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I have been a educator for over fifteen years. I began as a middle school math and science teacher and eventually enjoyed eight years as a math teacher specialist (a teacher who supports other math teachers). However, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year I made a very challenging decision and filed paperwork to take a leave of absence from Downey Unified School District, where I’ve worked for the last 13 years.

I am fortunate that I will continue to work in math education and already have plans to work regularly with schools, teachers, and students. However, this change will give me more time to develop other ideas in education that I’ve wanted to explore.

I felt like writing a blog post would be a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on these last eight years. As with all of what I write, I share my thoughts partly because I hope it will help others and partly as a way to process my own experiences. So, here is what I have learned from being a math teacher specialist…

 

It’s About Relationships
When I began my job as a math teacher specialist, I expected the job to be primarily about teaching others how to improve math instruction (side note: at that point I had no clue how little I knew about math instruction myself). While helping others improve their math instruction is certainly part of the job, what I didn’t realize was that it was a minor role.

It’s really about relationships. Relationships are the glue of society. Without them, significant progress rarely happens. It’s similar to the adage that students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Teachers don’t learn from colleagues they don’t like. We have to listen to each other and build trust. Teachers have a lot on their plates. Whether it’s a first-year high school teacher who’s expected to spend 15 hours a week coaching a team, a 5th year teacher who still doesn’t have tenure and is afraid of trying something new that might make her look bad, or a veteran teacher who is dealing with dire family situations outside of her control, these are situations that matter.

I naively thought I could just meet a teacher and tell him or her what to do. In retrospect, I realize that this would be like a doctor meeting a new patient and immediately prescribing a treatment plan. It’s critical for the doctor to listen to her patient and establish trust. It took me years to realize this and years more to establish those relationships. I believe that it is usually worth taking the time to build relationships. This is the equivalent to taking time to build a superhighway versus a single lane road. It might take more time up front to build but it will result in significantly more information being able to transfer between the two people in the long run.

 

You Need To Be Part Of A Team
One of the best parts of my job was that I was part of a small team of educators who brought experience and perspective I was sorely lacking. They gave me countless ideas to consider and pushed back when I needed to think about something differently. Prior to working with them, I was impulsive. When I had an idea, I wanted to implement it right away. However, they forced me to slow down and be strategic. They frequently saved me from myself by telling me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I also loved just listening to them. I learned about what mattered to them, how they thought about it, and how they interacted with each other. Being a part of this high functioning team was one of the most important experiences in my career, and I highly recommend it for all teacher specialists.

 

It Can Also Be Lonely
Being a teacher specialist is kind of like being in purgatory. You aren’t really a classroom teacher (and so teachers don’t see you as one of them) nor are you an administrator (and so administrators don’t see you as one of them either). Accordingly, it can be hard not having someone to spend time with and relate to. While your school district or organization might have other people in your same role, you are often spread out at sites working. So, time with peers to decompress and share stories can be rare. It’s one of those things you take for granted when you have it (at a school site) but miss when it’s gone. For what it’s worth, I believe that administrators experience something similar.

 

It’s Hard Being In The Middle
As a teacher specialist, you may be tasked with implementing policies that you had nothing to do with. If you’re lucky, you agree with what’s decided. However, for those times when you don’t, it’s hard being the representative for something you feel is bad policy.

From the perspective of the teachers you work with, you represent the entity that made these decisions that affect their livelihood and are often asked to explain or defend the policy. It’s hard to tow the company line when you think that their concerns are perfectly valid. From the perspective of the administrators you work for, you are the ambassador that will ensure that the policy is implemented. This is also hard to do when you don’t agree with what you have to do.

I did not enjoy those experiences.

 

Change Is Complex
I had no idea how challenging it would be to really make change. The long list of factors that get in the way is immense. While there are countless hurdles in each district, here are the first four that came to mind:

  • Too many incoherent district initiatives that dilute attention and resources
  • Not enough substitutes are available to cover all the teachers who’d need to attend the training.
  • Not enough money to pay for everyone to participate in the training.
  • Teachers who have experienced such inconsistency with previous policies that it feels wiser to wait out this new initiative.

Basically, I came into this job clueless about how hard it was to actually implement what we had hoped and planned for.

 

Don’t Lose Touch With Reality
One fear I frequently had was that I might be expecting others to do things that I might not be able to do myself. This will be even more of a concern for me going forward! So, it was very important for me to get into classrooms as often as possible. I wanted to teach and observe others teaching so that I could feel the pain and struggle. Those experiences helped me stay grounded and pointed out the gaps between what I expected would happen and what actually did. Often times I learned that I had no idea what I was talking about, but that also gave me the drive to figure it out.

In reality though, it’s impossible to completely eliminate losing touch with what teachers actually experience. For example, while I taught many lessons, it’s been years since I taught the same group of students a multi-week unit, graded piles of papers, or dealt with parents who were concerned about new instructional methods. I tried to keep this in mind when I reflected on my experiences.

 

Your Own Professional Learning
Making time for your own professional learning can be awkward. It can be challenging trying to balance the expectation to constantly be in classrooms or training others with the reality that we need our own opportunities to grow and learn. It reminds me of the sharpening the saw metaphor from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I tried to not feel guilty when I made time for myself to grow, but I know that not everyone saw it that way.

 

Conclusion
Thanks for reading about my experiences. If you’ve had similar experiences or any advice for me as I move forward, I’d love to read about it. Please let me know in the comments below.


