Challenges of Coaching a New Literacy Specialist

Challenges of Mentoring a New Literacy Specialist-Susan Kennedy

“learning floats on a sea of talk”  James Britton

The coaching process is like the sea of talk.  The listening, the reflecting, the ripples of ideas are what drives the new staff member forward.  While coaching is not a new skill or task for me, each new person who enters this relationship has their own experiences, their own challenges, and their own needs.  One  must seek first to understand and then be understood, as Stephen Covey so eloquently said.  It is always a challenge to hear what a person does not say,  to understand their personal dynamic, and to gently coach while respecting the infinite amount of skills they bring to their new situation.

From years of being a reading specialist, it’s clear that staff members are suspicious of any staff member who is in a ‘nonteaching’ position.  The role of specialist is unique in the district and the school.  Literacy Specialists teach but are not the primary teacher.  They coach, but are not evaluators.  The role is as varied as the literacy needs of a building.  So coaching a new literacy specialist is to tread lightly and encourage the same in the protege.

Coaching is relational.  What I hope to communicate:  work hard,  be open to what is new, and be a good colleague.  What I know is that we might not always see those things the same.  Again,  it goes back to the listening.  I like to think about being like water:  reflective, fluid, calm.  She came from somewhere where she was respected and successful.  She had been there a long time.  I understand that.  I was at my last school a long time as well.  However, every place is new.  We bring our knowledge, but hopefully not the places where we are stuck.  The relational coach helps keep the protege from the stuck places.  That’s a challenge.

Coaching is fluid. The new literacy specialist is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work in the fall.  Benchmark assessments, record keeping, professional development, coaching, establishing an intervention schedule, maintaining the literacy center, and establishing a relationship with so many people.  To coach someone who has so many responsibilities is to listen and really hear the concerns, the triumphs, and the trials of the new literacy specialist.

The message to the protege is hopefully consistent, how to get off to a great start.  It’s everything you might not want to do in the beginning.  Get involved.  Respect different ways.  Don’t whine.  Make sure you clearly understand expectations.  Avoid the four most dangerous words: “in my old school..,”  I say to her, “You’re nearly there.  When December comes, you’ll have your sea legs.”  When she does not want to listen to that,  I just listen to her.  Just like the water:  reflective, fluid, calm.

Be like water:  reflective,  fluid,  calm.

Challenges of New Literacy Coaches

The journey of life is learning to define yourself by who you are, not who others expect you to be.

Meeting new people in general and teachers in specific is fascinating.  Often you meet an individual who by my account is preemptive.  By this I mean,  she clearly sees what she perceives is her deficit and is quick to point it (or them) out.  My protege, by her account, took her job not knowing that coaching was part of the role.  She has never coached adults before and was content being a reading interventionist alone.  She specifically doesn’t like to speak in front of groups where she is presenting the information.  She also sees herself as someone who is a specialist in reading recovery.  I waited and listened.

When reading the mentoring information and the ‘challenges for new teachers’, they rarely completely apply in the role of literacy specialist.  I have coached two literacy specialists in three years.  Both came with experience teaching or working with student for many years, however both were transitioning to a new ‘hybrid’ role of literacy specialists.  When the concerns are extracted, they amount to ‘being an expert to other adults’ and the one many don’t consider at first, the self direction and lack of peers.  In my own practice, I address my practice by leading with my strengths.  That is the nature of my coaching as well.

What is the essence of coaching? As Jan Burkin states in Coaching for Balance: The content or the technical aspects of a coaching position may vary significantly, but the role of the coach is the same in every domain. It is the coach’s job to bring out the best in the student, the athlete, the singer, the teacher, or the dishwasher. If you were my coach, you would need to develop a relationship with me, develop expertise so that you would know how to help me, plan for my success, communicate your confidence in me and my potential, help me find the very best in myself, and, in the end, step out of the way so that I could claim the change as mine.  So, I talk with Dorothy.  Does she understand what it takes to develop a relationship with students (or their teachers), develop expertise so they that she knows how to help the teachers and students, etc.?  In talking with her over the last month, she is very relational.  She sees situations and reads them well and is supportive to others. So where’s the crux?  Developing expertise, planning for success, and communicating confidence to others.  

