Ask the Mentor/Coach
Q: In your experience, what are some common hurdles that teachers face when they begin planning for rigorous discussions and activities and how have they overcome them?
A: Working with beginning teachers is exciting because they are always willing to try new instructional strategies. When new teachers begin to implement rigorous discussions, the number one hurdle they must overcome is “the willingness to plan the discussion and activities.” As a mentor, this has been my greatest challenge. Many new teachers perceive planning questions for a classroom discussion as a waste of time. They are comfortable with asking students questions on the spot and prefer the “off-the-cuff” approach.
As a coach or mentor our goal is to change how teachers think about their practice so that the changes will be lasting. This requires a shift in their thinking which is unlikely to occur if our observations and conversations are not evidence based. How do we provide evidence? Here are a couple of ways you could provide authentic observation data:
- Conduct a focused observation and simply script the questions teachers ask students during the lesson.
- Use tally marks to count the number of questions the teacher asks.
- Analyze the questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide and decide together the level of rigor. Then, let the teacher decide if this method was effective and reached the intended goal. The discussion should help teachers see the value in planning questions in advance.
- Assist teachers in crafting one or two framing questions that encourage higher order thinking and require students to support their answers using evidence from the text. These questions are usually centered on a “big idea” and they guide the conversation.
Q: I understand that it is important for students to talk about their thinking, but I don’t have time! I have to keep pace with my grade level. What about the amount of time that discussions take? How will I address all of the content I need to cover to meet the state standards and prepare for the tests?
A: New teachers often feel overwhelmed by the curriculum expectations from their district, school and grade level. In some cases, these expectations may all look different, which adds additional time constraints. In order to support this type of teacher, you must assure them that you are not adding another layer of expectations and creating more work for them to do. In fact, you are offering them a way to address several standards at one time on an “on-going” basis through conversations. Remember, this teacher sees value in rigorous discussions and student-to-student interaction. You do not need to sell them on the concept. What you have to do is help them create space in their day to do this work. Here are some things to think about as you prepare for a pre-conference with teacher:
- Do not discount the teacher’s feelings. Show that you care by listening and acknowledging their dilemma concerning time constraints.
- Meet with the grade level chair, if possible, before you meet with the teacher. You want to make sure that you understand the curriculum expectations for the grade-level, school, and district. (For example: New teachers at my school thought they were required to use the Basal Text and County Units as written. The Curriculum Support Teacher stated that these were only resources. All teachers must follow the 9 to 18 week pacing guide, but they could use any resources to teach the standards. This was a huge “aha” moment for my teachers. Suddenly they realized that they could use authentic text and real novels to teach standards. This was exciting and changed their perspective about having discussions.)
- Make sure that you are familiar with the unit and resources prior to the conference. Each grade-level curriculum is different. You may need to refer to specific standards and textbooks during this conversation. Your goal is to help the teacher see connections across content areas and also to prioritize the standards. This may come at a later time, but if there is an opening in the initial conference you want to be prepared.
- Plan how you will address this issue. Decide on 2 or 3 open ended questions ahead of time, so you do not sympathize with the teacher and forget your focus or goal for the conference
- Think about the following: Why does the teacher feel s/he does not have enough time? Are there routines in place? Does the teacher have classroom management issues? Does the teacher write effective lesson plans? Does the teacher have the content knowledge to address specific weaknesses in their students?
- The questions above should lead you to find at least 15 or 20 minutes in their day without making any major changes. You are looking for an opening so that you can co-plan with the teacher.
Q: I keep waiting for the teachers with whom I work to ask me questions, but they never seem to have any. I feel like I’m the one “setting the agenda” and doing all the work. What should I do?
A: First, I would encourage you to spend some time cultivating relationships with your teachers. You want to establish a collaborative, co-learning relationship. You don’t want to be seen only as a resource – someone who shares solutions to problems the teacher is facing. You want to be someone who can ponder and puzzle over a dilemma with them, asking questions to help clarify thinking and constructing lessons with them. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. You might encourage your teachers to begin opening up to you by verbalizing some of the things you wonder about or apprehensions you’ve had in the classroom: “When I was in the classroom, I wondered about…” or “When I was teaching, I wasn’t sure how to…” Using open-ended conversation starters such as “Tell me your thoughts about how you think we might introduce and reinforce your norms?” or “In what manner might you begin establishing morning routines in the classroom?” might also serve to begin establishing a collaborative, co-learning relationship.