How to Help Teachers Work Smarter, Together

By Samantha Bennett

As an instructional coach, I spend my days in classrooms with teachers and their students. We plan together, we notice together, we wonder together, we set up the conditions for learning together and then we study kids. Together.  

In all of this work together, I’ve learned that the highest leverage practice to affect student learning is… cloning.

Wait, what?!?

Yep. As an instructional coach, if I can help teachers replicate themselves so there are multiple teachers in the room, students get smarter, faster.

How can a teacher clone herself? Take a walk with me through a two-day sequence of coaching Stephanie, a 4th grade teacher in Washington State.

Her students are getting smarter about plant and animal adaptations and narrative writing. Before our coaching cycle begins, I ask Stephanie to write to me about her beliefs, her students, her current unit and what she is wondering about.  

Stephanie’s letter is heartfelt, honest and vulnerable. As Stephanie’s coach, my job is to help her get even smarter and more skilled. I need to raise her Professional Capital by building her background knowledge, helping her use that knowledge to make better minute by minute instructional decisions, and do it within a network of supportive colleagues. (Fullan and Hargreaves, 2012) So, where do I start? I listen, I notice, I name, I label, I connect to research, I watch, I ask questions, and then, we plan together to figure out next risks and layers to add to her lessons. All because we both believe that no matter how skilled and knowledgeable students are today, we have the responsibility to ensure they feel 75 minutes smarter after her workshop lesson tomorrow. Every single kid.

As you peek in on Stephanie’s reflection, see if you can make some inferences about what she cares MOST about and what she needs next to work smarter.

Dear Sam,

I am a control freak, and in the past, I put too much emphasis on perfection. Now that that’s out of the way, here is some more information about me and my class.

One of the most important factors in our classroom is the relationships. I work very hard and purposefully at fostering an atmosphere of “family.” My purpose is to help kids realize they have the power to chart their own course, know when to move, how to move, how to solve their own problems and not need me every time for approval. My purpose is to show them that they are so much more capable then they give themselves credit. I am part of their safety net to help them navigate through that failure and to be their coach and support system through the process of learning…

My students have kind hearts and show great concern and care for each other. A large handful of students lack confidence and second guess themselves. I feel the worst behaviors are avoidance techniques employed by a handful. They are a dependent group and constantly seek teacher approval or direction. I continue to work with them on having the confidence to know what they can do and feeling okay with their decisions.

The big ideas of this unit include, 1) animals share behavioral and structural adaptations that help them survive, 2) readers read with a critical eye and learn from stories, and 3) writers have a responsibility to their reader to be accurate. During this unit, students are being challenged to create an informational narrative that details physical adaptations of their chosen animal. They will be using this story to teach their first grade buddy during their life science unit…

I’m wondering if I know my students as well as I need to to help them grow. I don’t get to meet with as many kids as I want or need because my groups run over and I feel I end up sacrificing meeting with students because my time management is not the best.  I wonder if I have given my kids enough direction in being researchers. I wonder if I have taught them the skills necessary for what they needed in order to write their stories.  

I know there is a freedom in letting go of control.  The risk in this is are they going to grow with less of my control? I worry that by releasing control that I’m not doing right by my students.  My instinct tells me yes, so I’m sticking with what feels good to me and by my observations, to my kids. Have I told you I love my job?

I’m excited for you to see my students in action and to plan with you tomorrow.



Listening to Coach

One of my foundational beliefs as a coach, is that I must know my teachers deeply to coach them well. In order to do this, I need to “listen” —  to their reflection, to their beliefs, and to their classroom practice.  I need to be able to determine importance, notice and name practices that might have the most impact on student learning, be a conduit to the research that explains why some practices are more effective than others, and label possible next steps for teachers to answer their own questions about student learning. Listening to Stephanie’s letter, there are a few things that stand out to me…

Stephanie writes: Now I’m wondering…
My purpose is to show them that they are so much more capable then they give themselves credit.

