One of the most promising developments in American classrooms over the last 10-15 years has been the growth of teachers filling extra-classroom roles. I explored this in a previous post describing the overall trend and providing tips for helping school districts succeed with lead teachers. Today, I’ll look at classroom coaches and team leaders. Here’s a quick overview of each:
Classroom coaches help teachers foster growth in either curricular content or instructional acumen. The coach is a non-administrative, full-support colleague who brings a specific skill set and understanding to the teacher’s practice. Moving from curriculum to teaching is a complex process; the coach can guide and modify a teacher’s instructional choices as needed.
Classroom coaches are proving their worth with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards project, whose curriculum demands have simply overwhelmed a lot of teachers. At the same time, classroom expectations have grown tremendously under increasingly rigorous teacher evaluation systems. These two forces make the coach a valuable member of any teacher’s school-based support system.
As with all extra-classroom roles, coaching success doesn’t come easy. To ensure a smooth start, coaches and teachers should begin slowly and build relationships over time. Coaching requires having another adult in your classroom — even for the most capable and comfortable of teachers, that requires a leap of faith. You don’t want to dive right into what you should start incrementally.
A good coach, long before commenting on any teaching practice, should sit with colleagues and discuss the scope of their work together. Questions to clear up at the outset:
- What does the teacher expect the coach to do?
- Will coaching consist only of general feedback, or will there be specific suggestions on curriculum and classroom practice?
- Will the coach model good practice by actually teaching the class?
- How often will the coach and teacher meet, and will other teachers participate?
As minor as some of these questions may seem, they are essential to establishing the framework of the relationship before the work begins. The coach needs to take the thoughts and feelings of the teacher deeply into account.
A deal killer for any teacher-coach relationship is the feeling that the coach is just a proxy for the school administration. The relationship has to be non-evaluative, with the teacher knowing the coach will keep conversations and suggestions private.
Coaches should not visit classrooms with administrators or participate in the formal teacher evaluation process. The only exception is if the teacher requests the presence of the coach during a meeting with the administration.
Developing a deep knowledge base
I’ve worked with many successful coaches and one item they all shared was the capacity to recommend strategies and options off the top of their head. As a coach, you should focus on being deeply knowledgeable on your content area.
Referring directly back to the source of your suggestion — and not appearing to simply be shooting from the hip — will reinforce the teacher’s faith in you. You want a deep pool of suggestions backed up with specific supporting data. A good way to reinforce this idea is to forward relevant articles, links and books to your teachers.
Being available, but not overbearing
The teacher-coach relationship is a partnership. While it is important that the coach be there for the teacher, teachers need to be given room to develop their own strategies, instructional choices and curricular decisions. A common axiom of learning is that regression always comes before progression, and that shouldn’t be ignored for teachers growing in their practice.
Lots of teachers have what it takes to bring more to their school, but they feel hesitant about leaving the classroom. If that sounds like somebody you know, suggest they look into taking on an extra-classroom position like classroom coaching. It’s a perfect way to grow as a professional.
Education hasn’t always lent itself easily to teamwork. Teachers who worked in individual classrooms, often taught solitary subjects and had few avenues for collaborating with colleagues. Over time, schools began to see many benefits of encouraging their teachers to collaborate, so they began to form grade-level teams.
Forming teams had a side effect: Teachers weren’t used to this type of work and needed someone to guide them. And the team leader was created.
What a school team leader does
The idea of collaboration is much more interwoven into school culture today than it was when I started my career two decades ago. Over the years, team leaders have come to fill any number of roles in a school, but the primary responsibilities are twofold: uniting teachers from different disciplines and becoming the connection between the teachers, administrators and parents.
The key to succeeding as a team leader is to establish group norms and expectations so everybody in the group can work well together. Effective team leaders have deep skill sets that encompass organizational ability, interpersonal dynamics and the ability to communicate well.
Why team building is so important
A common disconnect between school and the outside world is the “cookie-cutter/factory model” of education, where students spend years in individual classes, then enter a world where a multitude of subjects and disciplines come together — requiring teamwork, collaboration and the ability to synthesize information from many sources.
Schools need team leaders to help foster activities and lessons that introduce students to these expectations.
Team leaders as teacher advocates
Teachers expect their team leaders to work with the school administration to help smooth any wrinkles that arise. This can include finding the time for the teachers to meet, offering feedback and counsel for administrative decisions, and establishing curricular and instructional goals.
Strengthening the parent connection
Strong school-to-home communication is a key trait of successful schools. The team leader often will be responsible for helping share the expectations, academic structure and communication model for the parents to use.
Depending on age, parents may not be familiar with the concept of grade-level teams. They need a clear explanation of the role of the team for things to flow smoothly. The team leader also can be a resource for parents who are experiencing challenges at home.
Providing additional student support
Students have a wide range of support systems and networks in their schools. Team leaders join guidance counselors, administrators and individual teachers to strengthen this support network. This additional layer — not quite an administrator or a teacher — can be the necessary ingredient to help a struggling student.
Navigating these layers in a school support system will call upon the team leader’s interpersonal skills, because there’s always a risk of stepping on a colleague’s toes.
Growth opportunities for team leaders
Working as a team leader gives a teacher a taste for the administrative side of education in a relatively low-impact role. Leaders see the rationale behind the decision-making process and how the different parts of a school work together to improve the overall program. The growth gained is definitely worth the time invested.
Making the most of extra-classroom roles
Extra-classroom roles can ramp up your opportunities for professional growth. Be sure to work with your principal to find ways to assist your colleagues and improve your school — then jump in with both feet. You’ll welcome the satisfaction that comes from spreading your strong work to your colleagues and their students.