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Coaching beyond the Standards

In teaching (in the US), the focus is the standards: the standards that lead to standardized testing which is attached to prestige, advancement, and (in some cases) salaries.

I'm rarely asked, "Are you enjoying teaching? Are you expanding mental and emotional capacity? Are your students ready for the Now and the Next?"

Nope: "Are you teaching the standards?"

To an extent, that makes sense. We need guidelines to follow and a path set as district school rather than an independent school. To me, though, standards are a baseline--the thing we ALL do.

The HOW and WHAT matter more (in SC, our English standards don't include content at the moment but concepts). Our school is also a project-based learning school, so the HOW of teaching is a major emphasis.

Recently I had the privilege of informally coaching a new teacher through content creation. She is 20 and has 2 bachelor degrees and an associate degree, comes from an area with strong education, and is self-motivated.

My coaching then was genuine guidance, not telling her what to do (which doesn't interest me). These are the questions I asked to help her generate ideas:

1. What strengths, interests, or background do you want to use in your teaching?

Teaching is a career, but it's also nonstop and repetitive if you get the same classes yearly (or by the semester). I firmly believe teachers should include their relevant hobbies and interests when these coincide with content.

In this case, the teacher has a degree in digital photography which is a perfect fit for writing and literature. She has been wanting to use that part of her degree, and she has experience in article writing, so those two fit perfectly in an English class.

2. What are the strengths and interests of the upcoming group of students?

This is an easier question to answer when you're in a smaller school, and it's not the guiding light, but it's a way to discover intrinsic motivation and enthusiasm BEFORE the class even starts.

For example, when I included HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) in Brit Lit in Fall 2020, I did because over half of the students had been in the HEMA club the year before, and the others were either interested in martial arts OR in photography which was part of the project.

In some instances, an interest is almost universal: digital photography is something almost every student does, so it would be an easy "yes" in planning.

Collaboration between teachers is also a way to discover students interests. This teacher would have my current sophomores, and I know they would love photography/writing projects. Our discussions led to an idea that interests most students and the teacher.

3. What are the standards, content, skills needed for the class?

At this point, we started looking at the specifics. What literature, grammar, and writing? What photography skills? What questions and standards? How do you meld the photography and literature in a compelling, meaningful way?

This is where the art of teaching comes in and where the constant room for experimentation and growth arises.

I thoroughly enjoyed the informal discussion we had, felt as if I had an impact on her happiness, and started to develop my process for coaching.

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Michele Skinner
Michele Skinner

this was really informative ... thank you for sharing. my daughter struggles so much with "standards" ... her brain just doesn't work that way. the few times when she's had teachers who are able to incorporate their own passion for teaching and for students, she has done better in class. i really feel for teachers, for the pressure on them to "teach for a test" vs teach their love for watching kids learn and grow. i hope this young teacher you coached is able to hang on to her creativity and zeal and transfer that to her students, because enthusiastic, genuine teachers make such a difference.

Amy Bright
Amy Bright

Teaching environments can be toxic: fear, codependency, authoritarianism, bureaucracy. I try to have side hustles (or main hustles) so I don't ever feel trapped and thus teach via fear.

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