Teacher to Coach
by Jo-Ann Fox | 07.28.16
Jo-Ann Fox is a teacher on special assignment and instructional coach at Quantum Academy in Escondido, CA. She is one of the co-founders of California EdChat and is a Google for Education Certified Innovator.
I wanted to be a teacher for a really long time, but I didn’t know what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I spent my first two years [of college] experiencing a lot of different courses—I’d take an anthropology class and be like, “I am going to major in anthropology now!” After two years and realizing I wanted to do everything, I decided that teaching would really be a place for me. I could follow my passions and be curious and a continuous learner for the rest of my life.
As soon as I made that decision, I started [student] teaching in a preschool class—I knew I wanted to work with young children. I got myself on the [substitute teacher] list in the district where I’d done my student teaching and did one day of subbing, then met the assistant principal. She said at lunch, “We have a new position [as a reading intervention specialist] and I think you should apply.”
I loved it. I loved working with the kids but couldn’t wait to have my own classroom. When the school year ended, she asked if I wanted to continue [my current position] or teach a kindergarten-first grade combination. [I took the new position]. I loved working with them and watching their growth—they were coming in not knowing how to write their names and [were] leaving as readers.
[After 3 years of teaching, Fox transitioned into a second-grade classroom, where she remained for 10 years.]
Then I realized—I’m not the kind of person who likes to do the same thing all the time. I decided I’d switch schools, and helped open another school in my district. I started diving into new adventures and new opportunities to provide amazing learning experiences for students. [We had a] phenomenal second-grade team; we planned amazing project-based units for our kids to experience.
I applied for Project Live, which uses videography in a classroom environment to help learning. I was amazed at how powerful putting a camera in the hands of my students would be. The question that started to percolate with me is—what other types of technologies are out there that students would gravitate towards and [would] get them engaged?
Another program in my district really [focused] on iPods and reading—how was that impactful for student learning? We were looking at the simple act of using the voice memo on the iPod [for students to] just voice record themselves reading. Beginning readers never experience hearing themselves read—it was really powerful for kids to hear what they sound like, or “I really need to slow down,” or “I don’t sound very smooth.” Those conversations that kids started to have, we realized how powerful that was. It added new life to my classroom.
That was around the time I was nominated for Teacher of the Year in my school. It was super exciting [and] such an honor to be nominated; to know my peers were seeing my practices, it was really powerful. [Fox was the 2012 San Diego County Teacher of the Year and a semifinalist for the 2012 California Teacher of the Year.] That process was very eye opening, and it did open the door for many people to look into my classroom. I enjoyed being able to share what I did—I hadn’t really shared beyond my grade-level team.
[After I transitioned to a fourth-grade position,] that same assistant principal who hired me in my first job [and now was deputy superintendent for my district], she and the superintendent were planning on starting a think-tank group of people to brainstorm the possibility of a new, innovative school. She came and asked if I would be willing to be on this team, and for every other Friday for half a day, to sit around the table and brainstorm what is possible for schools. What can we do to make school an even better place? [We] had the opportunity to take everything off the table that we know about school and really critically think about which pieces were most vital for 21st century learning.
We brainstormed an idea for a school that’d be high tech, [with] a lot of tech in the hands of students, a project-based learning type of school and a choice school (not neighborhood-based). We pitched the idea to the board of education and they all approved it from our pitch. They were so excited and knew it was something our city needed. They wanted to start right away—we said no, if we want to do it right, it needs to be research-based. The board approved that two teachers would head up the planning committee for [the] team. I applied as well as my colleague Colin Hanel, and that was my first transition out of the classroom.
It was terrifying—leaving a community I’d been a part of for almost a decade, leaving my own children who were at that school. But it was an opportunity that wasn’t going to come around again in my lifetime and I knew I had to take a hold of it. I moved out of my classroom, put all my teaching supplies into my mom’s garage and that next school year I wasn’t out buying back-to-school supplies like I normally would. [Instead,] I was in a cubicle. On my first day, I almost started crying like, “I made the wrong decision.” [But then] Colin walked in and we talked it out.
We spent the year researching and visiting schools, making connections with other schools doing amazing things, thinking outside of the box and starting to design what we believed would be a learning experience for our students. [The school would be] upper elementary, grades 4-8, which was very purposeful on our part. We [wanted to] design an experience where students could build strong connections with teachers, find out what they’re really passionate about and have a lot of varied experiences. We believe kids should have a choice in part of their learning day. That’s what will help them find “the element”—when your passion coincides with what you’re talented in. That sweet spot is what you want to be in.
[My] typical day as an instructional coach [in Quantum Academy’s first year] was to wear many hats. I helped with planning, pulling out and pushing in intervention work, monitoring student data, keeping an eye on at-risk students and providing support to them when needed. I also was doing professional development for staff and helping them be 1:1 with iPads. I also [was] supporting my principal to work with parents, to help communications between the school and parents to be cohesive and designing ways we could build tradition and culture into our school. All the things an established school already has—we didn’t have any of that.
The best part [of being an instructional coach] is that I get to see and work with all the teachers and all the kids. I know all of the kids at my school. I love that. I feel so connected to the community that way. [But,] at a brand new school, no one [teachers or administrators] had a reputation from the kids’ perspective or the parents’ perspective. They didn’t know who I was, understand what I was and my purpose. I remember one day I had to fill in as a substitute, [and] a kid raised his hand and said, “You’re a teacher?” I didn’t realize that I was more seen as an administrator than as a teacher because I wasn’t in front of them teaching, even though I was an hour and a half per day [teaching choice-based classes].
Transitioning from a traditional style [of school] to something not traditional is a huge undertaking. All the teachers who came knew they were getting themselves into a big challenge, knew it wouldn’t be easy. You never really know until you’re inside of it. My job was to help them keep the vision alive, doing the good work because it could get overwhelming at times. All those pieces [of the school] were something I was helping everyone to accomplish.
After our first year, I really feel we’ve found something that is a great place for kids. On the last day of school—I’ve never seen this before—students were so upset they were leaving school. Fourth-to-sixth graders were crying like I’ve never seen before. Parents [said], “Never before has my child been sad about school coming to an end.” This says something about this place.
Jo-Ann’s tips for other teachers who are considering leaving the classroom:
- Know that you can always go back to the classroom. What’s the worst thing you’re going to do? You’re going to try something for a year and you might fall in love with it and if you don’t, you can always go back.
- If you’re looking for a new adventure, a teacher on special assignment [TOSA] or instructional coach position might be for you. It does come with challenges; I feel a little outside of the teaching community now, I miss the feeling of being part of it, but you have to just work even harder to build relationships and rapport with the teachers you work with.
- Always see yourself as a continuous listener. Even though your job is to be a coach and [you’re] expected to know stuff, it’s okay to be vulnerable and to not know things, and learn alongside your teachers. Help build those relationships that are critical. Get yourself connected with a personal learning network [PLN] and talk to other coaches out there.
- Twitter is a really great place. There’s a hashtag for TOSAs and a Twitter chat [TOSA chat]; you can find people there going through the same experiences as a coach and [get] connected with all types of people in the education community. In my PLN I have administrators, teachers, coaches, [people in the] district office level—it’s really good to hear the perspective of everyone so you have a better perspective of the community. If I have a question, I can ask a teacher in New York, or Northern California; [it’s an] amazing thing to be able to connect beyond your school, district.
I’ve learned more in the past five years since joining Twitter than I have in my 17 years of experience. It’s been so mind opening and there’s so much information out there it’s almost overwhelming. It’s good to have that feeling—there’s something else I can learn and something else that’s new. There are so many learning opportunities for teachers.