I am part of their safety net to help them navigate through that failure and to be their coach and support system through the process of learning…

What structures does she have in place to allow students to show themselves what they are capable of?
What conditions does she have in place so that she is not the only “safety net” in the room? Where else can students go for support when they feel stuck?  
I’m wondering if I know my students as well as I need to know them. I don’t get to meet with as many kids as I want or need because my groups run over and I feel I end up sacrificing meeting with students because my time management is not the best. What does Stephanie know about each student? How is she keeping track? What structures does she have in place for students to track their own growth towards goals? How is she sharing the responsibility of assessment WITH her students?
How is she structuring time in her workshop?
I am a control freak, and in the past, I put too much emphasis on perfection
The risk in this is are they going to grow with less of my control? Am I doing the right thing by them?
What does Stephanie know about the use of mentor texts to help students have a vision of quality to work towards?  What mentor texts are students using as they craft their narratives about animal adaptation?
How is she using learning targets, multiple drafts and critique protocols (self, peer, and teacher) to help students own a vision of quality to work towards?

My next step is to see Stephanie’s students in action and be an extra set of eyes and ears. I want to help her notice and name what students know and are able to do, and what they need next to grow. I observe her class the next day, and write her this letter:

Dear Stephanie,
Thank you so much for your open door today. Here are some things I noticed today and why they matter to student learning: 

  • The emotional engagement in here is off the charts! Students are riveted to you, to each other, and to the task. They jump when you say jump, but not just because you say, but because they WANT to. They trust you, they trust each other and they trust that the lesson is FOR THEM to get smarter and more skilled. This matters to student learning because the trifecta of student agency: choice, voice, and ownership at work. (Lucy Calkins, Dick Allington, Ralph Fletcher, and Don Graves all have your back on the systems, structures, rituals and routines of your classroom that have led to this culture and climate!)                  
  • Here are some questions I heard from you throughout the lesson: 
    ○ What do you think your story needs next? 
    ○ What is your goal? 
    ○ What strategy do you think you should use? 
    ○ What’s next? 
    ○ So now what is your character thinking? 
    ○ What is your next action step? 
    ○ What’s next for you? 
    ○ What did you figure out? 
    ○ What are you wondering? 
    ○ What is your next goal? 
    ○ What might you connect to that sentence? 
    ○ Share what’s going on in your head? What do you see?     

 This quote came to mind as I was listening to you confer: “I learned to talk with children in a way that kept them interested in the discussion and invited them to say what they thought about the topic. And I learned the importance and the challenge of listening well enough to understand what they were saying….My ways of trying to follow their thoughts turned out to be excellent ways to excite their learning.” Eleanor Duckworth (2001, p. xiii)

  • You had a strategic list of students to confer with today, based on what you noticed in their writing yesterday. (I’m inferring!) This matters to student learning because it shows that you GOT feedback from your learners by reading their work (Hattie says we should spend 80% of our time doing this) and then were able to GIVE targeted feedback based on what you noticed. (20% – just what they need, just in time)      
  • Students had a ton of choice on how to continue their stories – I saw kids story boarding, writing on sentence strips, adding to a word document, writing by hand in stapled books, using a plot map. Whew! This matters to student learning because writers in the world choose their tools and their process and with 22 writers in a room, you’ll find 22 different processes. Again, choice, voice, and ownership. 

    Now I’m wondering:
  • Lucy Calkins says that in order to maximize growth, every student should write for at least 60 minutes a day. What are your thoughts on that goal?  
  • How would you articulate the difference between an activity “around” writing, or “related” to writing vs. getting better at writing by writing? The impact?
  • What are you noticing and wondering about the role of a mentor text in a unit? 
  • What was YOUR PROCESS when you wrote your own story? What did you do first, second, third? How did that inform how you figured out your calendar and prioritized mini-lessons?

How is your planning changing now that you are getting a volume of writing from every kid, every day?      

Please print out and annotate this letter. We’ll use your thinking to kick off our planning session today at 12. Thank you again for all your thinking, planning, and intentional work for kids. I can’t wait to hear your thinking. 

So, reader, based on the questions I asked her, what can you infer about the lesson?

