“I’m stale,” Bill Buchanan said, in reaching out to me for classroom coaching. “And I’m boring the kids to tears.” It was September 2003, and Bill was in his 19th year as a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) math teacher, originally at Farragut High School and by this time at Foreman High School. And I, after eight years in the classroom, was in my first year as a CPS math coach serving Foreman and seven other schools.
Oddly enough, our experience gap wasn’t the biggest reason I was surprised Bill asked me to coach him. What made it even more unlikely was the response I got from other teachers. Make that lack of response. My coaching services were optional, and out of 150 teachers at eight schools, Bill was my only “customer” that first month or so on the job. Still, I didn’t begrudge teachers for this, since I too would have been wary of someone coming from the regional office to “help” me. The fact Bill Buchanan was my only taker early on is not therefore an indictment of 149 teachers, but rather testimony to one. Bill had been rated a superior teacher throughout his career, and was halfway through the National Board Certification Process. He didn’t need coaching; he wanted it. And he wanted it for one reason, as his “boring kids to tears” comment suggests: to do even better for his students.
It took time for me as math coach to fit in at each school when I could only be there twice a month. Far less time, however, at Foreman than other schools thanks to Bill, who insisted we have lunch together my first day there. We met for lunch most of my visits thereafter, along with many of Bill’s colleagues across all departments. And this wasn’t misery loves company commiseration, but rather collegiality at its best, with Bill setting the tone. For so many of us who worked with Bill, to have him as a colleague was to have him as a friend. He was so generous and likeable that I often found myself pulling for his beloved Cleveland sports teams--not against Chicago teams, of course.
Just as Bill helped me find my way at Foreman, so too did he go beyond the call to help new teachers. And he was always optimistic about a teacher’s prospect for success. “You have to see [so and so] teach--frickin’ awesome,” Bill would say to me. And with Bill’s support, even when these teachers struggled, they would eventually succeed. “Bill helped me through one of the toughest times of my life,” recalls one of those teachers, Esteban Medina. “He would give up his free periods to sit in on my lessons, and then take time to give me meaningful feedback and much-needed encouragement.”
Bill also found good in situations when others felt put out. As he and I left a six-hour training that seemed like six days to me, I was about to say, “What a drag,” when Bill broke in with “Great stuff.” He then brainstormed how he would apply that “stuff” when he took over as Foreman’s math chair the following year. Bill was really looking forward to the math chair role, but was such a team player that, just weeks before he was scheduled to (and eventually did) take over, he offered the job to a teacher he was recruiting to come to Foreman.
Bill and I remained friends after I left CPS, and talked about the possibility of working together again. Bill died last month after a six-year battle with cancer, so I’ll never know if we would have worked together again. But never mind what might have been. What matters is what was. And for me and many others who had the privilege of working with him, Bill Buchanan was a once-in-a career colleague and cherished friend. He was also--and will always be--a model of professionalism whether you knew him or not.
Image provided by Bob Cohen with permission.
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