I observed a bilingual classroom yesterday. The teacher was in Spanish-only mode as indicated by the green scarf she was wearing at the time . I could only understand maybe one out of every five words that she said.
Despite the language barrier though, I understood exactly what she was doing with her instruction. I followed the entire flow of her lesson, could extrapolate her intent as she did certain things, and noticed how her students were engaging with her instruction. My lack of Spanish was a complete non-issue. I didn’t need to speak the language to identify the underlying instructional skills that she and her coach could work on together to improve her teaching and her students’ learning.
So many principals and coaches get caught in the Content Trap. They think that because they themselves never taught this grade, this subject, this language, or this curriculum, they are unable to give meaningful and productive feedback to some subset of teachers in their school.
We hear the Content Trap come out as:
“But I’m not a math person… I taught reading. That’s what I know best.”
“I taught high school before I was a principal so I don’t know elementary literacy very well…”
“This is a totally new curriculum this year, so I’ll be pretty lost in there…”
“I don’t speak Spanish. I could never know what’s going on in there…”
Our own classroom experience acts as a barrier to our being effective instructional leaders for all of our teachers. This fear of what we ourselves have never taught can lead us to walk right past those rooms, restrict our feedback to culture and behavior, or to defer to what the teacher tells us about what they want to work on. (Spoiler Alert: Teachers almost always believe that they need more content- and curriculum-specific support, which, all too often, is not actually what it is they need the most support with.)
As an instructional leader, you do not need to be an expert in every content area and grade level; you need to know excellent instruction.
Good teaching is good teaching. Good teaching in kindergarten literacy is not all that indistinguishable from good teaching in AP Calculus or in 6th grade science or in Art, Music, PE or in any other grade and subject. Good teaching has more in common across the K12 spectrum than it has differences. Yes, there are some specifics that change, but the fundamentals are the same. Where there are intricacies you might not know, you can ask the teacher about those specifics to contextualize your work together and you can keep things focused on the fundamentals that make good teaching good teaching.
Counterintuitively, it can build a lot of trust with your teachers when you admit what you don’t know. By deferring to them on the specifics, you respect what they are bringing to your coaching relationship and the expertise and experience that they have inside your school.
“I don’t know a lot about that. Can you tell me about your philosophy on this or the model that you’re following and how that influences how you are structuring your lessons?”
“That was really interesting when you did that! Can you tell me why you did it?”
“I don’t know a lot about this content myself so I want to defer to your expertise here, but during this portion of the lesson, the students were very confused. I asked a few to explain to me what they were doing and they couldn’t. Where do you think you lost them in your instruction leading up to this - or am I mistaken and this a part of a larger learning arc that you are leading them through?
In fact, too much specific expertise or precisely shared experience can be overly relied upon and turns the “coaching” into an attempt to replicate your own classroom and instructional practice. “Well, what I used to do…” and “I have a ton of resources for…” may seem like the most immediately useful things for teachers to get from you, but it ignores the entire point of instructional coaching: the teacher’s long-term development.
So get into the classrooms you feel least prepared to teach yourself or where you anticipate feeling the most lost. Switch coaching caseloads for a week if you have another subject- or grade-level specific counterpart. Focus in on the fundamentals of good teaching that you know so well and how students are engaging with the teacher’s instruction. I promise, even if you understand only one out of every five words, you can and will have an amazingly rich conversation that pushes your teachers’ instruction forward.