I'm Quitting Teaching to Become a Student Life Coach

I told my students the other day that I wanted to be a life coach, not a teacher.  Heads lifted, eye brows raised, and one kid said, "You're leaving us? I thought you liked teaching."

I stood for a moment, savoring all the questioning eyes, hurt looks, the tears (I do have an active imagination), and then clarified.

"No," I told them, "I don't mean I want to change jobs, I mean I want to change my job title."  Heads tilted sideways, like my dog Sally when I ask her questions. If I'm still a teacher, then I'm still called a teacher.  Yes, but, words matter and attitude matters. The title teacher has so many meanings to so many different people in the year 2018, and often too many negative connotations.  The word teacher feels too heavy right now; it doesn't allow us to remember why we became teachers in the first place--the passion, the innovation, the desire for change.  I just think, for me, a new title would help me stay true to what I believe about my profession and what my role is. That's why I'm becoming a Student Life Coach instead.  It feels empowering, forward thinking, innovative, energizing, like I'm doing something meaningful to help steer the trajectory of young lives, to help them reach their dreams and goals, or to figure out what those dreams and goals are.

Now all this may sound like a silly concept--Lynn just playing around.  But if you look at what so much of our teaching life is like right now, I think you'll agree that an attitude shift isn't a silly concept.  Teaching, in my world, has become tight and almost suffocating.  The focus on standard uniformity and assessments feels stifling.  The idea that people outside my classroom, people who don't have experience with children, let alone my students, are making decisions about what's best for my kids, feels too heavy.  I believe what Tom Newkirk said in Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, "I feel most alive as a teacher when I improvise in this way, when I risk something."  I'm not going to let teaching lose its spark; I love it too much.

And it is exactly this spark that will help us create students who are truly prepared for what lies ahead of them. Our students will need to be learners, able to adjust to new demands over and over again.  Kids will need to be self-starters, questioners, innovators, creators, critical thinkers.  They'll totally need to be readers and writers.  And they will need persistence, stamina, focus, resilience, adaptability, problem-solving skills.  And, I'm sure I'm missing a bunch.  They need human skills to develop themselves into the best, most capable versions of themselves that they can be.

This is why my new title is so important.  I don't want to get bogged down in someones else's agenda  anymore. I want to be sure I'm focused each year on the actual kids I teach, empowering them with strong voices and helping them achieve their goals.

How would education in my world look if I purposefully shifted my view from being a TEACHER to being a STUDENT LIFE COACH, in charge of Literacy Development (All important jobs have subheadings right...Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction, Secondary Division)?  In my world of language arts, this is what I see:

1.  The mentality that I am there to support the student instead of the students are there to support me.  As a Student Life Coach, the idea that students need to get my assignments done, study for my tests, and take my content area seriously gets replaced with I need to support their endeavors, help them prepare meaningful projects,  help them brainstorm the most logical steps to reach their goals.

If I think about the various fitness coaches I've had over the years from my high school coaches to the fitness instructors at the gym to the personal trainers I've worked with, the one thing they all had in common was challenging me to be better, to push myself to new limits.  They were focused (at least the good ones) on clarifying what goals I had for myself and then relentlessly helping me to achieve them, not on me meeting their personal definition of fitness.  And the really good coaches knew just when to drive hard and when to back off. They personalized their support to match not only my goals, but also who I was and what I needed on any particular day.  They were firm, but also flexible.

These fitness coaches also were really into motivation.  There were posters of fit people on the walls, motivational sayings and they were all about positive self-talk and encouragement. I told you last week I love motivational self-help books, but I also love motivational sayings and video clips. I swear when I'm on my treadmill and I read that line, "You legs aren't giving out.  Your head is.  Keep going." it makes a huge difference.

Does this work in the classroom?  Heck yes!  This week's mantra was "less talk, more action."  We checked ourselves when any negative self-talk crept in ("I can't write poems!  This is terrible!  I can't get this done!") and replaced it with permission to do terrible rough drafts, positive statements and concrete requests for help-- anything to help us move forward.   And, you know what?  It worked.  I was especially impressed at the effort students put into their free-writing this week.  I saw more full pages and hands still moving when the timer went off than I've seen in a long time.


