Heather Byington, 2009 Regional Teacher of the Year
As classroom teachers, sometimes we need a colleague’s perspective to figure out what is best for struggling students. Because we are managing a roomful of learners, we often aren’t able to stop and address students’ individual needs. But what if our job allowed us to change hats, one as teacher and the other as resource provider? What if those hats could change reliably during the instructional day or week? Such is the nature of my dual role as “hybrid” teacher and coach.
Starting in the 2015-16 school year, I became a half-time literacy coach while remaining a half-time fourth grade teacher. In our building, we have two half-time literacy coaches and a half-time math coach. All of the coaches also work as classroom or intervention teachers. There are no other schools in our district that have this same dual configuration, but being both helps us be effective as coaches for colleagues and interventionists for students needing support in multiple grade levels. As classroom teachers, we continue to cultivate close relationships with students. Our hybrid roles have helped us meet individual students’ needs for some of our students at highest risk, resulting in success and growth.
As a reading coach visiting “Jethro’s” third grade class last year, I noticed that he would not often engage in class activities. He almost never raised his hand to participate. Jethro was not loud and distracting to other students, but he liked to quietly derail class activities whenever possible. If a teacher became insistent with him, he would become even more stubbornly withdrawn. His teacher reported it was difficult to determine what, if anything, could motivate Jethro behaviorally or academically. After getting to know him better, I recommended that his teacher work with him and a few other ELL students in a small group on Spanish reading. She began conducting this group twice a week, while the other literacy coach covered her class. By year’s end, Jethro remained at the bottom of that group of struggling readers, reading about 20 words per minute at the third grade level, in English. He became easily confused with phonics rules, especially vowel sounds and vowel combinations.
With flexibility in my schedule, I was able to design individualized, intensive instruction for 15 minutes daily to address Jethro’s needs. I worked with him to practice foundational reading skills in Spanish- letter sounds, phonemic segmentation, and sound blending. Once he mastered these, I began to focus on reading fluency practice. Jethro’s reading skills improved in both languages, and he began to see himself as a reader. With success, Jethro’s attitude about school also improved. With this solid learning relationship established, I requested that Jethro be placed in my fourth grade classroom to continue to work with him daily. By fall of his fourth grade year, he could read about 40 words per minute in English.
With Jethro in my class, I’ve provided one-on-one and small group reading instruction during core reading instruction time. I’ve cooperated with the ELL specialist to give him reading tests with less text that still indicate whether or not he is able to use the reading skill of focus. I’ve watched him go from never raising his hand and refusing to speak in class, to actively participating, assisting with group presentations, and even laughing and enjoying himself while preparing skits based on reading texts. Jethro has become able to search for online facts himself and place them appropriately in an informational report. At the end of each writing assignment, he proudly signs his name in 28 point font to post the writing in the hall. His reading rate has improved to about 60 words per minute in English mid-year, which is still well-below grade level, but he has come a long way.
My role as a teacher/coach hybrid fit Jethro’s instructional needs. He has begun to see himself as a successful reader, writer, and student.
“Cassi” was a kindergarten student with intense separation anxiety. Every morning, she clung to her mom, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, even hitting people who attempted to separate her from Mom. Cassi’s mom would also often pick Cassi up early from school. It seemed that separation anxiety was affecting both Cassi and her mom.
Each morning, during my coaching time, I worked with a small group of kindergarten ELL students on learning their letter sounds in Spanish, and on practicing phoneme segmentation in Spanish words. One morning, I convinced Cassi to come with me to this group. Little by little, getting Cassi to leave Mom and come to school in the morning became easier, but she continued to miss many days of school.
Cassi’s teacher attempted to set up a conference with her mom to discuss the importance of Cassi attending school, but she was unable to make contact. I suggested that the next time Cassi’s mom came to drop her off, we should get a learning support teacher to cover her teacher’s class and call an immediate meeting right then and there with her mom, the counselor, her teacher, and me.
We conducted the meeting. In Spanish, I explained to Cassi’s mom the importance being at school all day. It turns out that Mom was worried that Cassi was spending the whole day upset, the way Mom saw her each morning. So, we invited her to watch Cassi through a window, and she saw Cassi happily engaged in class.
The day of the meeting was a turning point for Cassi and her family. Having established a relationship of trust with Cassi’s mom, I was able to discuss our concerns about an older brother’s academic progress and the importance of school attendance. The flexibility in my schedule due to my coaching role allowed me to provide these important interventions.
In addition to the above examples, I also met with nearly all our 14 Spanish-speaking families at the WA Kids meetings conducted by the kindergarten. I interpreted for the meetings as needed, and communicated the importance of speaking and reading to their children in Spanish, when Spanish is the primary home language. I also provided Spanish literacy materials and training for parents to work with their children at home. Again, the flexibility in my schedule allowed me to forge this initial bond with our Spanish speaking families. Many of them were new to our school.
I’m glad I have the opportunity to continue as a classroom teacher, to build close relationships with students in my class, but it is also vital for teacher leaders to help support students and families from other grade levels. My hybrid role allows this to happen.
What does the role of instructional coach look like in your school or district? What do you think of this teacher/coach hybrid idea? Would this “two-hats” model work in your school? What innovative solutions has your school found to provide students with interventions to meet their individual needs?
Heather Byington is a 2009 Regional Teacher of the Year. A bilingual National Board Certified Teacher and Literacy Coach, she teaches 4th grade at Lydia Hawk Elementary in Lacey, Washington. She also sits on the Bilingual Education Advisory Committee for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Amy Abrams, Kent