When doctoral student Carolyn Hunt ’04 first entered teachers’ classrooms as a literacy coach, few people besides she and her principal fully understood her role. Her presence was confusing and caused anxiety for many of the educators. Was she there to evaluate their performance? Was she there to find fault in their teaching, or tell them what to do?
The answer was “no” every time. Then why was she there?
In recent years, literacy coach positions have become more prevalent in schools as districts look for ways to support reform efforts such as the Reading First Initiative, which is part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Reading First initiative also restructured the roles of many educators within U.S. schools. The expertise of reading specialists made them ideal candidates to take on new roles as literacy coaches.
When given the proper environment to succeed, Hunt said that coaches can “engage teachers in meaningful reflection about their work and help them to understand the theory behind their work so they may make thoughtful decisions for their instruction.”
However, Hunt says that a lack of communication at the policy level and within schools complicated the professional relationship of teachers and literacy coaches. Teachers were left without a full understanding of what was going to happen once the coaches entered their classrooms. In her experience, what should have been a collaborative, transparent process often left teachers feeling marginalized.
“Until recently, most literacy professionals in schools were working with children,” said Hunt. But the specific role of literacy coaches focuses on the professional development of teachers, while reading specialists, for example, help students reach learning objectives.
“My principal wanted me to do a lot of coaching, but the teachers still saw my job as just working with students,” she said.
Hunt says that over time she was able to build trust with the classroom teachers and correct the misconceptions about what she was there to do.
“But this required vulnerability for both me and for the teachers,” said Hunt, “because teachers are used to closing the door and doing their own thing in the classroom.”
Hunt’s experience as a literacy coach provided inspiration for her doctoral dissertation. She also had the opportunity to co-author a research article with her dissertation committee chair, Lara Handsfield, associate professor of reading and literacy.
“It is a huge honor for Carolyn to have been invited to do one of these interviews,” said Handsfield.
“It not only speaks to the uptake and anticipated impact of her research nationally within the field of literacy studies, but also the quality of the research and professional development efforts that our graduate students engage in in the School of Teaching and Learning and in the college,” she added.
Hunt’s dissertation focuses on how literacy coaches struggle with finding their place in schools, the importance of trust building, and perceptions about professional development among coaches and teachers.
“It’s emotional for coaches trying to find their new place,” Hunt said. “They are not really in the classroom, and they are not really administrators. It’s this in-between space that is not very well defined.”
Hunt identified several challenges to trust-building in relationships between new literacy coaches and classroom teachers.
“Without anyone really intending for it to happen, an ‘expert’ and ‘novice’ role is set up, even if a coach is working with a veteran teacher,” Hunt said.
She found that when both parties were on the same page, the professional support offered by coaches engaged teachers in deeper reflection about their craft.
“When teachers can open themselves up to a deeper kind of learning, I think students benefit from improved instruction,” Hunt said.
While Hunt is grateful that her work has attracted some attention in academia, her next goal is to communicate her research to teachers and coaches in practical ways. She wants to encourage both current and future teachers to be open to professional learning through coaching.