2.  Choice is central.  This is a real key.  I have no way of knowing which of my kids should think about college and which should not, which should  be on a career path, a creative path, a tech path.  The point is that this is not my choice.  Each of our students deserves the chance to explore his or her own interests and to figure out, guided by our questions, our support, our encouraging, what is best for himself.  Every kid deserves this, not just the ones in the gifted program.  And that means kids need choice.  If I'm a language arts teacher (and I am), the world is my content.  Kids can become stronger readers by reading any and every kind of text.  Kids can become stronger writers by writing any and every kind of text.  Privileging one set of knowledge, or one text over another, or one form of writing over another diminishes the possibilities and devalues the interests of the human beings in our classes.  Choice in reading and writing are not fluffy decisions made by laid-back, loosey-goosey teachers, they are essential to prepare students to become the strongest people they can be.

Now pair choice with having a Student Life Coach!  Now you've got students choosing topics they're interested in and a personal coach who questions, nudges, pushes, prods and helps that student see possibilities they might have missed on their own. Their perspective is broadened.  But, because they're in control, students feel empowered to explore even more ideas than they would have on their own.  They don't feel trapped and resistant.

3.  Writing for real purposes and in forms and styles that make sense for each person I have grown as writer over the years from pages and pages scrawled in notebooks.  I pour down my thinking on these blank pages in no particular form at all - it's stream of consciousness on the page.  And all these pages (not academically sited, not focused tightly on one thesis statement, not organized into a clear introduction, body, and conclusion) have made me a courageous writer, someone who dives into every task, willing to write around, sometimes for pages, until I figure out what it is I want to say. And then I find playing with form fun. Sometimes I write blog posts, sometimes poems, sometimes samples for my classroom.  Imagine what our kids might truly write if allowed to explore their ideas and find the perfect way to share them with others?

And then add in our role:  conferring and offering mini lessons to share mentor texts that push our student writers to explore a new idea, a new technique.  We don't offer lock-step essays, so mass-produced that they feel robotic. Instead writing becomes meaningful, engaging, a personal pursuit where an excellent, powerful final draft is the desired outcome by everyone, not just the adult in the room. 

4.  Reading for real purposes.  I see lots of arguments, necessary arguments, over the books that are being used in various classes.  I've seen rallies against the canon, for the canon, against specific books, for specific books, against whole-class novels, for whole-class novels. But in my new reality as a Student Life Coach, none of this is true and all of this is true.  Depending on a students' goals, couldn't any text be the right text for them right now?  And, conversely, depending on a students' goals, couldn't none of these text be the right text right now?  One student might need to read current events articles right now, poetry later, and a novel after that.  Another student might immerse herself in a particular genre and read deeply there for months.

I'm not talking about the time spent independent reading (which as any Student Life Coach knows has value in and of itself for every student and hopefully already is built on choice), I'm talking about reading as a tool for learning.  Wide reading as a tool for deep learning.  Choice needs a place here too.  When students are deeply invested in a subject they find meaningful, they will read more willingly and more deeply.

And what's the role of the coach? Good coaches are watching closely, monitoring what's happening, and making suggestions.  They push you to define the steps toward reaching that goal and help you follow through.  They don't let you quit when you become uncomfortable or uncertain, they help you find the strength and motivation to push through the tough spots and to keep going. This, then, is truly rigorous work for each individual in the room.  Sometimes, I imagine students will be in small groups reading, discussing, debating and interacting.  Sometimes, they'll be reading and studying on their own.  All the time, I'll be conferring, questioning, challenging, helping, all the things good coaches do.  And, sometimes they'll need the coach right there with them, and sometimes they'll need me to get out of the way because they're sailing so fast on their own.

***

You might be wondering, how are all the things I've just described here different from what good teachers already do?  In theory, they're not different at all.  But in 2018, teachers are pulled in a million different directions and it can feel like they have a million different bosses (department chairs, building administration, district administration, parents, state guidelines, federal guidelines...) and a million different agendas to satisfy.  This is really stressful and can lead to classrooms that feel chaotic - a little of this, a little of that, a lot of surface darting around, trying our best to do everything for everyone and succeeding in accomplishing nothing meaningful.  But as a Student Life Coach, only one boss matters:  this student in this class at this time in her life.  That's it.  And, I think, if our focus narrows drastically to what individuals students need, we might just be able to achieve something.

So here's to all you Student Life Coaches out there--let's have an awesome week!

Lynn








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