“He Said…She Said” by Neeley Reagan and Derek Frazier

IMG_1696You may have heard the old adage, “There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth.” Well, here’s the story of the ongoing coaching relationship between Derek (the teacher) and Neeley (the instructional coach), as told from both perspectives. Then there’s the truth.

Neeley’s side of the story:

“What do you know about digital discussion boards?” I looked up and saw a rather tall Spanish teacher standing in front of me. I knew from my relationships with other teachers in the department that this particular teacher had never reached out to a coach before, but there he was standing in front of me asking me to partner with him. I was intrigued.

I thought carefully–and quickly–about how to respond. Had I used discussion boards before? Yes, but in my role, I’m not supposed to be an expert who teaches teachers. Rather, I’m a generalist who partners with teachers to actualize their goals. How could I steer the discussion toward instruction without focusing solely on technology or pigeonholing myself into a tech support role? After a little discussion back and forth, I asked Derek a question that had suddenly occurred to me but that I had never asked before. “What are you excited about having your kids do in your class this year?”  

Derek responded with one seemingly inconsequential line that would come to shape the course of our coaching relationship and influence my own professional learning as a coach. Enthusiastically, Derek replied, “I’ve discovered that students take more risks in the language when they can discuss with each other electronically.” Voila! I had to dig a bit, but there is was, an overarching instructional purpose, one that he was actually really excited about pursuing, one that did not necessarily have to do with digital discussion boards.

Eight months, fifteen coaching interactions, and countless informal conversations later, Derek high-fived me after we had finished creating a final exam wherein students, in small groups, would collaborate to write their own creative stories in Spanish in a Google doc that they would share with other student groups in order to gather feedback and make revisions. Throughout the year, Derek had discovered that his students had indeed taken risks through discussions and projects that involved digital writing. Derek and I had worked together to actualize the student-centered goal that we had discovered through our initial conversation around the source of his excitement.

I had also developed and actualized my own coaching goal: to uncover the sources of teachers’ excitement and encourage them to take risks around their excitement. Before we started working together, Derek had never had his students use tech tools to collaborate, write, share, and take risks in the language. By the end of the year, Derek had used a plethora of tools and strategies to foster student risk-taking. By collaborating with my coaching team to analyze, evaluate, and modify the strategies I was using with Derek–and other teachers–related to my own coaching goal of fostering excitement, I had become a better coach. Had Derek not responded favorably to my original question–“What are you excited about having your kids do in your class?”–I might never have discovered that asking about excitement can actually lead to excitement and that, armed with the appropriate strategies, I had the power to foster teacher enthusiasm and encourage positive change.

Over the summer, Derek sat on a teacher panel for a professional development session a media specialist and I were facilitating on how to thrive in a 1:1 environment. Derek had become an expert on high-quality instruction using 1:1, and now he was sharing his knowledge and ideas with others. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the dual missions of the instructional coaching model: to foster a culture of collaborative, public, reflective practice and to partner with teachers to actualize their professional goals. There was Derek, publicly sharing his practice with teachers across the county after we had spent the year planning, creating, and reflecting in order to actualize his goals. And there I was, enriched through my experiences collaborating and reflecting with Derek, a stronger educator on an ever-evolving journey of professional growth.  

Derek’s side of the story:

It was my first quarter teaching AP Spanish. I felt that my students needed a different approach to their writing practice. It was clear that they needed more collaborative work because it’s difficult for students to improve their writing style from listening to their teacher explain it in a foreign language. I noticed that students were very reluctant to comment on each other’s work in a classroom discussion. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but knowing that kids are more comfortable online than they are in person, I thought I could create a forum where kids could respond to very dense topics with very elaborate Spanish grammar and feel free to make mistakes without being judged. I just knew that I needed newer methods that would meet all my students’ needs, and I wanted help from a colleague. I remembered that one of my Professional Learning Community (PLC) partners had told me that he had had a valuable experience working with an instructional coach, so I decided to reach out to Neeley and give it a try.

My only expectation for my first meeting with Neeley was to learn how to use a tech tool to create a forum for students to write and discuss various topics. Because Neeley demonstrated herself as a valuable resource during our initial meeting, I was able to trust her with my future lesson planning. My time is my most precious commodity; thus, I would not be interested spending it with an instructional coach unless it were benefiting my lesson planning.

Anybody could have explained how Blackboard and Google docs work, but it was the relationship and interactions with Neeley that changed the look and approach of my teaching style. I observed that students felt free to discuss the material in small groups and take risks with their writing; therefore, Neeley and I came to the conclusion that more assignments should be of a similar structure and began finding newer methods of crafting these assignments

As Neeley and I strategized together, I began to craft my own professional development goal. I wanted to be less of an instructor and more of a facilitator in the classroom. Neeley and I developed strategies to create an environment for the students that was less teacher-centered and more student-centered. We developed lessons and activities that were both authentic and engaging. We looked at the material that needed to be taught and the methods available to us and worked until we came up the the best approach to deliver lessons. For example, we were able to use Google docs in order to come up with a better strategy for peer editing students’ essays. After collaborating in small groups to write an essay using Google docs, student groups would drop links to their essays on another Google doc so that other students could read the essays and provide feedback. The original authors could read the feedback and appreciate the comments without feeling judged, which led them to revise their own work. My role was to facilitate the Spanish because the process we had created had taken care of itself.

After spending a year crafting assignments with Neeley, she asked me if I would be willing to share student work in a panel she was conducting for summer professional development. I had had a successful year developing new strategies for delivering curriculum to my kids and was very excited to share my strategies and enthusiasm with my colleagues.

Looking back on my experience working with a coach, I realized that I have PLC partners with whom I can share ideas and collaborate, but their primary goal is the same as mine: to focus on their own lesson planning and support their own students. On the other hand, instructional coaches are resources whose primary focus is to aid teachers in their lesson planning and, in doing so, indirectly support their students. Would a PLC partner spend an hour of their planning time every week just to help me craft a lesson? Perhaps, but their focus is on their students whereas a coach is able to put their focus on my students and me.

The truth:

Could Derek have actualized his goals without his coaching partnership with IMG_1673Neeley? Yes, most likely. Would the experience have been as rich? No, probably not. By having teachers and coaches partner together to actualize goals, the coaching model simultaneously enriches the practices of teachers, coaches, and the larger educational community, while at the same time encouraging student growth. As teachers and coaches work together and connect with others, knowledge, ideas, and enthusiasm spread, one partnership at a time. That’s powerful stuff. Just ask Derek and Neeley.