In the world of sports, a coach is someone who assesses players’ talents, trains players to improve their skills, and plans strategies to maximize her team’s chances of winning an upcoming competition. A sports coach is an expert in her sport and in managing people, a planner and a motivator, a leader and a teacher.
The sports analogy holds true for literacy coaches… to a point. One might imagine, extending the sports analogy, that a literacy coach works with students (the closest analog to players), and that, in fact, is where the analogy fails: literacy coaches actually work primarily with teachers, training them in the latest literacy strategies, techniques, and theories so that they may, in turn, teach their students more effectively.
In all other ways, though, the analogy is apt. Literacy coaches are experts in literacy education and in training teachers; they use their knowledge and skills to create plans, inspire, lead, and educate teachers in how to most effectively help their students. In these ways they are just like sports coaches; it’s just that their “team” is a team of teachers.
Literacy coaching is a highly specialized field of education that can be very rewarding for the right person. To find out whether it’s your calling, read on: we’ll explain what literacy coaches do, what sort of training and certifications they need, what sort of careers they can expect, and what resources are available to them online.
The short answer: literacy coaches work with teachers to improve their skills in teaching reading, writing, and comprehension. They deliver professional development that educates teachers in the enduring principles and latest advances in literacy education.
As with most matters related to American education, the role of the literacy coach is not entirely fixed across school districts and grade levels. Local control of education in the United States means that the responsibilities and expectations of a literacy coach vary somewhat from one district to another. In some places, the terms “literacy coach” and “reading specialist” are used interchangeably; in others, the two are defined as unique roles, and those definitions also change depending on the school district.
Literacy coaches across the country perform some, if not many or most, of the same roles, including:
Assessment — the administration of both formative and summative quizzes and tests in order to gauge student mastery and track improvement — plays a large role in literacy training; literacy coaches must be experts in administering exams and in interpreting their results. It should be noted that literacy coaches assist teachers in all subjects in which literacy is an issue — which is to say, all subjects (mathematics, natural science, social studies, etc.) — and not just English language arts teachers.
Most literacy coaches interact primarily with teachers, but they also need to communicate with school administrators and district-level leaders. Their work at the district level includes monitoring instruction at different schools in order to ensure a unified approach to literacy instruction, to determine where resources can best be allocated to maximize effective literacy training, and to apprise district leaders of students’ and schools’ progress.
Pro: You’ll promote reading and writing and to be an effective agent in improving students’ literacy skills. If you prefer a job in which your primary interactions are with other adults rather than with youth, so much the better.
Con: You will spend relatively little time with actual students, especially in comparison to the time classroom teachers spend with them. If your primary motivation to enter education is to work directly with students, then literacy coaching isn’t for you.
Pro: You will likely have an office somewhere, but you will spend the majority of your time moving from classroom to classroom and from school to school to meet with different teachers. If you enjoy variety and travel (you’ll probably spend significant amounts of time driving to schools and to the district office), this job will suit you. See also: you’ll impact what’s going on in lots of classrooms (rather than in just one, your own).
Con: If traffic drives you bonkers — or if you just prefer the stability and predictability of having your own classroom — then you should probably consider a different position.
Pro: If you prefer to go narrow and deep in your mastery of a subject, and also enjoy the process of imparting that knowledge onto others, good news: Literacy coaches have a high level of expertise in a single pedagogic area.
Con: If you prefer a more general approach to knowledge and would rather know something about everything than a lot about one thing, teaching in an elementary or middle-school classroom might be a better fit.
Pro: A literacy coach needs to be an effective communicator, which means he needs to enjoy delivering and receiving communication on a fairly constant basis. Interacting with others is a major piece of any literacy coach’s day. On a similar note, this is a very collaborative job — to be effective, you have to work with teachers. You are primarily a mentor and advisor, not a supervisor.
Con: If you are put off by the give-and-take of conferring with and counseling teachers and of reporting regularly to administrators and district officials, then you probably won’t enjoy this job. Also, if you prefer working on your own, again, you probably won’t enjoy literacy coaching.
