By Sandra Heidemann, M.S. and Beth Menninga, M.A.Ed., M.A., coauthors of Intentional Teaching in Early Childhood
As programs aim to improve their care and education, they often use coaches to help teachers implement new strategies. Coaches may help introduce new curriculums or early literacy or math strategies. They may help teachers identify children with special needs and may guide them as they learn inclusion strategies. Coaches may focus on adult-child interactions using the CLASS™ tool, or they may help programs get accredited or receive higher ratings in their state’s quality rating system.
Teachers may learn they are getting a coach in a wide range of situations. Once you have a coach, how can this person best help you grow in your understanding of teaching and learning?
Imagine this scenario: during this week’s staff meeting, your director announces that your center is entering the state’s quality rating scale system and, as part of that, teachers will be working with coaches to improve their practices. You feel a little pit in your stomach, and immediately you’re wondering:
- Does this mean the coaches will be in my classroom? How often? How will the children react?
- What if I am having a bad day?
- How much disruption will it cause?
- I already have so much to do. How can I add one more thing?
- Will the coaches talk to my director about what they see?
You hardly hear what the director says next because you start to feel nervous.
These feelings are not unusual. Perhaps many of the teachers in the room share some of these questions. The challenge is to put aside these feelings and enter into a trusting relationship with your coach so that your instruction will improve and the children will benefit.
Coaching is basically three phases: preparation, working together, and the goodbyes. Here are our suggestions on how to make the most of each phase.
It’s not uncommon to feel anxiety and discomfort about a new coach. You may have misgivings about someone observing you, interrupting your plans, or offering feedback. These reservations are natural, and it is helpful to explore them further so that you understand how they may get in the way of developing a supportive relationship with your coach. Here is a worksheet to help you explore what you are feeling.
As you prepare for this new relationship, consider what you want to learn. Your program may have defined what they want you to learn, such as a new curriculum. But within that, what are you hoping to improve? For example, you may learn new strategies from the curriculum, but you specifically want to address how to lead effective group times or structure successful transitions. If you outline what your specific interests are, your coach can address them.
Meanwhile, your coach is probably trying to get to know you and your program to understand your daily world. Think about what you would like your coach to know about your classroom, the children, and you. What are things about your group that make you smile or bring you joy? What is challenging in your day-to-day work?
As in any new relationship, you and your coach need to define how you will work together, including logistical issues, such as the following:
- How do the two of you prefer to communicate: email, phone, text, in person, or all of these?
- When will your coach observe you?
- When will the two of you meet?
- What does your coach expect from you, and what do you expect from your coach?
Although it may seem mundane to spend time on these issues, it is vital to learn each other’s preferences.
Feel free to ask exactly what your coach will be doing. Although each coaching relationship is unique, many will include:
- Discussion of the issue. You, your coach, and perhaps your director will discuss the focus of your work. What is it you will be working on together? Try to be honest and specific as you describe what is happening in your setting.
- Observation. Your coach will schedule times to observe you.
- Feedback and reflection. Your coach will share observations and ask for your reflections. Share what you experienced during the observation.
- Goal setting. You and your coach will set goals together to improve your practice.
- Developing strategies. Your coach may give you suggestions about new strategies that will help you achieve your goals. Add strategies you have found work well.
- Trying them out. After developing the strategies, you will try them out. Sometimes your coach will observe the strategy and give you feedback. Your coach may model a strategy to give you a better idea of how it works.
- Evaluation. When you meet with your coach, ask, “How did it go? What worked, what didn’t, and what’s next?”
- Have confidence in your own knowledge. Although a coach will bring you new ideas and suggestions, you also have a storehouse of knowledge about your children and what they respond to. Examine your core beliefs about teaching and learning. You may change some of these as you learn more, but by examining them you are ready to share and challenge them. Here’s a worksheet to explore your core beliefs.
- Reflect on your coach’s feedback. Try to see the feedback and reflection process as an opportunity to explore your own questions. It is natural to feel a little defensive when coaches discuss what they have seen in your classroom. Try to think of your coach as a “critical friend”—someone who appreciates your skill but also offers ways you might improve. Swallow hard and put away the defenses. Learn to laugh at your mistakes. There is no growth without mistakes.
- Try new strategies. It can be awkward to try new strategies, but keep trying. Sometimes it is tempting to try something once, exclaim, “It isn’t working,” and stop doing it. Just as children need to practice when learning something new, so do adults! You cannot know what is going to work unless you try it on an ongoing basis. Here is a worksheet to help you evaluate your strategies.
Usually, coaching has a time limit. This means there is an end to the work you are doing together. As you reflect on your experience, sit down and write out your answers to these questions:
- What did you learn? About children? About your teaching? About yourself as a teacher?
- What else would you like to learn? What are your questions now?
- What do you need to address these questions?
Reflect on these questions with your coach. Be sure to ask about resources your coach can leave with you.
Finally, remember the anxiety you initially felt and compare it to how you feel now. Celebrate what you have learned. When you improve your interactions and teaching strategies, you give the children in your care more confidence to keep wondering and learning about their world.
Sandra Heidemann, M.S., is a decades-long veteran of early childhood education with an emphasis on special needs. A past board president of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MnAEYC), Sandra has published in Young Children and Exchange magazines and is the coauthor of Play: The Pathway from Theory to Practice, published by Redleaf Press. She lives in Minnesota.
Beth Menninga, M.A.Ed., has over three decades of experience in early childhood education, including teaching in preschool classrooms and coordinating professional development initiatives on infant/toddler caregiving, early literacy, and early math. Beth has also coauthored articles for Young Children and Exchange magazines. She is currently project coordinator at the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota.
Sandra, and Beth are coauthors of Intentional Teaching in Early Childhood: Ignite Your Passion for Learning and Improve Outcomes for Young Children.
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