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Changing Roles: From Teacher to Coach and Back Again

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What’s it like to move from being a teacher of kids to a teacher of teachers? And what’s it like to move back?

Literacy teachers Cindi Rigsbee and Kathie Marshall are both members of the Teacher Leaders Network and both middle school veterans with three decades experience. Cindi, who teaches in a diverse school in the Raleigh area of North Carolina, took on a teacher-coaching job this past fall. Kathie, who teaches in an inner-city Los Angeles school, left her coaching job of six years in the fall of 2008 to become a full-time teacher again.

Earlier this school year, John Norton asked Cindi and Kathie to reflect on their coaching experiences in an e-mail conversation. What they had to say will be of interest to any teacher thinking of becoming a peer coach—and anyone who supports peer-coaching programs.

Cindi:

As I step into the busy classroom and look around, I am flooded with memories. Not so long ago, I worked in this same room as a reading resource specialist with my friend Cristie, the language arts teacher. I can almost hear Dominique drumming on his desk and see Shannon and Cody giggling instead of listening to the lesson.

I feel strangely uncomfortable as I stand just inside the classroom door. I’ve missed a year in the life of this school. While I was out representing North Carolina educators as state teacher of the year, Dominique, Shannon and Cody moved on to high school. These new 6th grade faces are unfamiliar to me.

I don’t know our students well yet. I didn’t return to my resource position. I’m now the literacy coach at my school, and that role is different. I don’t have my own kids. On this day, though, Cristie has asked me to cover her class for a few minutes while she goes to an appointment. I’m more than happy to comply. I am just thrilled to be around children. I miss teaching my own classes so much.

I enter the room, take a brief trip down memory lane, and then walk to the board to continue Cristie’s lesson. As I write my name, I hear shuffling. I turn around to see almost every hand up. I acknowledge student after student, each needing to go to the bathroom, get something from a locker, go to the office to make a call…the list goes on and on.

I feel a little unsettled. I’m accustomed to students being more attentive than this and knowing my expectations. And then it hits me—they think I’m a substitute. They don’t know I’m a teacher.

I’m hurt. But it’s not the first time this year I’ve felt out of my comfort zone. I stand there in that sea of raised hands and think about the transition I’ve made from classroom teacher to literacy coach, and I decide it hasn’t been a smooth one. It’s then that I think of my Los Angeles friend Kathie Marshall, who just last year made the exact opposite transition—literacy coach to classroom teacher. How’s she doing?

Kathie:

In 2008, I stepped back into the classroom after six years as a literacy coach. Every year I coached, I begged district administrators to allow me to teach just one class; I missed having my own kids so much. The answer was always “no,” so finally I made the choice to return to the classroom full-time.

I was so fortunate that a 6th grade position opened up at my school. I had grown attached to everyone during my six years coaching there. Less fortunately, despite 17 previous years as a 6th grade teacher, I found myself having to reinvent the wheel. Most of the materials I gathered during those years had been given or packed away in my garage to gather dust. In addition, during my six-year hiatus, the district created new instructional guides that I’d never had to use myself, so my approach to instructional planning would feel strangely new.

District seniority made me second in line when it came time to select classes. I deliberately chose to make my return more difficult by signing up for classes I knew other teachers wouldn’t want. My motives? I didn’t want to upset the teaching partnerships or the collegial relationships I’d honed during my coaching years. I also wanted to put my experience to the test: I chose to teach a two-hour reading intervention class with a scripted curriculum.

I was excited to prepare for my return! Classroom appearance has always been important to me, so I feverishly drew up a plan for my new room. I lugged carts full of textbooks and convinced a custodian to put up a white board that could be seen from any vantage point. I cleaned out the old science closet and began sorting through 30-plus years of my own “stuff.” I created and laminated new charts to post around the room.

By August, judging by the look of the teaching space, I was ready. Inside, however, I felt weirdly uncertain. Would I still have a special connection with kids? How would I live with scripted curriculum and instructional guides when, for decades as a teacher, I had enjoyed the creativity of crafting lessons and units? How effective would I be judged—both by my administrator and the California Standards Test? For someone with my years of experience and success, I was feeling awfully unsettled.

Cindi:

So what is it that makes a couple of 30-year veteran teachers experience such disequilibrium? Is it that change is difficult, or is it that we have 30 years of high expectations for ourselves? Furthermore, it seems that the very emotions that I have encountered being out of the classroom are the same ones that have sent Kathie back.

Kathie, based on your tenure as a literacy coach, do you believe that those of us who are truly teachers at heart can make a difference without students of our own?

