring anything of you but what you want to give, which should be your best
• going to do it all for you
• your colleague, ready to share my experience specifically in this field
• available to collaborate regularly
• willing to roll up my sleeves and teach with you
• someone who believes in you and wants to help
Through on-demand demonstrations, a seemingly never-ending set of resources on any topic, discussions to clarify goals, and most importantly collaborative brainstorming, I was able to connect and establish myself as their genuine partner and coach. It was my great hope that through these strong relationships we could bring many ideas to light and ignite a fire in the teachers to be the artists they are.
My goals were clearer each day, and the words empower, reflect, encourage, and listen were my mantras. One teacher who was there from Spain was feeling very frustrated with her kindergarten classroom, but her willingness and welcoming attitude toward me showed me right away that she was a true professional with her heart in the classroom every single day. I watched. We talked. We planned. I demonstrated. We taught together. We created. And we built a new path forward for the students and for my new friend and colleague. I was thrilled to have the chance to be a part of this partnership, and although my job was to help her grow, I also was learning so much in return. Her classroom was transformed. Her instruction grew exponentially. I knew that all of this was already in her and well within her grasp, but I was thankful to get to help her unlock the master teacher she had inside. The changes we were making were obvious, and other teachers in the building began to realize how a teacher coach could be an asset to them.
“You’re my Mary Poppins!” she said to me one morning. It was true that I carried a bag everywhere I went, full of things that I pulled out like a never-ending handkerchief from a magician’s wrist to provide materials and resources that I knew could help my teachers. It was true that I ran around so much from class to class that one may have thought I was flying. But what I realized was that being a “Mary Poppins” meant that I had become what I had striven to be—a mentor, a friend, a guide. A coach. What an extraordinarily meaningful and professionally inspirational thing for her to say to me!
I was lucky and honored that for the following two years, I had the chance to work with several other teachers and to help them see the endless possibilities of their creativity. I was a regular in their classrooms and PLC meetings, a lunch buddy, a researcher, a communicator, and an extra set of hands whenever they needed them. I wanted them to know how their energy and preparedness had a direct impact on the students’ responses and engagement. I got to know each person and had the chance to work with so many wonderful students as well.
Coaching can and should be motivational and growth oriented for the teachers and the coach. It is through this type of professional partnership that learning spirals upward for educators and students. My advice to coaches is to remember that you are their partner and can be their best reflection guide. My advice to teachers is to remember that your students really SEE you—every expression, every tone, every reaction. Invest yourself in what you are teaching by sharing your personality and interest in learning, and your students will do the same.
Be a guide, a ringmaster, a game show host, an inventor, a magician, or simply an enthusiastic participant, and you will see the spark you ignite in yourself and your students or colleagues. Don’t forget that within the walls of your classroom, you have the power to drastically impact lives, and there is no test, no set of standards, and no evaluation that can compete with that or take it away. I can tell you for sure that all of those parts of our educational system will simply be background noise for the genuine creativity, innovation, and thought that sprouts in your classroom if you firmly grasp those same things in yourself and share them.
The metaphor at the end of Mary Poppins about flying a kite is perfect for what learning experiences should be. No matter what role you play in education, the goal is the same. Send your students “soaring up to the highest height!” Let’s go…
Amanda Seewald, MEd is the owner of MARACAS, through which she publishes innovative curriculum materials and works with students, educators, and families. (www.maracas123.com). She is the president-elect of FLENJ and serves on the boards of JNCL and NECTFL. Seewald regularly advocates for language education support on Capitol Hill. She is a speaker of Spanish, French, and Japanese.