Great Teachers Aren’t Born… They’re Coached

By Amanda Jonas January 9th, 2014 4:30pm

You walk into a messy, slightly hot, and rather disorganized classroom. You aren’t sure what time of the day it is, because all of the shades are drawn and the light is off.  A projector (which sits slightly crooked) faces the white board projecting an oddly angled worksheet. The students in the room are talking loudly, which is alarming considering their teacher is also talking loudly. Calls of “I don’t get this work!” “I can’t see the board!” and “I hate this class!” reverberate through the room. You wonder what the objective is, since none of the students seem to be getting it. You look at the board and under the word “objective” you see the word “SURPRISE!” The teacher continues to loudly ramble on, and then flips the lights on. You are blinded and confused as she hands out the same thick packet to each of the students and tells them to work on it silently (you laugh to yourself because the class hasn’t been silent since you got here) for the next 45 minutes. The class erupts in commentary as students complain that this is “too much work,” that it is “too easy” or that it is ” too hard.” You look closely at the teacher. Even though she seems to be young, her eyes have this glazed over look that tells you she feels about 900 right now. You sneak out the back door just as you hear three voices scream, “MS JONAS CAN YOU GET HIM!”

Welcome to my world. You just experienced what my classroom was like during my first few months of teaching. The above scenario is entirely true (I was observed by my principal for the first time with the word “surprise” written as the objective) except I edited out the bad parts in an effort to make myself look good…kind of just ruined it by telling you all that, huh?

What’s worse than all this? Can it get worse? Even though I wanted my kids to learn desperately (the kind of desperate that makes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking to yourself, “how the heck am I going to get James to learn his multiplication tables??”) my kids were not learning. I was boring. My lessons were the same- guided notes, 20 pages independent work- I think I personally caused a paper shortage at my school my first year.

If you would have told me that a year later I would increase proficiency scores in 5th grade math from 10-39% on the DC CAS, receive a $25,000 highly effective bonus, AND hold a leadership role at my school, not to mention strong positive relationships with my students, I would have thought you were crazy. I would have told you that it would be impossible for me to do that…and I would have been right. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to make all that good happen on my own.

Instructional Coaching

During my first year of teaching, my instructional coach Mikel was in my classroom everyday. She wasn’t there to rate me on a scale from bad to worse, or to tell me all the things I was doing wrong. She told me how to make things better. Real concrete things! Not just platitudes like, “just be more creative” or “fix the culture in your room.” She would instead say “use these fraction circles in your lesson tomorrow,” and “show them to multiply like this.” We would meet for hours in her office, where I would lay out ten things that I thought were going wrong, and she would lay out twenty things she saw going right. She would hear me and let me vent my frustration, but she would never let me wallow in it. It was always about moving forward and getting better.

You see, the thing about an incredible instructional coach, and Mikel is beyond incredible, is that they see you and your potential, but in no way try to make you into the mold of a “perfect teacher.” Mikel allowed me to discover who I was as a teacher, what my style was, AND how to use all those good things to my student’s advantage. At the same time however, she pushed me out of my comfort zone into the scary world of small groups, discovery based learning, and student centered/run lessons. Throughout my three years at Stanton, Mikel has been the constant driver in my professional development, never allowing me to be satisfied with “good enough” or to ride the wave of previous successes. Yeah cool, I was highly effective last year. But what’s next? How can I reach my students in new and more meaningful ways? How can I be a better version of myself so that I can truly give my students my best?

So the next time your Mikel walks into your classroom, here a few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. Even though teaching is highly personal, and some of us spend more time in our classrooms than in our real homes, at the end of the day it’s about your students. Period. This was a big lesson for me personally, taking my ego out of the picture and just taking feedback and running with it. If something you try doesn’t work, own it, and give it another go. Appreciate the honest and difficult feedback when you get it because it will only make you a stronger and more successful teacher.
  • Just do it. Your instructional coach wants you to try small groups? A new seating arrangement? Go for it. Even if it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Your instructional coach has your back, and if what you tried didn’t move mountains like you thought it would, I promise you that your instructional coach will find something else that will.
  • Go ahead and ask! There is truly no such thing as a dumb question in teaching. For a few months, I was too embarrassed to ask Mikel what centers were supposed to look like. One day I got up the nerve to ask her, and I wish I hadn’t hesitated for a second. Your instructional coach is there to help you. If you need a lesson modeled or you aren’t sure how to correctly teach lattice, go ahead and ask!

My final take away is to remember that exceptional teachers are not born. They are created, or rather, they are coached. And even the most turbulent start can have an exciting and still improving finish.

Amanda Jonas is a 5th grade math teacher at Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C.