Pro: Salary data fall wholly in the pro column. According to Glassdoor.com, literacy coaches earn $56,922 a year, nearly $10,000 more per year than the average elementary school teacher earns. Ziprecruiter.com reports an even larger differential: $55,537 for literacy coaches, $38,703 for elementary school teachers. No matter whom you ask, literacy coaches earn significantly more.
Con: Your friends will be jealous of your salary?
Literacy coaches typically specialize in a particular age group: early childhood, elementary, middle, secondary, or K-12. Some very large schools may have a dedicated literacy coach, but it is more common for a literacy coach to work with a number of schools in an area, and perhaps even to serve all the schools in a particular district.
Decentralized oversight of education in the United States means there is no single set of educational requirements to become a literacy coach. Some states require that coaches have a master’s degree; others require only a bachelor’s degree and a graduate certificate in literacy.
The state of Maine, for example, requires a master’s degree, certification to teach at the grades for which you want to be a literacy coach, literacy certification, and three years of teaching experience at the K-12 level.
South Carolina, on the other hand, requires only a bachelor’s degree and two years of teaching experience, along with initial or professional certification at the grade level for which you want to coach (early childhood, elementary, middle, secondary, or K-12), and literacy certification. In addition, coaches in the Palmetto State must pass a State Board of Education exam.
Regardless of state requirements, a literacy coach must achieve a level of expertise in research methodology and applications, education theory, and literacy pedagogy practices to be effective. A solid grasp of child development and psychology is also very useful.
National Louis University lecturer Sharon Frost and University of Pittsburgh professor Rita Bean compiled four levels of standards for literacy coaches in a paper for the Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse:
The highest level, which they call the gold standard, requires a master’s degree in literacy and additional certification in coaching; successful teaching experience at the grade level to be coached; previous experience working with and training teachers; experience as a classroom observer; and excellent presentation skills.
At the “great choice” level, the coach has all the gold standard qualifications except that her master’s degree is in an area other than literacy and she lacks coaching certification.
At the third level – “good enough for now” – the coach has a bachelor’s and some graduate work, successful experiences collaborating with other teachers, and a great attitude.
The final level – “not good enough for now” – applies to those who do not meet the previously listed credentials and are hired only because of a lack of alternatives.
Licensure and accreditation standards for literacy coaches vary from state to state. Contact your state’s Department of Education to learn what qualifications your state requires of literacy coaches.
Resources for literacy coaches
The Internet is full of interesting resources for literacy coaches. We’ve combed the web to cull the most interesting and informative, which we’ve listed below.
There’s not much in the way of bureaucratic hierarchy in the literacy coaching world. Literacy coaches serve their schools and their districts, and while they report results to various administrators and district leaders, there typically is not a lot of room for career advancement in the field. Some large districts may have a dedicated literacy coaching supervisor, but for the most part, the job is what it is.
People drawn to this job love it because of the work it entails and the relative autonomy they enjoy, not because they aspire to earn an advanced title and a corner office someday. After some years of service, some literacy coaches may choose to return to school for a Ph.D. so that they can teach literacy coaching to future literacy coaches at the university level.
Requirements vary from state to state, but in most states, you will need some form of certification in literacy or literacy coaching, as well as teacher certification for the grade level with which you plan to work.
Many states require a master’s degree (not necessarily in literacy, though) and some classroom experience (the number of years required varies from state to state).
In terms of personal attributes, you’ll need a love of literacy, a desire to mentor and to train teachers, aptitude in assessment and data interpretation, and strong communication skills, which you will put to use all day, every day.
In return, you will do important and effective work, and you will be compensated reasonably well for your efforts; not lawyer-well or doctor-well, but you knew that when you chose a career in education. You’ll work primarily with adults, who in turn will apply what you teach them to their work with students. In this way, your work will impact a lot more students than does the work of any of the classroom teachers you will coach. You’ll also have the satisfaction of being an expert in a critical field of education: literacy training.
If all this sounds good to you, then a career in literacy coaching should be a good fit.
Fortunately, there are a number of good universities offering literacy coaching certification and master’s degrees online. A local university likely offers classroom courses in literacy coaching as well; surf on over to its website to learn more.
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