Kathie:

I have conflicted feelings. I was originally convinced to leave the classroom because I was advised how many more students I could influence by coaching teachers. For six years I put everything I had into being the best coach I could envision. I do know that some of my treasured lessons are still happening in other classrooms, so that influence remains. I do believe a strong cadre of reading intervention teachers, who in large part took on the assignment as a favor to me, helped to reach some of our lowest performers. I also know that I helped to open the doors to true teacher collaboration, which was pretty much non-existent when I arrived in 2002. So, yes, I believe I made a difference.

But the dilemma was I still didn’t have my own kids and for me that was a huge deficit. I love being with kids. As I said, I re-entered the classroom feeling a little out-of-step. Today I question myself more than I did before I left the classroom. I think the inner critic worries about being seen as the fraud after being seen as the expert. I also understand that effective teachers are very reflective and, therefore, I try to tolerate my own uncertainty. (I wrote about this in a Teacher article last summer.) I guess I have to conclude that the difference I make with students is highly personal and relationship-based.

Cindi:

Kathie, I too know that I have the opportunity to make an impact that is more global as a literacy coach. But I find myself envious of your classroom stories and the difference you’re making with actual children who are touching-distance from you every day. Yesterday I ran in to cover a class for a teacher who ran out because of an emergency. Thirty students who had been reading silently seconds before were suddenly anxious and agitated. As I attempted to calm them, one small boy asked, “Are you a substitute?” I explained that I’m a teacher, and he wanted to know what kind. It’s always interesting trying to explain “literacy coach” to 11-year-olds. Instead, I said, “I’m a reading teacher.” The student momentarily looked puzzled, then said, “Oh. I thought you were a real teacher.” Ouch.

After that discourse, I realized why I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I’ve lost my sense of identity. Yes, I love all things related to reading and writing. I also love helping teachers (most of whom are now young enough to be my children) hone their literacy instruction. But I’ve been a teacher since 1979. It’s who I am, and venturing out of that comfort zone is leaving me with more questions than answers.

Although you eventually made your way back to the classroom, you were a successful literacy coach for six years. Do you have any tips for those of us just starting out on this adventure, any ideas for finding a comfort zone out of the classroom? Surely the best school administrators, central office curriculum experts, and even school district superintendents were committed teachers once. What ideas do you have for making the transition from classroom to larger school community easier?

Kathie:

Cindi, I think you’ve got it! Of course, the underlying issue is a strong sense of identity as a teacher, which in my case only transferred in part while working with adults instead of children.

As for suggestions for making the transition from classroom to a larger school community easier, I think perhaps it is an individual journey—hopefully, with the added support of fellow literacy coaches. From the beginning, I tried to tap into the school culture and actively sought teachers’ input on their needs and interests. I looked for ways to help implement the kind of change teachers desired rather than the kind that only the district or I wanted. Pretty soon, I found the my district training and tasks did not meet my definition of effectiveness.

Although some teachers loved working with me, the ones who most needed support were afraid of being “found out” by virtue of working with a coach. In an attempt to reach more teachers, I created a monthly newsletter in which I shared research-based instructional strategies and useful websites. To support our reading intervention program, I created an incentives plan with gift cards and field trips for successful students and classes. I researched lessons and strategies to supplement instruction on the most difficult language arts standards. In a nutshell, I did just about anything I could think of to make my work feel more meaningful.

In the end, I found myself back in the classroom—most likely because of that “teacher identity” thing you’ve identified. It seems to be my best fit. As you and others begin this complex journey of being a teacher of teachers, I think the answers will come from within as they did for me. It’s a process of growing and changing that’s so dependent on individual circumstance.

Some may find they thrive as coaches, perhaps even more than they did as teachers, especially those who work more effectively with adults. Some will love the self-direction and sense of accomplishment that comes from stepping out of the classroom. I’m not sure I have any specific advice other than to apply your best self to the job, be as reflective as a literacy coach as you were as a teacher, and keep tabs on that teacher identity as a means to measure self-satisfaction.

Cindi:

My “best self”? Of course that’s what I want to give to anything I do.

As you know, I’m one of 12 TLN members who’ve been working on a book about the future of teaching. We’ve talked a lot about hybrid roles—about the need to create teaching jobs that let successful teachers spread what they know and still hold on to their own students. It will take some restructuring of schools and mindsets to pull that off (and not end up with two full-time staff members!), but our book-writing team agrees that our best young teachers today are going to have a different outlook than our generation does. They love working with kids just like we do, but they’re also going to be less satisfied with careers that begin and end with the exact same set of duties.

I hope they don’t face our dilemma in the years to come. As for my own career future: I have supportive mentors who began working as literacy coaches in my district a year ago. We all have a supportive literacy coordinator looking after us, and my school family has been wonderful. And should I ever discover, as you did, that a change is necessary, I bet there’ll be a classroom out there for me somewhere. There are always 6th graders on the lookout for a “real” teacher.

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