I was asked to guest blog on Hawk Hopes. My initial thought was, gosh, I’m not sure I’m really a blogger. Then, I felt the need to learn; expanding myself into something new…you know, live on in the educator’s spirit of being a “life-long learner.” So, here I am!
In my 11 years in the field of education, I have learned many things. As I started my career in a more administrative role, I quickly learned that I wanted the hands on experience with the kids before I get into paper pushing. I was fresh out of graduate school, with an early childhood special education degree. The position I was offered (and accepted) was in a private Catholic school as an overseer of the paras (all FOUR) in a school of 600 students. Molding the public school IEPs to fit into the Catholic school’s curriculum and assisting teachers in modification of curriculum were just a few of the task list items that fit into my job description. The next year, I began the journey in public school life and thus opening my career in the field of early childhood special education. Little did I know, this would be the quite a ride! In my experience, the majority of educators start in a classroom, and end in a classroom. They may add on leadership roles within the school, but their passion remains in the classroom—I thought I was that person…until I discovered there was a world between administration and classroom teaching. I found the instructional coaching and department mentoring position in my district and THAT was my new goal: To mentor, support and coach teachers! Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching my students and their parents. So very many joys came from my time in the classroom, every day. But, I saw something different for me. This new goal was about touching more lives than just in my classroom-it was a ripple effect. And really? I get to “teach” teachers without a life consuming PhD?? Yes, Please!!!
My time in the classroom delivered some validity with the other educators as I stepped into their classrooms. I believe the other piece of my success was meeting teachers where they were. I didn’t use one prescribed method to reach each individual, nor did I plaster myself, my beliefs or the information about evidence based practices to force a change. Change is gradual, and you have to establish and continue building trust as part of a buy-in from your stakeholders before you can start the process. That meant personal, face to face visits to classrooms to see where each person was, and to collect data on our departmental strengths, areas of need and see who could assist who. I enjoyed thinking out of the box, relying on collaboration with team members (parents, teachers, specialists, principals, etc.), and helping facilitate more meaningful learning for both adults and students. There is something very empowering about infusing your work and experience into someone else’s work. It makes all the extra hours (you know, because teacher DO, in fact work outside of 8-4), more worth the while and effort.
Researching to keep up with the latest and greatest, as well as finding research to validate that some of the old tried and true is still best practice, was such an entertaining challenge. Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is such a HUGE concept, as each classroom we teach in has a spectrum of developmentally appropriate—some students come in reading, while others are still working to sort letters from numbers (typically developing or not). Both skills are on the DAP spectrum, but you would teach each in a different way-the expectations are different. The students’ personalities and experiences, as well as developmental levels assist in guiding our style of and content in our lessons, classroom arrangement, classroom management and organization. Sometimes, we get stuck. The best of the best get stuck, and it’s okay. When you are so close to the source, at times, it’s difficult to step far enough away to see what other options might be. The advantage of having a district that provided an instructional coach/department mentor, was having someone to call for help. Someone to provide different ideas, an ear to chew, data to collect and present, a supportive hand, someone to model something different, or just to reiterate that what you are doing is right—keep it up, you CAN do this! Even when it’s hard, results WILL come.
During my time in this instructional coaching and department mentoring position, I enjoyed creating lesson plans and curriculum, observing others at work, offering my insight as an outsider, pointing people in the direction of a colleague, or making connections between people (e.g., across schools, within schools, and within their own classrooms) that weren’t there before. Being an instructional coach has been the most challenging, yet satisfying career choice I have made. I felt like I was making a difference. I could see the physical and emotional change in the department as we worked together.
I feel there is a great need for more instructional coaches/department mentors throughout the educational field. The position can provide invaluable support to educators (new and seasoned) to help them feel heard and validated. Additionally, it can provide (or enhance) individualized and ongoing staff development onsite, often times where it is needed the most. The accountability level for the educator goes up, and in my experience, the educators felt a deeper sense of commitment to change with a support person who was able to be present. A department mentor or instructional coach can provide a sense of cohesion within departments, as well as through the district. The hands on experience I was able to give the educators I worked with was so much more meaningful than an e-mail sent with little or no follow up.
I understand that in today’s “zero and declining” budget, there just isn’t enough funding to support a position like this in every district. I do feel, however, that the money spent was justified, and well spent to better the department, and in turn, the district, as a whole. Additionally, it provided an invaluable experience to educators new to the field. Demanding day to day responsibilities, paired with learning district “ways” and policies can be very overwhelming. The position I held enabled me to assist (and learn more myself) educators with a hands on approach. The response to the individualized attention the position allowed me to provide was overwhelmingly positive, and I am still utilized as a resource to some of the educators I was fortunate enough to coach. When teachers feel supported, validated and “heard,” there isn’t much that cannot be accomplished.
Lisa Payne is a 2002 graduate of the M.S. Ed program in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. She specialized in Early Childhood Special Education and earned a B.S. from Fort Hays State University in Speech and Language Pathology. She resigned from her position in June 2013 to stay at home with her two young sons and daughter.