I recently had the amazing opportunity to do a week of literacy consulting at Korea International School. Consulting is a role I find myself in more often these days, which is something I have to get used to since my usual operating mode is as a coach. Consulting has been an incredibly rewarding experience, but an adjustment none the less. Like putting on a fancy dress; you like the way you look and it feels good to dress up, but sometimes you miss your favorite pair of blue jeans. One thing I had to get used to, and I am still trying to figure out, is how to give my opinion. Now don’t get me wrong; I, like most humans, love to give my opinion on things. Just ask my husband :). But I have been trained as an instructional coach and I have learned and seen first hand how opinions can fall flat and not make a lasting gain in a school or person’s growth. The big gains come from reflection, excitement about work and ideas, internal motivation and commitment to reaching goals, and experiencing success. So giving my opinion is something I have to think a lot about as a consultant and how to do it in ways that make a difference to teachers and schools. Even though I have been thinking about this through the lens of a consultant, I know even as coaches we need to give our opinions and consult with our teachers. So the big thing I thought about this week was, what was my purpose in giving my opinion? What did I hope would happen afterwards? What I figured out was that giving my opinion wasn’t about hoping people would do what I told them to do. My hope was that they would become more informed decision makers. So here is what I learned about the role of consulting and giving opinions, with the goal of making people more informed decisions makers.
Build Their Content Knowledge & Craft
One way I tried to consult was to share research, practices, information, and techniques I knew to be effective in the classroom. It was great to see teachers’ understanding and craft grow as the week went on. But I didn’t share it with the mentality of “This is how it is, go do it,” instead the focus was always on having a deeper understanding of different literacy practices, their purpose, and when and why to use them. Anytime I shared something, I explained where the information came from, why it was important, and how they might use it to make decisions. We always talked about how most of the things I shared were ONE way of doing things, not the only way. We talked a lot about how things might look differently depending on the students’ needs, the data teachers had available, teacher preferences, etc. By building their knowledge of literacy practices, they were able to become more skilled teachers and decision makers.
Explore and Imagine Alternatives
Very few things are set in stone for me as a literacy consultant. I have go to moves and practices and things I believe, but I never shy away from imagining how and why things could go differently. I really encouraged the teachers this week to voice and discuss what they learned and saw with a critical lens. When would they do this practice? When would they not? How could this lesson have gone differently? Why would you have chosen that method over this one? If they couldn’t explain their thinking, then I would consult some more, giving them the understanding that was missing. It was great to hear one teacher say, “Actually, I think I wouldn’t start with small groups after the mini lesson. I think it’s important for students to have an opportunity to get settled into independent reading and maybe try what they learned in the mini lesson before being pulled to work on something else.” Another teacher was imagining another way the small group I showed could have gone, and they were seeing the benefits of working in a shared text instead of their own books, or how partner work could make it more scaffolded for students. Great! What they were saying was different then what I had showed them as a consultant, but their modifications were well informed.
Always Put a Focus on Decision Making
When I consult, I love to give options. How you decide to teach something is so particular to your school, your students, the unit, the data, and more. I hate to presume that because I showed up at your school three days ago and I met you two hours ago that I know which path you should take. This idea is still true when I’m working with the teachers at my school. The ultimate path you choose should, in most situations, be up to you. It might not be what I would have chosen, but the success or failure of it will be owned by the teacher and it will be their reflections that guide their work. Giving options is a go to move that provides teachers and schools with some of my opinion, but puts the final choice on their shoulders.
Ground Opinions in the Landscape & What You Know about Them
My colleague Erin Kent gave me some great advice as a seasoned consultant. She said that when she gives opinions she gives people the landscape first: what the current research is saying and what other schools like you are doing. Then she grounds her opinion in what she knows about the school she is working with. The opinion is about both the research and who they are. I think that is something we can do as coaches as well. If we want to give people our opinion we can ground it in this impersonal (research) and personal way (this is what I know about you as a teacher & your students and I think this will work for your class). I also like the idea of sharing what other teachers/schools are doing in international schools as research we should be studying. If you don’t know what other schools are doing, then make some contacts!
The final thing that is always on my mind, and if you know me you’ve probably heard me say it, is “Who’s doing the work?” This is incredibly important when we are consulting as coaches. Just because I plan on giving an opinion or sharing some research, doesn’t mean the teacher should be passively taking in everything I am giving them. They need to be interpreting information, making decisions, and figuring out how to apply it. Consulting should never be a passive experience for teachers. As coaches, we need to make sure that when we consult, the “work” is on the teachers.