AP® Psychology, Intro to Psychology, Sociology, Hybrid Psychology, American History, Honors American History, Women and Minority Studies… all courses that I taught in my ten years in the classroom. In each course I did have some materials from former teachers or current teams that were willing to collaborate, but I had to learn the content and standards of each of these courses… and this is nothing novel. I’m betting you’ve had a similar experience whether you’ve had multiple preps or had to teach a new course.
And as I shared in last week’s episode, a teacher who has to focus on learning the content they teach, although that is important, is less able to focus on their students’ growth.
I’d like you to have both. Know the content, well enough at least, and get to connect with kids and focus on their growth… all without having to sacrifice your evenings and weekends to do so.
My mission here at Teach On A Mission is to empower teachers to confidently step into that role as the number one influence on student learning. And there are very specific ways that I believe we can do that, and that I can help with. I will elaborate on the few ways I think that can be done given the pressures of the education field today, but for this episode I want to focus on just one. That one is content coaching.
You’ll leave this episode with a sense of surety that a content coach is exactly the kind of targeted support you need that allows you to sustainably be knowledgeable in your content area, but not overwhelmed by learning the new content so that you can focus on building relationships with students.
And here’s why… When a teacher is told they’re teaching a new course, subject, or grade-level, their personal lives and well-being are the first sacrifices in the name of being effective with students in that new content area. It doesn’t HAVE to be that way. We don’t always have to DIY aspects of our professional lives. A teacher who can focus more on their students and less on everything else, yes, including the nitty gritty of your content, is more effective in getting their students to show growth year after year.
Alright teacher friend, let’s get to it.
There are quite a few definitions of content coaching. If you google the term, you'll get a few results that point you generally in the same direction. It falls under instructional coaching, but rather than focusing first on how you teach (although content coaching eventually gets to that), the focus is first on what is being taught, and that naturally leads to how best to teach it.
Let's say you are a high school social studies teacher (although this scenario could apply to any subject, and to most grade levels) who is certified to teach anything that qualifies as a social studies - that U.S. to world history, all the way to psychology and economics. And in most states, you just have to major in history. But let's say push comes to shove in all the shuffling that occurs year to year in who teaches what (if you've never experienced that shuffling, I envy you and want to know where you teach), and you get a course that you have never taught and have probably never even taken a course on yourself... ok, maybe one, but that's it.
Now, I do NOT underestimate the power of teachers and their ability to take on this task like the true heroes that they are - of course they can do it. They teach people how to learn, so they certainly know how to learn well themselves, but in most cases they are left to do that learning completely on their own. Or they are lucky enough to be put on a team of teachers of this same course, but they only meet once a week and it's hard to catch up with how to teach the content well amid learning the material yourself, just hoping and praying you stay one day ahead of the students.
Speaking of the students, in that first year or two of teaching the content, those poor kids are like the sacrificial lambs while you work through kinks of teaching a new course... it almost feels like you're a first year teacher again.
Other than the teachers on your team - like I said, if you're lucky enough to have that team - you are in the trenches of learning AND teaching this content on your own.
What if you had someone who was an expert in teaching your new, specific content, and was available to work through your learning with you? What if they could coach you in the content of the course so you could confidently instruct and guide students through their learning of that same content?
Lucy West and Antonia Cameron in their book, Agents of Change: How Content Coaching Transforms Teaching and Learning, present a fantastic understanding around what impact content coaching can have and how it, well, transforms teaching and learning.
I seriously got goosebumps reading much of the start of this book and have ordered it on Amazon... thank goodness for the previews, right?!? But, what gave me goosebumps was seeing not just the impact of content coaching, but it's necessity to teach our students and prepare them for this new and ever-changing world we find ourselves in.
West and Cameron explain how in the twenty-first century, a teacher's job as an expert in a content area is pretty much null and void. The content-specific expert is now Google, not people. They write, "Computers and the Internet can never teach students to be discriminating consumers, nor can they develop their capacity to reason" [pg. 2].
But hang on, if we aren't to be content experts anymore, then why in the world do we need content coaches???
Fantastic question that I asked myself as well. Look, what students learn is still important - of course it is. The government is doing it's darndest job to make sure they test these kids to death, so it's still important. But, it's important because we get to teach them how to best explore and learn about a topic - how to make decisions for themselves. And, as West and Cameron explain, if we as the teachers are working through the process of learning in a professional, constructive, and collaborative way, we are better able to model that for our students.
Another great takeaway I got from this book is something that resonated with my theory that the art of teaching is one that is synonymous with practicing medicine. Here's what I mean. When I go to see my doctor, I want to know that she is someone who serves on various boards and works with organizations, maybe subscribes to academic and medical magazines or journals that all allow her to stay up to date, no, the most up to date on new technologies, procedures, medicines, techniques, etc. of the medical field. Doctors are so highly valued that they have both the funds and time freedoms to make sure they are on the cutting edge of their profession.
