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October 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 2

Helping the Adults Learn

In a rural Hawaiian school, a literacy coach helps three teachers see when it's important to go beyond the script.

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In the struggle to raise U.S. students' achievement, the focus is back on the tall people in classrooms—teachers and administrators. In language arts and literacy, the emphasis has shifted from finding the right materials to creating great teachers—even out of mediocre ones. Enter literacy coaches, who intervene at the classroom level to raise student achievement by raising teachers' skills. Because coaches focus on the adults in the room, the learning needs of adults are their foremost concern (Walker, 2010).
This was not always the case. In its earliest manifestations, literacy coaching was funded through No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Reading First legislation, and too many coaches acted as school administrators' eyes and ears. They ensured that teachers implemented Reading First with fidelity and that each classroom was on the same page—sometimes literally. These models put more stock in materials than in teachers as professionals. But as it has become clear that teachers—not scripted programs—teach, the reading coach's evaluative role has been replaced with one of supporting and advancing teachers' development.

The Need for Relationship

Reading coaches enhance teachers' abilities by recognizing their prior knowledge and experience, showing teachers how to apply learning theory, and helping teachers clarify their goals—developing trust all the while (Walker, 2010). This new role for reading coaches has become so accepted that in 2004 the International Reading Association defined the qualifications a reading coach should have. These include (1) the ability to model, observe, and provide feedback; (2) knowledge about reading processes, assessment, and instruction; (3) experience working with teachers; and (4) the ability to present, lead, and facilitate teacher reflection and change.
Reading coaches also need to know the features of adult learning, such as the characteristics that Malcolm Knowles (1990) points to as distinguishing adult learners from child learners: the need to know, self-conception, the role of experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation.
This is no small order. As a result of raised expectations, educators and theorists have developed models for training reading coaches, most of which emphasize building relationships with teachers. Particularly when literacy coaches work in schools that are in restructuring status, in which teachers may be more vulnerable, coaches must consider each teacher's particular mix of needs and the contexts of the school and broader community if they are to maintain this supportive, relational role.

Three Teachers, Three Approaches

Sensitivity and attention to building a trusting relationship was crucial to a coaching program designed to boost teachers' learning and students' achievement that I observed on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i. I coached English language arts teachers at Kapaa Elementary School, which is in restructuring mode as a low-performing school under NCLB. As part of a consulting team led by Bruce Matsui of Claremont Graduate School, I worked with six teachers, visiting the island every other month during the school year.
Three case studies involving teachers I guided at Kapaa Elementary exemplify the importance of solid relationships. Matsui's model incorporates standard aspects of good literacy coaching—collaboration, relationship building, and a classroom focus—while taking into account the unique expectations and norms of Hawaiian communities.
A willing teacher and a knowledgeable, sensitive coach can foster greater student achievement. Unfortunately, all these ingredients are not always in the recipe, as these three scenarios show. In each of these cases, to build a workable duo, I had to be sensitive to the classroom environment, the teacher's singular strengths and weaknesses, and his or her attitude toward the work—including whether the teacher had requested support or had been required to consult with a coach.

Case Study 1: A Veteran Finds That "Something Is Missing"

Bonnie had 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher. At the start of her coaching experience, Bonnie's 1st grade classroom was neat, organized, and child-centered; it seemed to have all the elements of an excellent language arts program. Bonnie had embraced the "science of reading" model mandated by Reading First; her reading instruction covered phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and spelling. But Bonnie knew her program was missing some key component, although she couldn't put her finger on what. So she requested coaching support.
Because Bonnie was reflective about her practice and could articulate her concerns, she was an excellent candidate for coaching. I could see after several observations that although Bonnie did a lot of item-knowledge teaching (explaining about the "bits" of language), her students weren't getting enough opportunity to apply their new knowledge through independent reading and writing.
Rather than direct Bonnie to make specific instructional changes, I spent a lot of time discussing this imbalance with her. I openly acknowledged Bonnie's basically excellent teaching, which helped establish trust and respect. Together we decided to implement daily sustained silent reading and introduce interactive writing (McCarrier, Fountas, & Pinnell, 1999), a strategy in which teacher and student collaborate and, at times, teachers write narratives that students dictate. Bonnie tried the relatively simple practice of silent reading first, to establish a track record of success, before tackling the more complex interactive writing.
Bonnie initially hesitated about whether to try these strategies because they were not among the practices strongly suggested in Reading First trainings. We considered together how best practice in one setting may not be best practice in all settings and how authentic activities to consolidate learning might be what her students most needed to become better readers.
With this rationale, Bonnie was willing. Together we prepared the classroom for effective silent reading. Texts for silent reading need to be at each child's comfortable reading level, but exact levels are always changing. Fortunately, Bonnie had a rich collection of classroom books and a plethora of assessment data available to determine students' abilities, so sorting books into leveled boxes was easy.
To encourage engagement, all adults in the room, including me, read during silent reading time. To make sure that students used their allotted time for reading and that they would end up craving more book time, we started off allotting only five minutes of silent reading in the first week and added a minute to reading time every week thereafter.
Because this first reading strategy went so smoothly, it was easy to coach Bonnie through interactive writing. I first guided the class in describing a visit to Kē'ē Beach on the northern end of Kaua'i while Bonnie videotaped the lesson for review. I invited students to "share the pen" with me as I wrote down sentences they dictated. Bonnie and I informally discussed the elements, methods, and rationale behind this practice, and then Bonnie tried guiding students through interactive writing in the classroom on her own and videotaped her effort. We then watched the video and talked about some specifics of the strategy that Bonnie should focus on.
Bonnie also shared these videos with other teachers in her school. In this way, coaching was stretched throughout the whole grade level, and discussion about both sustained silent reading and interactive writing became part of a greater conversation at the school. Bonnie's before-and-after formative assessments of her students also showed that our coaching relationship led them to higher achievement.
The coaching was successful not only because Bonnie was a good teacher who desired to become better, but also because we proceeded in the way most likely to lay a foundation of trust. I demonstrated, tried, discussed, and retried strategies until Bonnie felt comfortable taking them on—and I remained available for fine-tuning.

