Before I spent most of my days literacy coaching, I spent most of them facilitating workshops. Sometimes, I’m asked my opinions about which sorts of learning experiences make the most difference for teachers, and I always stumble over my response. It depends on the purpose of the learning, I guess. It also depends on the learner, the facilitator, and the coach.
I know that there are moments that call for a great keynote and a lot of learning can happen within a workshop. If fact, I’d have to say that if an entire group of people require exposure to new information or skills, that’s probably the better venue. Coaching begins when the introductions are over. It also works best, in my opinion, when it is a part of a much larger strategic plan for change. Assessment, vision, and the gradual release of new practices–these are key ingredients. However, if someone were to ask me what the most essential element of effective coaching was, I wouldn’t name any of those, I guess. When I think about it, it seems the key ingredient for great coaching is the same thing that makes this practice so different from many other professional learning experiences: commitment.
One of the greater drawbacks about workshops is that they rarely move learners past guided practice, and even getting there is a tall order in a single day. Coaching provides teachers the support that they need to try new things on for size and the undivided attention of a believer who is championing their sustained efforts to change their practices. Great speakers and workshop facilitators can turn teachers on to what it is possible and arm them with resources and strategies and pathways to travel down. This is important, and most coaches that I know (myself included) provide workshop experiences to those that they work with. Afterward, they can help teachers tailor new practices to fit the unique profile of the kids that they serve. This requires a whole different level of commitment for everyone involved, though.
What has that looked like for me?
It’s looked like asking more questions than providing quick answers. It’s looked like listening far more often than I speak, and then sharing what I’ve learned with others who are longing for the same knowledge. It’s looked like connecting teachers together inside and far beyond the buildings that they teach in, to learn from one another anytime they may need to. It’s looked like bookmarking blog posts and earmarking journal pages to stick inside the mail boxes of teachers who might appreciate them…while I’m running between planning sessions and delivering much-needed resources. Commitment means coming to know the people that I work with and seeing the good in everyone as we learn how to make the most of our time together–even the people who work hard to keep me at a distance. It also means putting my practice where my prescriptions used to be. It’s not enough to talk about research-based approaches and dazzle people with a pile of shiny new tools. Coaching means showing someone how things really work in a real classroom with a slew of real kids. It means problem-solving beside teachers, and it means failing with them sometimes, too. And this is why I love it. It’s real, and because it’s real, I know that when I leave the learning that might have begun in a workshop has a greater chance of survival.
Defining what a coach is and what a coach does is tricky stuff. Our efforts are tailored to the varying needs of those we hope to help, and yet, unless that work aligns to a greater vision and a common goal that has everything to do with improving student performance, I think the real potential of any coaching relationship may not be realized. I find that it’s often necessary to remind ourselves of our commitment to that too.
Sometimes, I miss the ease of workshops and speaking engagements. I miss the quick satisfaction that I was able to provide and the bounty of gratitude that often came as a result. Sometimes, I even miss that guy at the back of the room who was reading the Times instead of participating in the session (you know him) or that lady who brought her knitting to that workshop I led on differentiated instruction three years ago (I think she’s retired now). I used to think that these experiences were the most challenging I’d ever face as a service provider. As it turns it, apathy is a far easier to cope with than cognitive dissonance….but dissonance can take us places. Coaching keeps our feet moving steadfastly in the right direction, as we work toward change together, regardless of how rocky the terrain may be. And it always is. That’s the reality that workshops often can’t address. In my experience, the real solutions are created over time, and the coach gets to be a part of making that happen. That’s a very rewarding thing.