Certainly, she has expertise.  Her expertise lies in her ability to diagnose reading (and writing?) difficulties in students, develop a plan for their progress and communicating goal setting, progress monitoring, and success with the students.  Her difficulty might lie in seeing this as her pathway to successful coaching.  How to translate her ability to accomplish this with students to accomplishing this with the students’ teachers?  The answer is complex, but surmountable.  Develop relationships, expertise, credibility, and rapport through your strength,  your work with students.  The rest will come with developing more and more expertise regarding specific assessments, curriculum initiatives, and data collection.  Lead with your strength,  your expertise will become apparent, teachers will develop relationships with individuals who are helping their students and in the process themselves.  By goal setting with students and teachers, these goals will translate to professional practice with teachers.  In the background, developing some ‘go-to’s in her tool kit :  resources,  articles, quick fixes/helps.  These will go a long way in building rapport, which is the primary step to coaching well.  

What “New” Literacy Specialist Need

When I think back to my first year as a literacy specialist, I remember the isolation of living in that in-between place- not quite a teacher anymore, but not an administrator.  No longer belonging to a tight team of teachers that you could follow in the beginning.  It’s a strange, strange place.  So what does a new literacy specialist need from her peers and who in fact are her peers?  Our peers are our fellow teachers,  the other specialists in the district if they are available, the administration,  and the psychologist, sometimes guidance.

This made me snicker when I reread it because I don’t think those folks knew they were my peers, my PLC, my advisors when I gave them that role in my life.  I remember being out there in a small room with very little materials, knowing no one, thinking “what now?”   I needed a friend, but more, someone to explain how the school worked.  At that school,  I sought out the principal.  After all,  she hired me.  She was new also.  She was figuring it out too.  Maybe that made it a good thing,  We started meeting weekly and planning.  That kind of meeting and sharing became the bedrock of my coaching.  Finding out the principal’s vision and translating that to literacy was my goal.  I still operate like that.

It’s not enough to understand the principal’s agenda however.  A Literacy Specialist also has to understand the teacher’s goals, hopes, and worries.  Since no one really wants to just come out with those to a stranger,  I just started doing whatever I could to create room for chat.  It’s hard to explain that, but I helped organize books; I did a few DRAs;  I read books;  I found books for lessons.  Little by little, teachers started sharing and I started to feel like I was helping.  You might have to have a little of that fixer/helper spirit to break through as a literacy coach.  

I did not have Jan Miller Burkins’ words that follow when I became a literacy interventionist/ specialist/ coach.  At that time,  I might have been a trailblazer.  I didn’t think about that much.  What I thought about was the students…. and their teachers.  How were we together going to reach the goals we created and others created for us.  How were we as a team going to encourage students to become lifelong learners and lifelong readers?  So what did I need?  I needed some folks with shared vision; some cheerleaders; some people willing to grade on effort.  As you probably can guess,  that didn’t always happen.  You have to create your own magic.  

I didn’t need to ‘fake it until I could make it’ ,  I just needed to do the hard work.  Most of the time, teachers are worried about their students and could use a hand.  I just gave it.  I didn’t worry too much about credit or being the expert,  I just did work.  I didn’t always make a great balance.  I didn’t always get it right.  I didn’t always help as much as I hoped.  What helped me then?  Sometime it was honesty.  Sometimes it was criticism.  Sometimes, it was encouragement.  Most of the time, it was tenacity.  

As with all situations involving other individuals,  we can’t really expect them to always give us what we want or even need.  They don’t know what that is.  We have to let people know in a kind, gentle, forgiving sort of way.  When we become open to the idea that it’s all a journey and there are definitely ‘do-overs’,  we can plod along.  One day,  it become second nature.  We don’t expect so much and others are willing to give so much more.  Some of it is about just not being perfect.  Who wants a perfect colleague?  

So in the end, what did I need in those first months and years?  Time.  What’s that old saying?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  That’s my coaching mantra.  The sun rises tomorrow.  We’ll give it another go then.  

From Jan Miller Burkins, Coaching for Balance

Defining Our Beliefs About Literacy Coaching

  1. I believe that coaches should consider teachers as people before they think of them as teachers.
  2. I believe that the most important element of coaching is relationships.
  3. I believe that coaches should not take on administrative roles.
  4. I believe that it is a coach’s job to assume the best of teachers and others with whom they work.
  5. I believe that coaches should honor confidences.
  6. I believe that coaches should advocate for teachers with the administration, with the school district, with other teachers, and even with the teacher themselves.
  7. I believe that coaches should be advocates for themselves so that they can preserve their physical, emotional, and mental resources to serve teachers.
  8. I believe that coaches should have extensive expertise in the content area in which they coach.
  9. I believe that programming and instructional choices should be based on research.
  10. I believe that coaches should support teachers in becoming knowledgeable thinkers and leaders in literacy.
  11. I believe that coaches and teachers should find joy in their work.
  12. I believe that any philosophy must be exercised within a spirit of balance.