Letter to the editor: Teachers don’t need coaches, they need more teachers

I was hired at Bristol Elementary School in the spring of 2012, when I moved to Vermont, to be the literacy support teacher for grades 3 through 6. I had taught grades 2 through 8, mostly reading, writing, social studies and science, for over 20 years.
Over the last six years the number of students at Bristol Elementary School has fluctuated around 250. The students, though obviously living in the same small Vermont community, are diverse academically and socially. Along with the diverse needs of the students, society now expects the school to deal with issues that used to be handled by the family, church, doctor or other outside professionals. The highly skilled and professional teachers at the school do their best to teach them all. The schools not only teach but counsel, feed and emotionally support many of our students.
The supplemental literacy department that I joined consisted of myself and one other highly experienced teacher, and three educational assistants, all of whom were very skilled, one with a professional background in teaching students with reading disabilities. Our aim was to help students (many of whom were up to two or even three years behind their peers) to read grade level material. I worked with approximately 25-30 students each year, some every day, others only twice a week. I also met regularly with classroom teachers to plan, support, coordinate instruction and give professional development, as did the teacher working with grades kindergarten through 2.
By the time I left, in the spring of 2017, there were just three people in the supplemental literacy department, and next year there will be just one teacher working with students who needed extra help learning to read in kindergarten through grade 6. The number of students and the range of their needs have not changed, but the staff working with them has. The district is moving to a model where fewer staff work directly with children, and there are more “coaches” who work with teachers. Any intervention (extra support) will depend on scores on brief screening assessments, not on teacher recommendations or more lengthy evaluations.
This model is based on several false assumptions. One, that teachers are failing with some students because they lack the skills, or are not working hard or smart enough. Having taught in New York, New Jersey and Vermont, I can easily say that the teachers I observed at BES (and I spent a lot of time in classrooms) are by far the most skillful, professional and committed. But say, for example, you teach a class of 20 third-graders, and two are reading on a first-grade level, three at a second-grade level, 10 at third-grade level and five at fourth- through sixth-grade level. It’s crucial that you ensure that those five students who are reading like first and second graders get the teaching they need to improve while not ignoring the needs of the strongest students. Imagine that in that class there is a student whose parents are going through a messy divorce and comes in crying and disorganized every morning. And another student is a survivor of a childhood trauma, which gives him a hair trigger reaction to frustration and any negative interaction. Still another student suffers from ADHD and has difficulty sitting still and concentrating for more than five minutes.
This is not an unusual example — ask any public school teacher. That teacher doesn’t need a coach to tell her how to do a better job — that teacher needs specialists (other adults) to give support to the students who struggle academically, emotionally and behaviorally so that she can do her job — teaching the whole class.
Yes, we need to spend money wisely to keep taxes affordable. But is the solution to hear more staff who will “coach” and have little or no student contact. Let’s put our money where it should be — on trained people who work directly with students.
Michele Lowy

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