More than once my third-grade students chose wide topics for their first research projects.
“Cats,” I remember Natasha saying.
“Is there a breed of cat you can focus on? Or is there a specific question you’d like to research?” I asked.
“No,” she’d said. “Just Cats.”
“As you read, I bet you’ll find a way to narrow that topic and make it smaller.”
After the students spent two workshops frontloading reading about their topics, Natasha approached me and said, “I think cats is too big. I’m going to just write about tricks they can learn.”
Some coaches report similar experiences in their new roles. They are given wide goals like “improve literacy” without a coaching model or a specific focus. Although everyone has the best intentions, a coach may spend time on projects here and there keeping very busy. I reflect on the quote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau. Coaches who struggle to answer that question, “What are we busy about?” need to narrow their topic so they know how to prioritize their time and energy. If the goal is effective and sustainable work, a focus is a must.
It may come as a surprise that I’ve found it’s less important which focus is chosen and more important that the focus is clear, clearly communicated and consistent. There are many right ways to start. When Natasha chose Cat Tricks as her narrowed topic, she was able to set aside books and websites on Big Cats, Breeds and Kittens. Similarly, when coaches are given or chart their direction with a staff, they can determine when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
One coach who works in a middle school spends 50% of his time with first- and second-year teachers. He’s in their classrooms daily. The other half of his job is helping support small-group reading instruction, particularly in intermediate grades. The principal and staff know this and are able to view his calendar so they know the work is happening.
Another K-6 coach I know works with two grade levels per quarter (and only one in the last quarter). She’s at their weekly team meetings looking at their data and focuses her time in those classrooms specifically on opinion/argumentative writing and independent reading and conferring. While she isn’t in all eight classrooms each week, she coaches more heavily in some and sets up team observations for others. The sixth-grade teachers know she’s not available for day-to-day coaching for them this quarter because she’s intensely focused on kindergarten.
My focus this year has been on writing. We chose this focus because we were all over the map in terms of the content of writing, how writing was being taught and even the amount of time spent on writing each day. As part of building our common language, we’ve got a new resource and are increasing our understanding of the Common Core State Standards. With 13 elementary schools to cover, our coaching staff couldn’t do deep work with that many teachers so we started with half of the schools. Each quarter I’ve worked with a different batch of teachers (about 6-8) to work with their unique strengths and challenges around writing instruction.
Three different coaches with three different foci, but all of us have narrowed topics that help us know who we work with, how we work together and what we are reaching for.
How To Focus
When I asked one coach about her focus this year she replied exhausted, “All of the above.” She was helping all teachers with anything to do with literacy, creating a school book room, doing bus duty before and after school, running a parent group, coordinating assessments and frequently filling in when the assistant principal was absent. When I asked her how much time she was spending with teachers and students directly impacting instruction she said it was less than a third of her day. This is what she thought she’d been hired for, yet it was a small fraction of her job. As a first-year coach working with a principal new to having a coach, this is very common. If you find yourself in this position, the good news is you probably know what is good work, great work and the work that really doesn’t need your expertise. It’s the perfect time to start asking the question, “What are we going to be busy about next year?”
What do staff surveys say about what teachers need to grow professionally next year?
Does the school data* support that need?
What conclusions do teachers draw with they look at their data?
What does the principal see as needs during observations and walk-throughs?
And what do you, as the coach, see as the most pressing needs?
*When I use the word data I am not talking about numbers from large-scale assessments. I’m talking about running records, student work samples, conferring notes, exit slips, district assessments and more. The link below is a great post from two smart women who I feel lucky to know as friends and colleagues talking about the important issues we deal with concerning data. Check it out.
What are you going to be busy about next year?