A Chilling Story of Coaching Gone Wrong

Have you read this tale of horrors published in Edushyster? Amy Berard’s post “I Am Not Tom Brady“, published on July 22, tells of how her school and school district contracted with a group of consultants to improve student engagement and teacher performance. Make that, mostly “improve” teacher performance.

Picture an experienced teacher being “coached” by 3 experts huddled around a walkie talkie in the back of the classroom. That’s right, this Handwriting the Listis coaching, school improvement style.  Because if your school or district is targeted for improvements, there must be money for consultants – you know, consultants who have never taught, or are trying out their latest graduate school theory or something they heard from the TV experts filling afternoon airwaves.

The group Ms. Berard posts about is from the Center for Transformational Teacher Training and the program – get this – is “No Nonsense Nurturing“.

I don’t know, nor do I care, what the qualifications of the three people “coaching” Ms. Berard might have been, but I know this. Lawrence, like Lowell, has a very high population of students for whom English is not their native language. A teacher  speaking in phrases and incomplete sentences with robotic monotone is poor practice and modeling for English acquisition. And what can “no nonsense nurturing” offer? Nurturing without nonsense? What can that possibly mean?

Because of high poverty levels, which, by the way, will not be fixed by employing teachers who speak like robots, urban school districts often are targets of these types of programs. Peter Greene writes of the dangers of using canned programs such as the  one described in Amy Berard’s post in the Human-Proof Classroom. (You may need to register with Education Week – free – to see the whole text). Is this the education that our urban students need or deserve? Since when is a teacher making an emotional connection with students, especially impoverished and difficult-to-reach kids, an undesired outcome?

There are so many wrongs here. The simple fact that private, money-scavaging “consultants” are empowered to find cash flow in urban districts by offering outrageous programs such as this one, should alarm everyone.

And if you think it can’t happen in your own school or district, think again. Amy Berard’s tale of coaching gone wrong hits pretty close to home – literally. Lawrence, MA, a school district under state receivership, is a quick 15 miles from where I live and where I taught in Lowell, MA. Be vigilant.

Teacher as Learner

I have long gotten past being the “sage on the stage”. If educational gurus hadn’t already convinced me that students learn best from peers and self-exploration – constructing the meaning of something themselves from experience – anecdotal evidence from the classroom would have.

This week I arranged with our school’s Literacy specialist/coach, Pat Sweeney, to have her model peer writing conferences.  Knowing how much language we need to build into any speech-based activity with English Language Learners, help in supporting my students is always welcome.

Pat started by engaging my students in thinking about why an author may want to ask a peer  for advice. First Pat laid down the ground rules for the author (read your work and listen to peer input), the peer group (listen and then offer 1 compliment and 1 suggestion).  The rule of compliments (always start the sentence with “you or your”) and suggestions (“I think…..”) was next.

Then kids then looked over and clarified a list of compliments and suggestions that Pat had placed on anchor charts. Having previewed some independently written narratives my students were working on, Pat selected two students to be the first to try out peer conferences in a whole group.

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of constructive criticism my students had. They offered compliments and useful suggestions about the plot of a story, the beginnings, the endings, descriptive languages. Pat wrote down up to 3 suggestions for each author – fitting them on a 3×3 stick-on note – and then instructed the author to keep the note with their original work so when they later conference with me, we can both see which suggestions were incorporated into their pieces. Self accountability – brilliant!

Several days later, when Pat led our peer conferences a second time, she gradually released the conversation to the students. And the students were much more willing to sit in the author’s chair or offer suggestions and compliments. As we continue this process, my hope is that students will move eventually to arranging with a smaller peer group of 2-3 students or even with a critical friend.

As for me, I’ve learned that I have a habit of offering a compliment but linking to the suggestion with the conjunction “but” – which negates the power of the compliment. I’m also going to need to do some work to remember beginning compliments with “you” and not “I think”. I also was delighted to see the authors who had been through the peer conference check in with me (“Do you think I should rewrite this or just write this part on my draft?”) — how many times have teachers given students a writing suggestion and then notice it never makes its way in to the final copy?

Having a valuable critical friend for my own teaching is not a luxury, it is a necessity. We learn from each other – just as the students do.