One Sunflower


on December 30, 2009

One of my fellow teachers made a request for help in the form of a visit to her classroom to observe and the assistant superintendent honored her request.  Since I was given a whole day to do this, I contacted the other preschool teacher in our district and offered to visit her as well.   One of my learning objectives is to practice being a coach, so these visits offered me a chance to try it out.

My intent was to meet with each teacher on the day before to hear about their specific concerns or teaching goals they wanted me to observe.  But Mother Nature gave us a snow day so I followed through with communication by email and chatted with one of the teachers on the phone. I wish the situation had been different but I went ahead with the visits even though I felt like I didn’t have clear indications from the teachers about what they wanted me to watch for.   It became a day of driving back and forth between classrooms to accomodate their requests that I observe specific portions of their curriculum and to assure time for debriefing. 

Before I went out on the observations, I reviewed a book I purchased last summer titled The Literacy Coach’s Companion, PreK-3, by Maryann Mraz, Bob Algozzine, and Brian Kissel.  I bought the book when I thought I might be coaching this year and even though my job assignment changed, I skimmed through it over the summer.  The first chapter describes the coach’s role and has pages with tables identifying three categories of coaching:  [Helping Teachers] Plan Instruction, ….. Manage Instruction and …..Deliver Instruction.  I felt my first priority was to “foster a collaborative professional environment” but I made copies of the tables for the teachers.  My thinking was that after observing the teachers in their classrooms we could work together to choose a category for working on together.   (I feel that in my own work I am concentrating on  “delivering instruction” in my teaching with an emphasis on “monitoring student learning” and “adjusting instruction” as outlined on page 16 in the book.) I took the copies with me, and a pen and small pad of paper that I could cram in my pocket and headed off to the first school.

I knew that the first classroom I was visiting had a lot of students with high social/emotional needs; the teacher had identified 9 students as needing significant intervention strategies.  I came to her class just after they finished breakfast and were headed to the gym.  I stayed for gym time, the transition back to the classroom, and for part of circle time.    At this point, I had to leave to visit the other classroom.  When I returned, the students were at lunch. I continued with my observation of lunch, story time and a table activity before the children got on the bus to go home.

I debriefed with the teacher for a short time before she left for a home visit.     Because this teacher had not been the one to make a request for my visit, I felt the primary purpose for visiting was to focus on our collaborative relationship.   In between my visits that day, I had glanced over the tables again to familiarize myself with the categories. I really wanted the  goal to come from the teacher, not from me.  I opened the conversation with questions about her classroom routine, what she was enjoying the most about her class, and what she found most challenging.  I shared my observation that I had noticed the systems she had established to support initiative and independence – marks on the floor to indicate where to line up, chairs to be in when not participating in the group activity.

I remarked that transitions seemed particularly difficult for this group of children and asked if there were parts of the day that were less problematic and where the children were more successful.  The teacher shared that the free choice portion of the day seemed to be the most successful;  the children were able to make choices, play together and move to different activities within the room.  I asked if there was any way to lengthen that part of the day so the children could build on the success of this experience.  I also asked if there was any way to reduce one or two of the transitions in the routine – suggesting that January was the perfect time to reintroduce classroom routines and skills for transitions.  The teacher reflected on these observations and considered ideas for changes she might be interested in making. 

It was clear to me that at least one of the transitions could be eliminated or revised – the extra handwashing after the gym could be done with diaper wipes or gel, table activities could be set out before lunch with explanations for participation when the children returned to the classroom.  This class of students exhibited a need for clear directions and guidelines for transitions, participation and behavior. I was only seeing a brief part of one day but I know the same is true in my classroom and I, too, am working on creating a good picture schedule and verbalizing my intentions and expectations clearly and constantly (!) to the students.

The other teacher had requested that my observations be of a transition and student journal work.   I arrived as the students transitioned between gym time and circle time with a handwashing and toileting routine.   Staffing is more generous at this site than at the other.  Children were supported at each point – entry into the classroom, sinks, and the gathering place on the rug.  This teacher led the students through a calendar and weather routine, singing a few songs to maintain interest.  After this she did a story tell which included drawing a picture and having three students retell the story from her lap.  Then students were dismissed to three staffed groups of 6 for journal work.  I observed the teacher working with 6 students of different ages and abilities. She conferred with most of the students at the table, I ended up conferring with the one I sat behind.  The students went to free choice after this and I headed back to the other school.

I came back after lunch and was able to debrief my observation.  I worked side by side with this teacher last year so we already have a relationship and she had definitely made a request for suggestions.   I gave her a copy of the tables from the book and we reviewed them together to identify the categories that best defined her current focus.  After some discussion we agreed that she seemed to be concentrating on “identifying student levels” and “scaffolding instruction.”  I remarked on the suggestion from David Matteson that we divide our students up and assign each one a day for conferring.  I told her about my current trial of using colored folders for each child with certain colors being assigned to particular days.  I was only in my first week of trying this system out but I already noticed that it helped me focus my attention and scaffolding.

My aide also confers with students as a daily practice so we are able to confer with at least 3-4 students a day.  The teacher I was visiting has 2 aides in her classroom and could confer with at least 6 in a day making it possible to meet weekly with each student.  However,  one of her aides is not as confident in her ability to confer with students.  Figuring out how to support our aides will need to be a goal of our all staff professional development sessions.  It is also necessary to have good systems to organize this work – I’m experimenting with colored folders but another teacher might come up with a different/better system.  This will be another area we can collaborate on and share our progress. 

Visiting the two classrooms reminded me that:

every class has its own personality – and this personality is as dynamic as the children in it

every teacher has strengths – some strengths they are aware of and use, some they don’t know and it is helpful to point them out

it’s okay to start over – even in the middle of the year

adequate staffing is essential, not a luxury – we really should start the year with extra staff and then reduce their hours/support as the kids became more successful

teaching preschool is exhausting – especially the last week before Christmas

students are puzzles that sometimes take a year to figure out- and then they might become a different puzzle the next year 

it’s difficult to refrain from trying to “fix”

relationships are the key to everything

observing the practice of others should provide insight to my own practice – and insight should impact

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