Case Study 2: When a Coach Wears Kid Gloves

Dee, a 2nd grade teacher, wasn't looking for support. She was doing the best she could, following her school's language arts program to a T, but in her words, "it didn't work with these kids." Instead of reflecting on her teaching, Dee blamed the materials, her students, and the administration for her kids' low achievement. She was frustrated, and her colleagues were frustrated with her.
My first observations revealed a classroom in chaos. The room was disorderly, with teacher stuff scattered around. Students wandered in from recess at their own pace, often up to 10 minutes late, and Dee spent most of her time yelling above chatter in the room. Although she did follow the teacher's edition of the curriculum to the letter, it was obvious that the program was either at an inappropriate level for her students or not engaging enough. Kids chattered, threw pencils, and ate snacks, anything to keep from engaging with the overhead-projected lessons.
I needed to wear kid gloves to help Dee. Our first conference began with a long discussion about why Dee didn't want coaching support: What she wanted was different students, support from her administration, and acknowledgement that the required materials were inadequate. Rather than assume that Dee didn't care or point out her inadequacies, I approached this teacher from the stance of "let me help you help your kids." Dee did care about her students but lacked the tools to adjust the mandated program to their needs.
Once Dee became open to guidance, classroom management was the first order of business. Regardless of how much she changed her approach to teaching language arts, if she couldn't focus her class on instruction, no teaching methods would help Dee's learners learn. Our first coaching sessions were dedicated to simple management tricks like using wait time, voice modulation, and clearly stated behavior expectations. I demonstrated these practices and encouraged Dee to work on them between coaching visits, hoping that some calm class sessions would help Dee see for herself the flaws of following the program to the letter.
This strategy worked: Once these techniques began to have an effect, it was Dee who decided the scripted program was boring ("no wonder the kids were not paying attention"). This "aha" led to a conversation about engagement and learning, which led to a discussion about a balanced language arts program that contains both item-knowledge teaching and authentic reading and writing. I stopped short of going so far that Dee would get frustrated and regress to her old habits. Eventually at one of the last coaching sessions, a conversation about how the lowest readers in Dee's class were doing led to a discussion—and demonstration—of strategies Dee might use in small groups of below-grade-level readers.
This teacher's classroom was by no means a highly effective place for teaching and learning language arts at the end of a year of coaching. But a shift had occurred; Dee began to see that her students' achievement was her responsibility, and she looked to herself—and what she might change—when lessons failed.
Dee's experience demonstrates the pitfalls of sending a coach in to "fix" a teacher. The relational nature of the coach-teacher dynamic becomes strained. It wasn't until this relational resistance was breached, toward the end of Dee's year with me, that she made real progress.

Case Study 3: An Enthusiastic Newbie

Greta, an upper elementary teacher, didn't request coaching but embraced it when it was given. She came to teaching from a business background and approached the classroom with passion and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, she didn't always implement her progressive ideas in a way that engaged students.
I was overwhelmed with the amount of technology Greta's learners had access to—and the chaos and noise that surrounded it. Through Greta's grant-writing efforts, each student had his or her own laptop and was allowed to use it at any time. Even when students had a writing assignment, they often used laptops for off-task behavior rather than composing.
Like Dee, Greta lacked models for effective classroom management, holding students accountable, and getting them engaged. But because Greta not only cared about her students but also was quite willing to change her practice, I could take this language arts teacher further. Simply pointing out to Greta her classroom chaos—by recording how many students were actually engaged in a typical class period and videotaping class sessions—got across that it takes more than great lesson ideas and technology to be a great teacher.
Greta tried the strategies that I suggested, such as monitoring all corners of the room, checking for on-task behavior every few minutes, and simply standing near chatterers. She used these strategies so well that we quickly delved into high-level literacy strategies like writing conferences and journals. By the end of the first year of coaching, I had to look outside my bag of tricks to come up with effective ways to extend a language arts program using technology.
Greta requested to work with me for a second year, and we hit the ground running. In our first conversation of the new school year, we explored the academic needs of Greta's current group of students by looking at previous test data.
This story of a teacher who was excellent in some areas and weak in others shows there's no cookie-cutter approach to effective coaching. To help Greta, I needed to be both knowledgeable and flexible. Because Greta was eager and incorporated new practices quickly, she soon needed food for thought about creative instruction. I prioritized classroom control as Greta's first need, but then quickly shifted to heavier discussions about innovative teaching techniques.
A good reading coach, especially in a school undergoing reform, knows it's not enough to walk in with a briefcase full of best practices. A good coach knows how to adjust to each teacher's context and immediate needs—and how to establish trust first. In short, coaches should treat teachers as adult learners, acknowledging where they are in their learning, focusing on their needs, and carrying a large bag of tricks that they can adapt and use as needed.

Knowles, M. (1990) The adult learner: A neglected species (4th ed). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

International Reading Association. (2004). The role and qualifications of the reading coach in the United States [IRA Position Statement]. Newark, DE: Author.

McCarrier, A., Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. S. (1999). Interactive writing: How language and literacy come together, K–2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Walker, B. (2010). Literacy coaching: Learning to collaborate. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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