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22 Comments

  1. You are always welcome in my classroom if you ever want to flex your teacher muscles so they don’t atrophy.

    I look forward to seeing where the road takes you!

  2. As a former math coach, I experienced the same frustrations with my district. They hired me a few years back and had no idea what to do with me. I also realized that there weren’t many district admin who were comfortable in math.

    However, since being placed back in the classroom and becoming the math intervention coordinator at one school, our math scores improved by 10%. It also helped that I had a principal who supported me and trusted me.

    Long story short, I am still a math coach to many at my school and at many at conferences. You can take the title away, but the coach in me lives on.

    Good luck in your year off. See you in Seattle.
    Kristen Acosta

    • Thanks Kristen. Navigating the waters of working as a TOSA are not without their challenges. It’s both comforting and concerning that my experiences are so similar to that of other TOSAs. See you soon.

  3. I can feel in myself the same struggles you have faced. The first year at a new school is always the most difficult. Once you have taken that time to build relationships with your teachers, most will seek you out, even those that have challenged you.

    I am fortunate to coach in a large district with an amazing district math team. I meet with all elementary math coaches one day each month and in smaller area math coach PLCs for three hours monthly. Our district continues to build our skills (content and pedagogy), and we work together to solve problems of practice. I am also involved with many online PLCs to keep current and to build relationships with other mathematics educators.

    Advocating for yourself creates opportunities. Seeking out others in my same role has made me less lonely and more sure of the decisions I make when working with others.

    Thank you for sharing. I value your honest conversations with the rest of the world as we all try to better ourselves.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation Barbara. I’m happy that you are part of an amazing team. I believe that to be crucial for success and well being. Thanks also for the kind words. I try to be as transparent as possible.

  4. Totally feeling all these things too in the new role I started this year as specialist & curriculum coordinator at a new school. There are so many things I love about working with teachers AND students, but also all these other pieces you describe perfectly articulate my current feelings. Best of luck! There are many educators who appreciate your work and look up to you!

    • Thanks Meg. I think that many people in similar roles feel these but either can’t articulate them or choose not to. It can leave you wondering if you’re the only one who feels that way, which is not a great feeling. I appreciate you saying that at the end.

  5. Thank you for writing this. As for myself, while not a math coach, I have been tasked with mentoring a new teacher. I am ‘smart’ enough to realize I shouldn’t scare him away by bombarding him with what I know, but not smart enough to know it’s all about relationships. Now I know where to start.

  6. This post has so much truth. It feels as though you took my feelings and out words to them. Being in year 3 I am finally seeing the fruits of my relationship labors so I can grow with even more educators. Thank you for this real and necessary reflection.

  7. This post is quite insightful. I can relate to many of your challenges. My district has given me a great deal of responsibility as a teacher leader for math and science, while keeping me in the classroom as a math teacher. It is certainly a double-edged sword. I still get to do what I love – teach! I also retain the credibility with my peers by continuing in the trenches, and get to work out some of the kinks myself through implementation. I enjoy the responsibility of helping guide math curriculum and instruction, and hopefully pushing it towards better math experiences for all. However, teaching is already a more-than-full-time job, and so is being a curriculum specialist/teacher leader. I find that both jobs suffer (as do I and my family). I share this to illustrate that there’s no perfect world in this role – though I could live with doing a little less of both jobs…

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Matt. I’ve always seen those split-time roles as not being 50%/50% but rather 75%/75% because you can’t get around the extra work that comes with it. I can certainly empathize. Good luck!

  8. So much resonated with me as I’m reading this blog post. I’m a math coach at my district, and recently I have been feeling very much stuck in the middle between the teachers I support and the district initiatives I represent. I appreciate your opening with everything being about relationships and the need to build trust with teachers. I think this will be my takeaway as I try to un-stick myself from being in the middle and focus on building the personal relationships with people by listening first.

    • Believe me, I feel ya Felicia. It’s hard to know what it’s like to be a TOSA until you’re in that role. Some things are wonderful and other parts are really tough. I’ve never regretted focusing on relationships and hope you feel the same way.

  9. Reading this keeps affirming the vision I need to have as a first year instructional specialist. I am thankful you have laid out the challenges out of our controls like policies we had no input on. One question I am curious about is why did you leave the classroom? Personally I feel I need to test my impact of driving a different classroom culture I personally created with my students and am curious to hear about yours. Thank you for all your insight!

    • Wendy, when I left the classroom, there was a 3-year math and science partnership grant my school district won. So, I was under the impression that I would have three years to learn so many things and then go back to the classroom and try it out.

      At the end of the three years, I was ready to go back. I even had my school and schedule assigned to me. Then Common Core money came flooding in and they decided to keep me AND hire another specialist (and eventually many more).

      So, it was always meant to be temporary, but eventually it wasn’t.

  10. Great summary of some of the most important issues in coaching teachers. I spent 13 years as a math teacher and 25 years working with math teachers and each of your main bullets spoke to me especially during my 17 years at Stevens Tech – CIESE (Hoboken, NJ) where I was the mathematics projects manager. Our goal was to help math teachers integrate technology into their teaching. We followed the SAMR model (See clime.org – my last CLIME blog) and I’m sharing some examples of lessons we did during my CIESE years at http://dmcpress.org/cm/v2.1. It brings a smile to my face knowing that you are out there doing this impossible, but deeply rewarding work.

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