Breaking the Cycle

It took me a while to recognize this dangerous cycle that existed in my school but it became so clear one day when I walked through all 8 of our language arts classrooms– every single teacher was playing a book on tape or reading aloud to students.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good read a loud and there is a place and time for it but 30 8th graders slumped in their chairs, nodding off, listening to The Outsiders while the teacher walks around redirecting students attention to the right page does not constitute reading, teaching, or learning in my book.

The system we perpetuated went something like this:

Students reading skills were poor in 7th and 8th grade. Many teachers didn’t have the skills, background, or experience to teach kids to read in middle school. Teachers over scaffolded and opted to read to the students so they could answer questions and complete assignments.  As a result, many kids were became apathetic and checked out of school.  Students reading skills failed to improve and their desire to learn, engage with new ideas and change their trajectory in life continued to decrease.

Our kids lived in poverty, they had many real struggles and our school wasn’t helping them deal with them effectively.  As a school we perpetuated the false narrative that we were doing our part but families didn’t care about school and we couldn’t fix that. As a result our kids suffered. They believed their destiny was fixed and rarely saw their place in school and that they had control over their trajectory in life.  I’ll never forget the day we were having a discussion about the community and they told me, “Miss, we are from E.B.– no one expects anything from us.”  I broke down crying right there.  I was heartbroken and so angry that they would say and think those things about themselves.  I saw them for who they could be and knew they were so much more and had so much potential.  But the system was designed to perpetuate this narrative and it consistently produced these outcomes– almost 70% of our students were reading below basic proficiency according to state tests.

From Teacher to Coach

When I moved from the classroom to an instructional coach I had the will to change the outcomes for students but I didn’t have the experience or the skills to lead my peers, so I didn’t.  Instead I did what I was good at.  I worked harder to create lessons, design programs, and get grants to make it easier for teachers to deliver my lessons with lots of great new resources to their students. At the end of the year we had some success but my attempts to make their job easier by doing the work myself did not have the impact on their teaching or their students learning that I had hoped for nor did it make their jobs any easier. 

I didn’t know what to do but I knew that our kids were not going to love school or reading or see themselves as learners if this was their experience.  Their teachers were going to continue to rotate in and out of the school at alarming rates, as they had been for years, and the school would continue to be deemed failing. But the worst part was that kids would continue to believe that they were not good enough and didn’t have a place in the world. I had to learn how to be an effective coach, not just an effective teacher, and this required creating new systems to improve learning for all.

Learning to Improve

Like most teachers, our team wanted to do better for our kids and craved more knowledge skills to be more successful in our roles.  We made a decision to take the tape recorders (yes, although that makes me sound really old, we really had tape recorders) out of the classrooms. Although this was a big step, it wasn’t enough. If the teachers knew a better way they would have been doing it already.

We needed to develop new strategies for teaching reading so I pitched plan to the team and they agreed to try it out. I wrote a proposal to my principal for 8 books– 7 Strategies for Teaching Reading, requested stipends for the teachers to meet regularly after school for 8 weeks. We read the book on our own time, came together after school to engage in professional learning that allowed teachers to experience the new strategies in their own reading and learning and then plan for how to support students in their diverse classes. The team made the commitment to try out the new strategies, they picked a time for me to come observe and discuss what they were learning and we all shared what was working and challenges each week. We shifted our conversations from what content and page number we were teaching that week to what we were learning and how we could impact student outcomes.

We gained so much from this learning process that we convinced our administration to build the time into the school day the following year to allow us to go deeper with what we were learning as a team.  We maintained our relentless focus on learning, experimenting, refining and analyzing impact on student outcomes.  We were empowered educators who were moving beyond standards and scripted curriculum. We were designing learning experiences to empower students to develop necessary skills and strategies to learn and improve. At the end of the following year we had almost doubled reading proficiency from 34% to 66% and they have continued to improve in subsequent years. Most importantly, we learned that we could break the cycle and redesign the system to get better outcomes for our students and our teachers.

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