Teaching Side-By-Side: Coaching and Classroom Visits

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This month, interspersed with the Slice of Life Story Challenge, my colleagues and I are writing about professional development possibilities. Many of our readers are literacy coaches, team leaders, administrators, professors, and classroom teachers who support each other in their professional growth and learning. These professional development posts will be helpful for anybody who wants to fire up their own professional learning.

My favorite part of my job as a literacy coach is working in individual classrooms. When I visit classrooms, I’m there to teach side-by-side with the teacher, to chime in, ask questions, and make suggestions. Sometimes I team-teach, and sometimes I demonstrate. I’m fortunate this school year to have two days a week (and sometimes more) set aside for the sole purpose of classroom visits and coaching, making this the best school year ever for me.

There are many types of classroom visits that might support students and teachers, but there are four main types that make up the majority of my schedule as a coach.

Four Main Types of Classroom Visits

  1. The type where I’m there to research the classroom to inform future plans.
  2. The type where I’m coaching the teacher to support a goal.
  3. The type where I’m demonstrating methods to support a goal.
  4. And the type that is a little bit of all these things combined.

A spirit of inquiry, reflection, and a good sense of humor is crucial for any type of classroom visit to be successful.


CLASSROOM VISIT TYPE 1: RESEARCH

Just as we research student work to find out strengths and next steps, I also research the classroom and the teacher’s work to identify strengths and next steps (especially strengths). When I’m researching a classroom I try to look and listen by focusing on one or two things at a time. A few examples of things I might be focusing on include engagement, or clear expectations, differentiation, or student talk.

For example, I recently finished an inventory of almost every classroom library in my own district’s elementary schools to find out what kind of books we already have, and to make recommendations for what we need more of. I went in with the lens of engagement: Do we have enough books to keep every kid engaged during each reading workshop unit of study? In my classroom visits, I quickly surveyed classroom libraries, noting not only the books, but also how books were organized, and if there were book boxes or book baggies for each student.

Researching with a clear focus allowed me to work efficiently and with purpose. It was energizing work for me, useful and practical information for each of my schools, and I gathered many ideas and inspiration from the great teachers I work with.

Classroom teachers, try this: Even if your school doesn’t have a literacy coach, that doesn’t mean you can’t research your own classroom, or your colleague’s classrooms! Pick a focus that feels important to your teaching to study. Ask big questions. Find professional texts and resources (like this blog) to inspire new ideas and questions to ask.


CLASSROOM VISIT TYPE 2: COACHING

This is my favorite type of classroom visit, because I’m there to help out. I observe the kids closely for engagement and understanding, and right there in the moment, I chime in. I ask questions, and make suggestions to support the teacher in engaging even more kids, and helping kids understand things even better.

Notice, I intentionally stated that I’m observing the kids! Of course, I’m noticing the teacher as well, but more importantly it is the kids’ response to the teaching that I’m studying closely.

When I’m coaching, just like when I’m researching, I try to maintain one or two things to focus on. Lately, in my own district we’ve been doing lots of work with conferring and small group work, so I’m often coaching into this.

When I coach, I often literally sit side-by-side with the teacher, asking questions, giving tips and reminders along the way. It’s common that my coaching is helping teachers to remember things they already know, helping people follow through and put things into practice.

For example:

  • remembering to compliment during a writing conference
  • using a mentor text or your own writing during a writing conference
  • taking conferring notes/using conferring notes for follow-through
  • leaving something behind to help the student remember the conference
  • making sure the whole class is still engaged, even while we’re conferring with one student
  • pacing, moving on, ending the conference

I’m always looking for ways to coach that are comfortable and even fun for the person I’m coaching. A big part of this is enjoying the kids together, and laughing at ourselves from time to time — humor is an incredibly useful and important tool in the classroom!

Classroom teachers, try this: Invite a colleague to join you for your writing workshop to sit side-by-side during the minilesson and your conferring and small group work. Then swap, and go visit his or her writing workshop to teach side-by-side and coach each other. If this is a new experience for you, be prepared to have your teaching life changed!


CLASSROOM VISIT TYPE 3: DEMONSTRATION

Actually, this might be my favorite type of classroom visit, because I get to teach! When I plan a demonstration, I’m not only planning what I’m going to teach the kids, but I’m also planning what to highlight for the teachers who are watching me. I usually have some type of sheet or visual aide so that the teachers observing me know what to watch for or do during each part of the observation, and I often will pause my demonstration to talk to the teachers in the midst of my teaching – to explain what I’m doing, ask questions, or take in suggestions or input.

For example, I recently demonstrated some small group work  in writing workshop with several teachers observing me. Before I began, I gave teachers this handout, and in the midst of each lesson, asked them to figure out where my lesson fell on the continuum of scaffolding from less support/more independence to more support/less independence. (You can click on the image to enlarge).

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After watching me demonstrate a strategy lesson, each teacher went to a different table of students and tried out teaching a strategy lesson of their own.

A key piece of demonstration, I believe, is to model being reflective. I usually think aloud about my different options in the midst of teaching, and share what I would have done differently or another way it could have gone, or ask teachers to give me ideas for how it could have gone differently because I believe that at the heart of good teaching isn’t teaching perfectly, but being ready to reflect and grow.

Classroom teachers, try this: Find opportunities to open your classroom doors to visitors, novice teachers, interns and families.  As you teach your minilesson, pause now and then to explain your thinking to your visitors as you teach. You will be amazed at how this forces you to have clarity about what you are doing and why you are doing it!


CLASSROOM VISIT TYPE 4: COMBO OF ALL OF THE ABOVE

Of course, sometimes I’m doing a little of everything. For example, in one visit, I might demonstrate something, then coach the teacher to try something, then do a quick “float” around the classroom to read students’ writing and research how things are going.

With so many options, it’s often a challenge to remember each of my classroom visits clearly! Recently I started a new note-taking system for myself, to help me remember what’s what as I travel from school to school and classroom to classroom. Just as I take notes for the conferences I have with students, I’ve started taking notes on my coaching with teachers as well. (You can click on the image to enlarge).

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This has helped me tremendously. Now I’m able to say, “Last time I was here, we talked about ______. How’s that going? Do you have questions? How can I help you?”

Classroom teachers, try this: In your regular conferring with students, jot some notes not just about what the student is working on, but also make a note now and then about how your teaching is going. On any given day, write a little note to yourself about what your strengths are and what you are trying to get better at in your conferring.


After a decade of literacy consulting and coaching, I am proud to say that every year feels like I’m brand-new all over again. I’m constantly looking for better ways to do things, and figuring out how I can be as supportive as possible to the children and teachers I serve. I’m wary of those who seem to have all the answers.

My role, first and foremost as a literacy coach is to learn from the kids and teachers I work with. When I visit a classroom I often tell kids that I am there to get ideas from them, so that I can share with other kids in other classrooms, and this is absolutely, truly, the heart of my work. Every day I gather new ideas and inspiration from the wonderful teachers and kids I work with. Every idea, tip, and story you see me write about on this blog comes from a classroom that I researched, or coached, or demonstrated in! Thank you teachers! Thank you kids!

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