The ABC’s of Literacy Coaching: Reminders for the Start of a Great Year

ABCs

I have a vivid memory of a coaching conversation from many years ago. I was the one being coached; one of my mentors had observed me and was giving me some no-holds-barred feedback.

“Nobody likes a know-it-all,” my mentor said flatly. “You’re talking too much. The one doing all the talking is the one doing all the thinking.”

Whew! In that moment, it was some tough medicine to swallow. But it moved me forward. In the next several days of my own literacy coaching I focused on talking less and listening more. I worked on asking questions instead of launching into advice-giving mode. I never forgot those words.

For a long time after that conversation I also attempted to coach others the way I had been coached: honest, matter-of-fact, efficient. I tried my best to be tough, like my mentor. There was only one problem: I’m not really a tough person. It just wasn’t me.

Then, months–or maybe years–later, I had another coaching conversation, this time with a different mentor.

“How do you think that went?” she asked, literally handing me a piece of chocolate as she said it. As I reflected on my work, she said things like, “Oh, that happens to me all the time!” or “I have that same problem sometimes!” “I notice that you ask great questions,” she said. “What do you think is your next step?”

She didn’t have to tell me. I already knew. While I was getting better at asking questions, I still needed to talk less, listen more. I needed to give people a chance to problem-solve for themselves. Also, maybe I should start handing out chocolate–it seemed to help a lot with effective feedback-giving!

This coaching conversation also moved me forward. She helped me feel confident in what I was doing, but her conversation prompted me to reflect and find areas I could improve on.

The moral of the story, for me, was that there are different ways to be a GREAT literacy leader. All of my mentors have had different styles, different ways of moving me forward. Some, I felt, were styles I could emulate. Others, I admired, learned from, but knew I could never be.

Over time, through years of reading, study groups, and more varieties of coaching experience than most people could imagine (seriously!) I’ve held on to a few basic principles that seem to hold true and stand the test of time. For now, I’ll call them the “ABC’s of Literacy Coaching.”

A is for APPROXIMATION

As teachers, most of us understand that approximation is critical to student learning. We would never expect students to come up with a perfect solution or plan right away. Yet, as literacy coaches, we often forget that the adults we teach (teachers!) also need to approximate when they are trying something new or problem-solving. It’s tempting to swoop in and offer up tried and true solutions and advice, to fix things for people, to do things for people–and to get it done quickly.

Instead of automatically swooping in, I try to take every opportunity to prompt people to reflect and problem-solve. In their book Coaching Converations, Cheliotes & Reilly remind us to use open-ended questions that focus on solutions rather than problems (p. 59). Questions like:

  • What strategies could you use?
  • What barriers do you anticipate?
  • What resources could help you?
  • What have you done that worked in similar situations?

You might note that I’ve adapted the wording of these questions slightly to suit my personality and relationships with teachers. You would do the same, of course.

Obviously, reflection and problem-solving are central to effective coaching. However,  each scenario is unique. Yes, there are times when I think the best thing to do is to just answer the dang question. Teachers can end up feeling like I’m withholding information from them if I make them brainstorm and problem-solve every little tiny thing every time they ask me a simple question. But I do try to check myself first, by asking, “Should I really answer this right now?”

B is for BE KIND

It isn’t always easy to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes, but that really is our job as literacy coaches. Being kind in all of our interactions with teachers, students, and yes, even administrators is a necessary and important part of doing the work well.

I think back on that coaching conversation, the one where I was told I talk too much. The conversation was effective, I think. I definitely changed my ways as a result. It was memorable feedback. But that conversation has also lingered in my memory for another reason. In all the coaching I’ve given and received, it was one of the few exchanges that felt unkind.

“Nobody likes a know-it-all.”

Ouch.

I’d like to say that I’d never say something like that to someone I work with. But then I think of all the ways that words and actions can be interpreted in different ways. Earlier I mentioned there was a period of time when I emulated the coach who had said these unkind things. In trying to be tough and no-nonsense, I’m sure I probably came off as unfriendly to some. Sometimes something meant to be funny can land as unkind.

Personally, I couldn’t sustain being the sharp-as-a-tack, whip-smart coach doling out tough love left and right that I was trying to be. I just wasn’t me, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to have many other literacy role-models to turn to.

The best that I can do is to try to be kind in all of my interactions. These are few steps I take toward kindness in my work:

  1. I routinely celebrate the work teachers are doing. I take photographs, I share publicly, I send notes full of positive feedback and compliments.
  2. I never deliver hard or difficult feedback through an email. Always in person, or if that’s not possible, at least a phone call.
  3. I ask teachers how they would like their feedback. “Would you like me to sugar coat it, or give it to you straight?” is a question I use often.
  4. I try to infuse humor into our work whenever I can. Laughter can go a loooong way.

C is for COACHING

Finally, C is for COACHING, obviously. Each year, I renew my commitment to spend as much time as possible in classrooms side-by-side with teachers. There’s important work to do outside the classroom (this year I’ve got a new report card to work on, a new middle school assessment plan, and a curriculum website to work on, for example), but it is the work IN CLASSROOMS that will move a school. You can’t coach well if you aren’t, well, coaching!

When I’m in classrooms, I think back to my experience as a ski coach. As a ski coach, you spend just a small amount of time demonstrating, or showing your athletes something new, but then most of time you are on the sidelines, shouting reminders and encouragement.

“Do the thing we talked about!”

“Do it again!”

“Keep going!”

“You got this!”

As I head into the new school year I’ll be reminding myself constantly of these basic principles of coaching and more: D is for DON’T TAKE YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY, E is for EVERYONE NEEDS COACHING, and F is for FEEDBACK. I won’t be trying to emulate any tough cookies any time soon, but you will probably see me handing out chocolate now and then.