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 1.00.30 AM

If you inferred that students didn’t spend very much time actually writing, you are correct! In a 70-minute lesson, students wrote for about 20 minutes. The rest of the time was spent with activities related to writing – but not actually writing. The problem is, the students only have 11 instructional days to craft high-quality stories to teach their first grade buddies about animal adaptation. If Stephanie wants students to have enough time to write and rewrite and revise to meet her goals for their growth as writers, she HAS to give them time to do that complex work, as well as feedback on a daily basis.  She needs to use a few structures to clone herself.

Stephaine and I used this learning target to help her plan more strategically:

I can use multiple resources as ‘teachers in the room’ to affect student agency, autonomy, and the quality of their work.

Here is the lesson we planned together – going for (at least) 40 minutes of students writing – each part of the workshop structured to increase student agency so they keep going.

Long Term Learning Target

  • Supporting Targets
Summative Assessment

  • Formative Assessments
I can use a variety of strategies to get unstuck as a writer.

  • I can use a mentor text to inspire and influence my writing
  • I can use learning targets to help me figure out next steps for revision.
Informational Narrative on Plant/Animal Adaptations

  • Annotations on rubric & mentor text
  • Drafts of Informational Narrative
  • Reflection

And the resources for the lesson:

Mentor Text:

Learning Target Rubric:

My Informational Narrative Rubric
Learning Target Self-reflection Peer-reflection Teacher-reflection
I can explain how structural and behavioral adaptations help animals survive.
I can use credible scientific information and vocabulary so my reader trusts me as an author.
I can include plot structure to keep my reader engaged in my story.
I can include enough detail to help my reader visualize the story and bring my story to life.
I can use appropriate conventions and spelling to help my reader make meaning.  

What matters most about this lesson is that the yellow highlighted workshop “pie pieces’ are the times when students will read, write, and talk to make meaning. It is their time to practice the behaviors of scientists who read to build their background knowledge on animal adaptation, and write to communicate their understanding to others. In a 70-minute lesson, the goal is that 2/3 of that time – 46.2 minutes to be exact, is for students to practice writing an informational narrative. Every other piece of the lesson is designed to help them do that with more agency, and more skill than they would if they were alone.

If you are more of a linear thinker, here is the step by step of the lesson:

Workshop Lesson Sequence (Goal for 70 minute lesson: Students read, write, talk for 46 minutes)

  • Opening: students gain clarity on the learning targets and what they’ll make during worktime to show they are approaching the targets (3 minutes teacher time)
    • Students read and annotate learning target rubric (see below) (3 minutes student time)
  • Mini-lesson: Stephanie models using the rubric to analyze and critique the mentor text. How did this author communicate how an octopus uses adaptations to survive and thrive through a story? (4 minutes teacher time)
  • Worktime 1 (7 minutes student time):
    • Students work with a partner to notice and name how the mentor author met the targets
    • Stephanie listens in to student conversations to see what students understand and what they might need next to grow as scientists, readers, and/or writers
  • Catch:  (2 minutes teacher time)
  • Students share out what they noticed about the mentor text
  • Stephanie asks students to turn to the student next to them and share out how they are going to get started writing today – and what resources they might use to keep going – the goal for stamina today is 30 minutes of engaged writing
  • Worktime 2: (30 minutes student time)
  • Students write
  • Stephanie confers:  kid by kid – what do they get? What can they do? What do they need next to grow? Implications for future learning targets? Tasks? Mentor texts?
  • Catch 2: (if needed for stamina – 5 minutes teacher time) Stephanie models either where she feels stuck in her narrative, or (hopefully) a conversation she had with one of the students and how that student got “unstuck” using the mentor text, rubric, or other resources
  • Worktime 3: (student choice: talk to your table partner or just keep writing or a little of both! Whatever you need to keep going! 12 minutes student time)
    • Students reread their writing and share their thinking about their writing with a partner
    • Dig back in to writing when they are ready
  • Debrief: Share out – what helped you keep going today? (4 minutes teacher time)

