(ISA coach Carlton Jordan has over twenty years’ experience in education. He was a high school English and writing teacher for many years, served as a coordinator of a ninth grade detracked English course, and was a founding member of an untracked middle school in New Jersey. At the college level he has taught Africana studies and writing in an educational opportunity program (EOP). He has served as a literacy and leadership coach and as a team leader and writer for school quality reviews. Carlton feels that his greatest coaching accomplishment has been helping principals create an environment where teachers deliver quality instruction and assign writing across the disciplines.)

For me, to coach is to tinker. Not in a desultory way. A coach tinkers with purpose. Someone once implied that my approach was consulting rather than coaching. Twenty years ago, I would have agonized over such a distinction. No longer. Intellectual quibbles make interesting conversation over cocktails; they’re not the work. I believe effective ISA coaching is at times a mixture of both consulting and coaching. I believe urgency necessitates this.

I once witnessed a debate between friends, educational giants in my view, in which they placed constructivism on trial. It ended when one said to the other, “If I know there’s a bomb in the backpack, do I let you discover it in an attempt to facilitate the construction of meaning or do I tell you?” A little extreme but point well taken. I think the work I participated in at ISA partner school Innovation High School in Jersey City, NJ encapsulates this sentiment. I created Innovation’s writing framework (instead of letting teachers discover it). I began with tinkering, creating a three-month writing schedule the principal and I dubbed PARCC Push. PARCC Push was not sustainable. We knew that. But we also knew that if teachers assigned writing across disciplines for three months on a “you must be out of your mind pace,” we couldn’t lose. Teachers would see the possibilities of a reasonably intrinsic year-long writing ethos, which would, in fact, be sustainable.

To tinker is to take risks, to do one’s part as a coach to ensure the profession isn’t trapped 20 years from now in the current seemingly inexorable conversation of achievement gaps. Because of the tinkering, 64.5% of Innovation’s 11th grade students earned a 4 or 5 (highest score) on the PARCC ELA assessment in 2017. Because of the scores from that PARCC Push effort, teachers could envision even greater possibilities if writing were an integral part of 10 months of instruction. In the following spring 2018 administration of PARCC ELA, 91.7% of 11th grade students earned a score of 4 or 5 and all 11th grade students met their graduation requirement. No wonder when offered the choice, the principal at that time chose coaches over an additional school leader. Her decision revealed a deep value for the ISA team of science, math, English, and social studies coaches. PARCC writing success was a collective effort, and the principal followed by tapping the ISA science and math coaches for the creation of a schoolwide numeracy focus.

To be a coach is to be a bearer of possibilities, to blow and blow until embers catch and teachers and school leaders not only believe but see, with the help of coaches, that it can be otherwise.

The photo is by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.