Four years ago, I decided to make the shift out of my middle school English/language arts classroom and accept a position as my school’s literacy coach. I knew there would be a laundry list of tasks and responsibilities from my time as a classroom teacher that I surely would not miss, from meticulously grading more than 100 versions of a similar essay to crafting perfect seating charts. These were going to become duties of my teaching past. Wahoo, right?
But when I stepped out of the classroom, I had no idea that I was leaving behind the position in my school where I have felt the most effective and the most successful—and frankly, the position I loved the most.
Granted, in my time as an instructional coach, I discovered the many joys of collaborating and co-teaching with my staff. I supported and worked alongside teachers as they tried out new methods in their classrooms, and I watched them grow on a daily basis. However, after about two-and-a-half years, I started to notice that I was missing some of the basic satisfactions that were the very reasons I got into teaching in the first place. Lucky for me, a unique position became available in my school that allowed me to step back into my classroom-teacher shoes.
I was going to be able to “loop” with many students from a class I had previously co-taught with a 6th grade colleague, Cristie Watson. This new position would allow me to teach both 7th and 8th grade ELA, thus giving me the potential to work with the same core group of students for three years. After reflecting on my experience returning to the classroom, I’ve identified a few “basic teaching joys” that make me confident I made the right choice.
1. Classroom teachers have the autonomy to be innovative.
When I was an instructional coach, I began my graduate studies in K-12 literacy and continued to utilize professional development texts to deepen my knowledge of reading and writing pedagogy, especially at the middle-school level. I learned how to model lessons in classrooms for teacher observation, a best practice in instructional coaching.
There was just one problem—I didn’t have a classroom of my own. If I read about a promising strategy or an intriguing new tech tool, I couldn’t just turn around and experiment with it the next day. For example, a fellow literacy coach and I read a lot about Penny Kittle’s student conferences that teach reading strategies. We wanted to experiment with implementing these conferences in classrooms in our schools, but before we felt confident in modeling, we needed some trial-and-error practice. I put many exciting new ideas like this one on the back burner because I lacked a classroom space for experimenting, and this left me feeling unfulfilled.
Now that I have my own classroom again, I feel rejuvenated. I have the space and freedom to experiment, and I’m able to make changes whenever and however I like. I find it fulfilling and necessary to have my classroom as a space for creative professional expression. For example, when I attend a monthly “Tech Tuesday” PD session run by my school’s digital learning coach, I can learn about a new strategy in the morning and then try it out that afternoon. When I’m able to implement best practices and creative new ideas on my own time, I feel a sense of autonomy. Treating my classroom as a creative outlet helps me challenge the idea that the classroom has to be a stressful, structured place confined by standards and mandates.
2. Classroom teachers feel direct ownership of their results.
But how do we as teachers foster our own creativity in classrooms encumbered by the public education system’s emphasis on high-stakes accountability and standardized testing? Though we constantly wrestle with the validity and reliability of the information gleaned from these assessments, the reality is that this data is attached to our names and our professional evaluations. As an instructional coach, the data associated with my name and evaluation was a composite of the whole school’s data. In a sense, I was being held accountable for all instruction in my building—even in classrooms where I wasn’t able to provide much coaching.
Stepping back into the classroom, I feel relieved that all data, whether it be standardized, formative, or qualitative, is mine. I can connect with my data and own that it results from my instructional decisions and interactions with my students. This is freeing, in a sense. It has also helped me reflect more deeply about my instructional practices and recognize opportunities for growth.
3. Classroom teachers work and learn with their students, every day.
I realized very quickly the relationships I built with students as an instructional coach were very different from the ones I had built as a classroom teacher. Students saw me as the “guest” teacher when I modeled lessons, the teacher’s “assistant” when I worked with small groups, or the “crazy lady with the book room,” which, in retrospect, wasn’t all that bad. However, one of my favorite ways to build relationships with students is making individualized book recommendations. I still connected students with books as the literacy coach, but my recommendations were based on more superficial relationships and there was very little follow-up between the students and me. My relationships with students as an instructional coach took a hit, and so did my professional happiness.
Currently, I’m in the classroom with that same group of students who inspired me to leave my coaching position. My relationships with these students, now 8th graders, are truly the deepest I’ve had the privilege of building with a group of students. I know my students’ histories as readers, writers, and learners, and they know my rhythms and routines as their instructor. They also know a lot about me as a person and as a reader. Needless to say, their learning and my teaching have benefited tremendously from our long-lasting relationship. Being back in the classroom has shown me that the bond between student and teacher is truly one of the greatest joys of the teaching profession.
Though I appreciated the leadership opportunities afforded to me as an instructional coach in my school, it is truly the autonomy, authentic accountability, and relationships cultivated as a classroom teacher that leave me feeling fulfilled in my career. Today, I still love working with the instructional coaches at my school. What I love more, though, is truly finding my place to lead as a teacher. And that is in my classroom.