The only constant in education right now appears to be change. Veteran teachers sometimes joke about the swinging pendulum and quip about “this too shall pass” mantras. Shifting to new practices and new understandings doesn’t have to negate the work we’ve been doing, however, and could instead be seen as an opportunity to grow and do better as we learn more.
There have been plenty of opportunities for growth recently. As we’ve learned more about knowledge-based reading units, structured literacy, productive struggle in math education, representation and text complexity, and the benefits of high-quality curriculum resources, we instructional coaches have had to make many shifts along with classroom teachers. Many of us might be feeling like contortionists as we bend every which way attempting to meet the needs of students, colleagues, administrators, policy makers, and parents today. Below are some tips for supporting teachers during times of change.
Care for the teachers as you care for the students
Just as we do when working directly with students, we must build trust through genuine compassion and listening before we can be successful building knowledge of research or motivating anyone to consider something new.
Even in less politically fraught times, teaching was an incredibly difficult profession. Given today’s challenges, our teachers deserve more respect and compassion than ever before. With the recent threats of censorship, public scrutiny and blame that sometimes feel mean-spirited, low pay, teacher shortages, new education-related state legislation, the pandemic, and, perhaps most troubling of all, the seemingly unending series of school shootings that weigh heavily on those who work with children in schools every day, it shouldn’t be surprising that teachers are exhausted.
For instructional coaches, these challenging times for teachers mean it’s more important than ever to see the human at the head of the classroom and remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy must come before Bloom’s Taxonomy. Although time in schools is always short, it’s never a waste to stop and ask a teacher how they’re doing, to inquire about their families and hobbies, to see if there’s anything we could do to support them. This might mean rolling up our sleeves to reorganize math manipulatives, making a ream of copies, or helping replace a torn bulletin board border. If it’s the work of the classroom teacher, it’s our work, too.
Give teachers the gift of time
Ask if there are tasks or paperwork that teachers are asked to do that take away from their ability to sit with new learning or integrate new research. If so, that might be work we can eliminate or help with. Teachers need a lot of cognitive space to process and plan for these new shifts in practice, so it’s important to design systems that relieve teachers of doing tasks that don’t improve their professional development or instructional practice.
In our district, teachers are required to lead collaborative team meetings following DuFour’s PLC cycle. Rather than have this be one more thing on teachers’ plates, our instructional coaches ask the teachers how they would best use their time within each PLC cycle. Based on teacher feedback, the coaches create the PLC agenda, gather resources ahead of time, prepare everything, and keep the minutes. This way, teachers can focus solely on their learning, their planning, and their students.
Time is also important during professional learning, and we take a less-is-more approach when planning professional development with teachers. We might give them quotes or excerpts from research reports, but that’s coupled with plenty of time to process through writing and small or whole group discussions. We also recognize that everyone is different in how they process and how long they must sit with new learning. Because we know our teachers well and respect them, we can plan time for them to digest new learning before they make the necessary changes.
Keep students at the center
Change can be difficult for everyone. The way some instructional shifts are being framed on social media suggests that there are “right” and “wrong” ways of teaching students, putting forth false narratives of “us” versus “them.” These dichotomies do little good for students in schools, who need all of our combined knowledge and experience working in concert efficiently and effectively.
When discussing new shifts in teaching best practice with teachers, it might help to frame the conversation around students. As we shift from teacher-created backward-design units of instruction to using high-quality curriculum resources (HQCR) at our school, for example, our instructional coaches share about how our own results in the classroom were inconsistent. Sometimes a lesson would feel like magic; sometimes it would flop. What’s helpful about HQCR is that the resources have been vetted, and we can rest assured knowing that all of our students are getting high-quality lessons every day in every classroom.
Likewise, keeping feedback focused on students and how our effective practices impact them can go a long way in reinforcing both our mission to teach all kids at high levels every day and the teacher moves that will get us there. If we keep reminding ourselves of our shared mission to become the best teachers we can be, it might help us remember to never stop learning and growing together.