This past week, I was able to meet with my most treasured group of educators: my literacy coach collaborative think tank. About 15 coaches came together for a full day of connecting, collaborating, reading, writing thinking and planning, something we are lucky enough to do each month of the school year. We may not have seen each other for the entire summer, but we quickly settled into our familiar routine of chatting, sharing and innovating.
Sharon, an elementary literacy coach, and I quickly become involved in a conversation around our language as coaches. We talked about the phrases we use often with teachers: How can I help? What can I do for you today? What can we work on together? As we talked, we realized we needed a new phrase to help us tackle a coaching challenge, a challenge I bet many if you reading this have as well. Let’s say you are walking down the hall and a teacher stops you to ask a question as she holds out a piece of paper: Is this good? Now, that paper might be a worksheet, a writing prompt, a lesson plan, graphic organizer, etc. The challenge isn’t what is on the paper, but the response that we give as coaches. Since coaching is non-evaluative, answering that question instantly places an evaluation on the teacher and the work that she put into what she is holding, removing any opportunity for the teacher to reflect. On top of that, if our impression of what she is holding is not what we would have done or recommended to continue our work together, then we are in the tricky position of responding in the moment. So, what do we do? Enter a new coaching phrase: What are you trying to accomplish?
I use this phrase often in my work to help me learn more about the teachers I am working with and quite frankly, to buy additional time to decide how to respond to teachers in the moment. By turning the question into an opportunity for self-reflection, I honor and value teachers’ their own thinking, shift the conversation from one of evaluation to one of collaboration and can better understand and respond to teachers.
As Sharon and I chatted, I was struck by how similar our coaching conversations with teachers are to our reading and writing conferences with students. In a reading or writing conference with students, we start the conference by learning more of what students are working on, decide how to respond based on what we learned and support students in developing their craft. In a coaching conversation with teachers, by asking ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’, we learn more about the teachers’ intentions, buy ourselves a little time to decide how to respond and can better connect to teachers by specifically addressing her intentions.
I’ve been thinking more and more about how powerful our language is as literacy coaches. I have started collecting the phrases I tend to use as a coach and am thinking carefully about how and why I use them. Phrases like ‘What have you been trying in the classroom’ or ‘Tell me more about how things are going’ or even ‘How have the students been responding?’ are my staple conversation starters. I would love to know more about the phrases you use to support your coaching and empower teachers to reflect on their own learning along with their students. Let's start a conversation!