Through strategic planning, Stephanie explicitly increased the number of teachers in the room from 1 to 10:

  1. Stephanie
  2. Intentional sequence of tasks to influence and inspire student engagement and stamina as writers
  3. A clear and understandable vision of the learning targets in the first minutes of class
  4. Student to student talk and connection
  5. Learning Target Rubric
  6. Mentor text
  7. Students’ Scientific Journals (filled with student questions, notes about their plant/animal, scientific vocabulary, ‘I wonder’ journal entries, reflections over time)
  8. Variety of Non-fiction texts around the room
  9. Anchor charts that captured thinking from prior mini-lessons
  10. Time to write

So, how did it go? Here is the letter I sent to Stephanie after the lesson:

  • Dear Stephanie,
    Here is the quote of the day: “I want him to do what he needs to do to get his story on paper.” 

    Wow! This might be worthy of a tattoo – should we get matching ones? Thank you so much for all the risks you took today to help your students get smarter faster! It was a blast to see your kids in action, layering all the goals we talked about yesterday into your powerful writers’ workshop. 

    Some things I noticed today and why they matter to student learning: 

    • You asked students to take a few minutes to gain clarity around the targets. I heard so many voices chime in and anticipate what they’d do during the worktime. I heard Timmy say:  “I think we are going to read a book and then use it to make our own writing better.” Stiggins has your back on this practice as the NUMBER ONE thing that matters to student ownership of their learning: “A clear and understandable vision of the learning target.” Every other practice can build from this strong foundation of clarity and ownership of a worthy goal. 

    • You said, “I made this rubric so it is one you can use yourself to give yourself feedback and figure out next steps.” This matters to student learning because their understanding of the goals of the rubric allows them to have more agency in their own learning. With this rubric AND the mentor text next to them as they write (and explicit instruction and feedback and conferring over time), they can get unstuck and build their writing stamina over time in order to create a high quality book about animal adaptation. You’re setting up the conditions for them to be the deep thinkers and passionate learners, readers, and writers that you want to share the world with. 
    • When you released kids to talk about the rubric and the mentor text I heard Eric say: “She is picking out the adaptations. The author was really specific.” This matters to Eric’s learning because hopefully, it will inspire him to write with more detail, and if he feels stuck, to look at the mentor text to see how that author did it. He has another “teacher” in the room to help him keep going.
    • Xavier and Eric were discussing the mentor text. Eric said, “Hmmm…change colors. Should that go in the adaptation section or the credible scientific evidence?”… Xavier: “I think it can go in both… because it is a true fact about the adaptation.” This matters to student learning because if they can notice and name the goal, they can work diligently to meet it. (Stiggins, Routman, Miller, Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray and Ron Berger have your back on students’ use of mentor texts and authors to learn the craft – learning from published authors in order to grow – the apprentice-master model works in ALL areas of life, which helps us become the “better humans” that you named in your context letter.) 

    • I saw students using a variety of tools to drive their writing today: their adaptation research, story boards, spelling books, plot maps, their computers, their writing journals, the rubric, the mentor text page in front of them, talking to the person next to them…. so many resources at their disposal. YOU created the conditions they need most to write with agency, urgency, and specificity.Wow.

    Now I’m wondering: 
  • What did you notice today about how the SEQUENCE of tasks contributes to student thinking more deeply (one of the big goals you labeled in your context letter). 
  • What did you learn about individual writers today? What sort of “activation energy” do you have now from listening more than you talked today? 
  • What possible mini-lesson topics EMERGED from reading students’ writing and listening to their talk today? What do you envision happening over the next 11 days? (Think about just FIVE mini-lessons and then LOTS OF TIME to write, rewrite, and rewrite some more.)

    There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when you called the kids back together for debrief… we were ALL so in awe.

Ok, new tattoo from your reflection right after the lesson — “I’m doing less so they can do more.” This gets at the core belief of who we are as teachers and what matters MOST. I can’t wait to hear your thinking about all of this. Please type for 5 minutes and press send. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your powerful work for the learners in your educational care. I want to be in 4th grade again. I’m so grateful for you. So are your students. 

