I’ve received many emails related to coaching towards the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I’m going to address some by responding to Leah’s email in which she raises the challenge of coaching towards CCSS in a context of change and distrust. Please continue to email me with other coaching questions, related to CCSS or anything else!
I presently serve as a literacy coach in New York City. I am working at a school that has new leadership and a veteran staff. The staff has been left without direction for so long that they have developed poor habits regarding instruction and professionalism. The new leadership has high expectations for moving the school forward, however the teachers do not have the skill set to embrace what is being asked of them as pedagogues. The largest challenge I face is having to undo learning and to overturn strongly entrenched beliefs. The Common Core has led to a sea change that adds another facet to the teacher’s feeling uncomfortable. I am trying to build trust with a staff that is so mistrustful and swimming against huge waves. What do you all say?
Thank you for writing. I’m going to pick apart the issues you raise and respond to each strand with my thoughts.
1. The Why. Let’s start with one of your first comments: “the staff has been left without direction for so long…” I want to acknowledge your awareness of why this staff might be behaving as they are–because there’s been a lack of leadership and vision at the site. I don’t hear you blaming teachers or jumping to an assumption that they are “resistant.” This assumption will definitely help you build trust with your teachers. This comment raises the first thing we need to do in a situation like yours: consider why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. If we don’t do this, we run the risk of jumping to assumptions and creating plans and actions based on faulty data. So congratulations–I think you’re on the right path to supporting this school.
2. Expectations. Next you say, “The new leadership has high expectations for moving the school forward…” Fantastic! Schools need leaders with high expectations. I’m wondering how these new leaders are communicating their expectations? How have they engaged the staff into building or buying into a vision? Have they invited teachers to contribute their own expectations, visions, and goals for the school? This is a crucial step in a change effort and while direction action might be outside of your sphere of control, it’s important to keep in mind.
3. Skills. You continue with: “…however the teachers do not have the skill set to embrace what is being asked of them…” Again, you’re wise to identify that what’s missing is skill. Skill can be built! I’m wondering if you feel that teachers have the will to change? Are they missing some knowledge components? Do they have the capacity to enact the changes they’re being asked to make?
It’s essential that a clear and realistic road map is drawn between leader’s expectations for a school and how they end will be reached. High expectations are useless if they are so far out beyond what the people on site can engage in–unless how we’re going to get there is clearly sketched out. So do your leaders really understand where the staff is at? Are they willing to provide the professional development to support teachers to meet their expectations? Have they mapped out that journey into do-able steps?
4. Beliefs. Let’s come back to what you can do. You say, “The largest challenge I face is having to undo learning and to overturn strongly entrenched beliefs.” Coaches can undo learning by building new learning; we can overturn beliefs by helping our teachers gather enough new data that our old beliefs no longer hold. Your role is to help them learn some new skills. To do this you also have to understand exactly where they’re at in their skill set and then, working within their zone of proximal development, you need to scaffold that learning so they can successfully master some new skills. Do this in small steps. This helps us all build motivation, feel accomplished, and gain confidence to keep learning.
5. Common Core State Standards. You raise another challenge that many teachers, administrators, and professional developers are grappling with: “Common Core has led to a sea change that adds another facet to the teacher’s feeling uncomfortable.” Yes, it has. It’s an overwhelming change and challenge for all of us. It’s daunting and scary and has potential for improving learning outcomes and experiences for children, as long as we map the journey that our teachers will need to take in order to fulfill this potential. Teachers are justified in feeling uncomfortable–I mostly see teachers being told what to do, being shown/mandated an end to meet, but not being guided, supported, led, and encouraged along the path. So my thoughts are similar to those of #4: Slow down, identify some small learnings that can lead to implementation of instructional practices necessary for the CCSS, identify a teacher’s or staff’s ZPD, and then deliver high quality PD.
6. Trust. Finally, you say: “I am trying to build trust with a staff that is so mistrustful and swimming against huge waves.” This is the crux of our work: How do we build trust with teachers in a context of mistrust, massive mandated change, and an increasingly hostile work environment for teachers? There’s so much to say on this, but here’s a few ideas: Listen, listen and listen to your teachers. Listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart (I think you already do this). Listen for who they are beneath the fear and mistrust. Listen for their hopes and dreams and passion and why they got into teaching in the first place. Then build their will to master some new skills. Get them bought into the idea of learning with you at their side. Show them that you’ve heard who they are and where they’re at. And then help them learn some small piece of practice that will help kids learn and that will build their enthusiasm to join you on this journey.
That’s what I have to say!