Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tough Conversations: Supporting Teachers, No Matter What

The Situation
I remember one of the first trainings I gave. I was supporting teachers through training them in a new school initiative: shared reading. I had carefully planned my training, created a video and a powerpoint presentation. I had tools to hand out that I'd made and pictures of this instructional strategy in action.

I was ready.
As I delivered my training, a teacher who had a lot of experience in teaching reading raised his hand and said, "What's wrong with round-robin?"

The other teachers turned to look at me to see how I would respond. Oh, jeez, I thought. This is one of those tough conversations the other coaches told me about. Handle this right or you're dead in the water.

I launched into an explanation of what research said about round-robin reading. How studies show it's ineffective because students aren't processing text in their own minds, and how they are waiting for their turn rather than actively thinking and interacting with the text. It was pretty compelling stuff, I thought.

"But they like it," he said.

I did not know what to say. I knew what the research said, and I knew that this practice wouldn't be permitted by administration anymore. I knew he probably had a reason for saying his kids liked round robin. I knew I had to address it, but I didn't know the best way.

And I knew that I had to stay focused on what I had come there to do: to train teachers in some best practices for shared reading. So I said, "It's not going to suit our purposes for shared reading."

And everyone let it go.

At the time, I felt like, "Well, at least I kept it from erupting."
But I had missed an opportunity. Almost everything a teacher says is an opportunity to support that teacher. Those tough conversations are opportunities to support your teachers.

Listen for opportunities

Sometimes teachers say things like this: (And I will not exclude myself from this list. In my worst moods, I'm sure I have said at least a few things like this.)
  • That's not going to work.
  • I've been teaching for x years. Why do I need to learn that?
  • They're too little for that.
  • That's too hard for them.
  • How am I supposed to fit that in?
  • One more thing.
  • We don't have time for that.
Are you starting to feel crummy? Do you feel small and purposeless? Well, don't! All of those statements are opportunities! Don't make it about you! Listen. And realize that these statements tell you something important about the teacher you're talking to.

It might be telling you that they can't imagine what the strategy you're sharing looks like in the classroom.
It might mean they are very comfortable using a certain set of strategies, and trying something different is scary or out of their comfort zone.
It might mean they're overwhelmed with the 9,000 responsibilities and requirements teachers deal with every day.

React in a positive, calm, and supportive manner  

You have a choice about how to react. Instead of defending yourself and your ideas, or worrying that they don't like you, try saying one of these things:
  • I know it's going to be a challenge, but I think we can figure it out together.
  • You have a lot of experience in _content area_. Can you help me find a way to bridge this new strategy with what you already do?
  • I bet we can figure out how to accommodate this for the kids that you're working with.
  • You're right; we have a lot going on. Why don't we see where this would be suitable, so it doesn't add anything to your plate. We can find a logical place to include this strategy, and maybe we need to take something else out.
And then, ALWAYS, follow it up with a specific time to work with that teacher by saying,

"How about we get together to look at that later this week? How about x day and x time?"

It's hard to turn someone down who's offering to help. That's most likely what they wanted in the first place; someone to help them figure out how this new stuff is going to work, in the real world. 
If I had tried that approach with the teacher during the shared reading training, I can only imagine that it would have created a more supportive learning environment for that teacher.

Instead of telling him (basically), "Just do it. It's better this way," I would have opened the door for communication and exploration, together. And isn't that our job as instructional coaches? To get in there and help out, any way we can.

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  1. What a great post! Thanks for the insight and tips!

    1. I'm so glad you found it insightful! Thanks for reading!

  2. That is such great advice! I'm going to pin this for later. Sounds like you're a very helpful coach.

  3. I just pinned this post to refer back to in the future! Great list of questions to ask to be supportive and helpful! Thanks!

    1. That's great! Thanks for pinning! Hope you can come back to it and use it!

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  5. From the perspective of "that teacher...."

  6. I am a new Literacy Coach this year and your blog is amazing!!! Thank you for the giveaway opportunity. Your videos on YouTube are great too!!!
    ~Barbie Whitley

  7. Thank you! Great perspective, I’m so glad I found your site!

  8. I am thankful to have these tips and examples in my tool box before the school year starts---in just 3 more days! This will be my first year as a coach and I am grateful for all the wisdom you share :)

  9. I’m just curious, what would you have said to that teacher about round robin?


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