Please write me back,

And how did Stephanie feel after all of this? Here is the letter she wrote to me the next day:

Dear Sam,

Yesterday I told you I loved my job – I love it more now! 

The sequence of the lesson was important today. I felt their ownership. They predicted what they were going to be doing, which activated their schema and created that anticipation. There was no doubt when I taught the first mini-lesson (truly mini) there was no confusion about what was going to happen. I could see how not reviewing learning targets cause “an unknown”. If kids don’t know what they are learning, it won’t be as deep for the kids or can cause time lost for having to stop mid lesson and “tell” the kids what they are going to rather than be part of the process. When I forgot to have them review the rubric before using it on the book, I felt a disconnect. Although I reviewed it quickly beforehand, they connected more when they could “unwrap” it and discuss it first.  When I just reviewed it and asked for thumbs up, I didn’t have a true picture of who understood the tool I was using and a tool I was expecting them to use. Even though I eventually had them review it with a partner, I can see lost minutes here and there. BUT, I was able to feel and see how important it was for them to interact with the text themselves. Them interacting built connections and gave them the opportunity to ask questions of their partner. 

Oh my goodness, what I learned about the kids today as writers! They love to write and just want the time to do it. Not only want, but I see the need. “In the past” I wouldn’t know where the kids were as writers because I wasn’t able to manage groups, helping those who asked, and monitoring. When the time is structured for maximum kid work time, I can touch base with all of them. I honestly never thought it would be possible and I’m excited about that. It’s the ultimate work smarter, not harder. Not only do they love to write, but they are capable of knowing themselves as writers. Just by asking them if they need me (even if it’s a no) activates their thinking about what they need as a writer. They are thinking about writing! I cannot believe the quality of work they are producing. Not only the quality, but they are looking for ways to utilize the skills they are learning. I am not pulling teeth to get them to write, and it feels so good! I feel it’s the way the unit was set up that made them the true authors of their story. I just wish I had understood the power of the mentor text previously. I understand it now as another teacher, and the importance of how to choose ones for the purpose I want. This experience has truly changed me as a writing teacher. THANK YOU!

 Based on student writing, I think the next 3 mini-lessons are going to be: 

  • Model: How I use the rubric to find next steps for my writing 
  • Model: The process of rough drafting. I’m not sure how this one will be worded, but I saw this a lot. I saw many kids ask if they can or need to write their work over onto computer from their paper or onto their paper from their computer. I also saw kids erase entire pages to add one sentence. I saw a student not be able to move forward until his work was rewritten with all the changes he had made using arrows and carrots. I want to model for them that rough drafts are messy and how writers can make a beautiful piece of writing out of that mess. 
  • Model: How different transitions help stories flow.

Thank you again for coaching me this week. I’m so excited and I know the students are too!

Have a great weekend,


Stephanie, it is because of teachers like you, that I love my job too! Thank you for cloning yourself so kids could get what they needed, just in time.


Fullan, M. and Andy Hargreaves. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hattie, J. (2011) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Stiggins, R. and Jan Chappuis. (2014) Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right – Using it Well (2nd Edition). New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Samantha Bennett is an instructional coach, educational consultant, and writer. She is the author of That Workshop Book (Heinemann, 2007), and a contributing author to several publications including Imagine it Better (Heinemann,2014), Comprehension Going Forward (Heinemann, 2011), and The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools (Teachers College Press, 2009). She has worked as a middle school teacher, an instructional coach, a district literacy specialist, and as Cris Tovani’s lab-facilitator and coach.  Sam is currently doing both classroom-based and systems-level work, helping districts set up a variety of coaching and professional development structures to support teachers, including the development of Learning Labs — the antidote to “sit and get” professional development. Find her on Twitter @sambennett2


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2 thoughts on “How to Help Teachers Work Smarter, Together”

    1. Thank you, Vicki. Asynchronous is a new term for me. I love it. I’d say at least 50% of my coaching is accomplished “asynchronously.” Hmmmm….I’m going to start tracking it.


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