I want that for teachers as well.
West and Cameron explain that, "Content coaching is a process that is designed to cultivate rigorous, collaborative, professional learning habits among adult," and that it allows teachers to "engage in rich academic conversations that inquire deeply into content and pedagogy," which opens the "discourse," as they call it, to be open to "find[ing] out what others are thinking and can learn to stay open and become more willing to consider various perspectives" [pg. 3].
We get to grow, as teachers, in ways that are not shoved down our throats, and in ways that allow us to hone our craft without having to chase the newest shiny thing - the newest technique in how to teach. Teachers get to discuss with others what they are teaching, and come to conclusions on how best to teach it. That's a professional field I can stand by.
I'm sure all teachers have at least heard of, if not, interacted with or even are instructional coaches, particularly ones that specialize in reading and math. Of course, those are super duper important, especially with the youngins'.
What I'm proposing, or at least supporting, is that content coaches be available, ready and waiting to assist teachers in ALL content areas. Even the nitty gritty ones like micro and macro economics. I'm not talking an economist and college professor. Yea, no - I learned from that guy in college and that's the hardest I've ever worked for a B in my whole life.
I'm talking about teachers. Teachers who have taught a specific content, know the content well, and know how students learn that content best. That's exactly what the Center for Research on Learning at The University of Kansas describes as someone fitting to be a content coach, because those are the areas where their coaching will support teachers.
The folks at the CRL go beyond just talking about instructional or content coaching for teachers and its impact, to talking about how we make it accessible (and affordable) for ALL teachers. Oh yea, that's what I'm talking about.
They propose a Virtual Coaching Model, making coaching more accessible to districts who can't afford keeping a coach on salary, and making coaching more personalized.
Now, here's the thing... I didn't know that other folks had published books and created whole systems where they provide content coaching to teachers when I first started thinking about this need in the education field, and even started content coaching some teachers in the content that I feel I'm an expert in.
But, man, it feels good to know that my gut was on to something; that there is research and information out there to support the claim I've made about the impact content coaching for teachers can have in education.
I'll say it again... teachers are the number one influence on student learning. But they can't fulfill that role if they are being dumped on, year after year, or even more than a couple times in their career, a brand new subject to teach.
It's also unrealistic, though, to expect schools and districts to NOT ask their teachers to teach something new every so often or even every few years. That's what we're here to do, to teach kids, and to teach them how to thrive in the twenty-first century. A century where content is NOT king, because ALL OF IT is accessible on the world wide web! We can do that no matter what content, subject, or course we teach.
But that doesn't mean that what we teach, the content, is not important. Students don't just need to know the material so they can do well on the test, they want to know that their teacher knows what she's talking about and can trust what she delivers each day in the classroom. Students build connections with their teachers through that content. You know... that content that you barely know because you were just unloaded on to build a brand new course because they guy who said last year that he would teach come August got a job somewhere else. Yea, that content.
Enter a content coach. One that is virtual. One that YOU CHOOSE!
My long term goal is to find fantastic classroom teachers in each specific content area and give them the platform that I’ve built to support other classroom teachers as content coaches. My vision is to lift up teachers as experts in this field, but full time teachers don’t have the time to do that on their own, so my hope is that I’ve built the system that will allow them to do that.
I’m telling you all of this because this year we have three content coaches ready and waiting to support you. Rachelle is our content coach in AP® Psychology, Adriana in AP® Biology, and Emily in high school English Language Arts.
Each of them have a three part training series for the teachers in their content area, completely free and linked in the show notes where you’re listening. Sign up at the link and you’ll get three content coaching videos sent straight to your inbox, no questions asked, and will also learn about the membership program we offer to further support teachers throughout the entire school year.
The last thing I’ll say is this… for so long in academia, content has been the primary focus. In a way, that’s exactly as it should be… it’s about WHAT you teach.
But as we’ve witnessed increasingly over the last decade or two in education, and certainly in the last two years, information and the content is accessible everywhere at the click of a button. This is causing our jobs as educators to shift, as they have been to more of a support role. It’s still necessary to know the content, of course, but it’s more necessary to connect with kids. And I’m betting, if you’re listening to this podcast, you didn’t get into teaching for your love of the content - sure, maybe you’re a history or math or science nerd - but you’re in this field more for the impact you can have on kids. The content is just the avenue in which you get to have that bigger impact.
And the team at Teach On A Mission would love to help you do that. So get in the show notes to register for that free training if you teach any of those course, but if you don’t teach in those three areas, please click to fill out the google form to tell us what you do teach so we can continue growing and expanding our content coaching program offerings
Alright teacher-friend, I’ll see you same time next week. Bye for now.
Links from the podcast episode:
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