As an instructional coach, I have the privilege of being in and out of many classrooms each day, watching good teaching happen. No matter how many years a teacher has been teaching, challenges also arise. While some of the excitement or challenges are unique to a specific classroom, sometimes there are common threads that run through a school building. In my coaching role, I focus on those threads. Where are the systems breaking down? What topics are people interested in and curious about? What kinds of help are people asking for?
I take what I learn from students and teachers across our school and use it to build a weekly staff newsletter called Teacher Talk, a shared resource that helps build community, inspires professional learning, and is tailored to the needs of our school.
Learning What Teachers Need
By working in many different classrooms, instructional coaches have a pulse on the school’s needs. I attend weekly grade-level and child-study team meetings and act as the note taker. I listen to what is most important to teachers at these meetings. Are there behavioral challenges? Are there special projects that classes are working on? What are the ways I can support them in their teaching? I find that most requests usually fall within what instructional coaching leader Jim Knight refers to as The Big Four: (1) classroom management, (2) content, (3) instruction, and (4) assessment of learning.
I also meet weekly with my principal and listen to her needs and priorities. I try to think of ways to help implement her ideas throughout the building. In addition to meeting times, I’ve found that some of the most valuable conversations with teachers happen informally at the copy machine or in the hallway. Wherever I am, I listen. I look for what topics get teachers most animated. That is what they care most about. All of these conversations guide my choices of topics to focus on in the newsletter.
Building The Newsletter
Gathering resources: Each week, I search for resources on instructional practices that may help address some of the needs and interests in the building. I frequently draw from websites such as Edutopia, Marshall Memo, Responsive Classroom, and TED Talks Education. I also have favorite podcasts such as Cult of Pedagogy, The Leading Equity Podcast, and Truth for Teachers. Sometimes the websites from my school’s curriculum, such as EL Education and Illustrative Math, have helpful articles or videos with teaching tips. To bring attention to diversity issues, I provide lists of high-quality classroom books on current topics from Bank Street College of Education. Having a list of reliable sites you can draw from makes gathering resources easier.
Layout and design: Since teachers have limited time, I put extra effort into making the newsletter visually appealing and keep reading time to a minimum by giving quick summaries of links to the articles, books, podcasts, or videos that may interest teachers and highlight good instructional practices. I break up the process of creating the newsletter into chunks, adding one resource or summary every day to the template I use when I have time in my schedule between meetings or classroom visits, with the goal of having a complete newsletter ready to send out to teachers every Tuesday. Overall, it takes me one or two hours per week, or about 20 minutes a day, which I make time for in my daily schedule.
I build the newsletter in Canva, a free resource for educators. I start the newsletter with a captivating image: one that I select from Canva’s digital archive, a screenshot from a link I am providing, or a photo taken at school. I have found Canva to be a simple, intuitive graphic design tool.
After building and proofreading the newsletter, I send it to staff attached to a weekly email. I give a quick bulleted summary of resources I’ve included and offer to help implement any new ideas in their classroom. I also ask for suggestions on topics that teachers would like to see covered in future newsletters.
Writing: Each week, the newsletter is organized into the same sections, such as “Curriculum Corner” (teaching strategies), “Fresh Air” (ideas for getting students outdoors), “Classroom Spotlight” (sharing teacher or student work), “Give a Listen” (links to podcasts), “What’s Going On at VES?” (new happenings at our school), and “Book Review” (lists of recommended titles). I also try to include a photo, meme, or quote of the week that is funny or affirming for teachers. Using these ideas to format my pages, it is easy to make a copy of the previous week’s newsletter and paste links to new resources each week.
For example, one week I ran a spotlight on the sixth graders who had created marble runs in their science class. I posted pictures of their final competition timing how long the marbles took to reach the bottom. Then I provided links for teachers to other STEM projects they might try in their classroom to keep kids engaged. Another time, I posted a link to reflection sheets that students could use in the calming corner while taking a break. When I was talking to a teacher about behavioral challenges that were happening in her classroom, it was easy to refer back to a previous newsletter as a resource.
Advantages for our campus
Putting together a newsletter each week provides resources that teachers may not have time to search for. It also creates a culture for professional growth in our building. It helps connect us by providing a place for sharing work and celebrating accomplishments that may have gone unnoticed. Ultimately, I hope it makes teaching a little easier by offering inspiration and strategies for teachers to help them improve their practice.
Teachers often stop me in the hallway to thank me for finding resources they did not have time to search for. A teacher recently came back from a conference with a link to a science of reading (SOR) website that provided valuable resources. She asked me to share it with other teachers in the newsletter, and it became a topic of conversation that week during team meetings. One teacher wrote me to say, “Thanks, Alissa! I especially loved the SOR resource, as it has so many resources and how-tos built right in. I may use it as a resource for some of my families as well!”
The newsletter has created a way for teachers to feel seen, valued, and heard. I respond to their requests, and the resources become tailored to the specific needs of our school. As coaches, we can be influencers, and the ideas we draw attention to can have an impact.