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What a day in the life of a Utah K-3 literacy coach looks like

Literacy coach Janet Scott works with a first grade student at Valley Crest Elementary in West Valley City, Nov. 13, 2023. The student is typing out a sentence and Scott is helping the student figure out which sounds are in a certain word.
Martha Harris
Literacy coach Janet Scott works with a first grade student at Valley Crest Elementary in West Valley City, Nov. 13, 2023. The student is typing out a sentence and Scott is helping the student figure out which sounds are in a certain word.

As an early literacy coach at Valley Crest Elementary in West Valley City, Janet Scott’s day involves a lot of bouncing around the school.

On a single Monday morning in November, she observes a phonics lesson in a second grade classroom, checks in with a substitute covering a kindergarten class and co-teaches a class of first graders writing sentences.

Scott was hired by the Utah State Board of Education after the Legislature passed a 2022 law aimed at improving student reading, which directed the board to put coaches in schools with low literacy rates. She and her fellow coaches focus on kindergarten through third grade, though they aren’t focusing on individual readers.

“I support teachers in teaching kids how to read,” said Scott.

While she previously taught kindergarten, Scott moved to literacy coaching after she started a program called LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. It’s an online training course that Utah’s K-3 teachers are currently in the process of completing and it covers the fundamentals of literacy instruction according to how kids actually learn to read.

“I didn’t learn how to read very well when I was a kid,” she said. “The things I should have learned as a kid, I was now learning as an adult.”

Scott said she “geeked out” over what she was learning and was excited to focus on reading as a literacy coach.

“I thought I was just going to get to share all of my ideas. Like, try this! Try this! And I have barely done any of that,” Scott said.

Instead, coaching looks more like a partnership than she had imagined.

“I’m not like a professor. It’s more sitting with them and adjusting their practices.”

That means building relationships with teachers and then finding ways, together, to improve. The teacher may be doing something that is working well, but Scott’s goal is to find something that works even better without stepping on any toes or hurting any feelings.

“You got to value their experience because they bring things to the table that I never would have thought of,” Scott said.

Teachers will tell Scott specific things they want to work on with their reading instruction, like setting a goal number of students to be proficient in a certain area by the middle of the year or increasing the opportunities for students to respond during a class. Scott will also look at how the teacher is implementing their LETRS training in the classroom.

Following the passage of the new law, Scott said some teachers were eager to change how they were teaching — and they perhaps changed things too quickly. Others, Scott said, were more hesitant. They had been teaching a certain way for years and thought those practices were working. But overall, Scott said she feels lucky all of her teachers have been willing to work with her.

“My goal is to ask questions, stay curious and really listen to teachers in order to figure out how I can better support their specific needs,” she said.

Scott said there is not a lot of hard, recent data on how much students at Valley Crest have improved over the last year. However, she thinks things are going in the right direction based on her observations.

The biggest challenge in implementing the science of reading training in the classroom, she said, is teachers not having enough time. That’s where Scott comes in, researching and exploring solutions so teachers can spend their time elsewhere. When Scott was a teacher, she did not have a coach and said she had to be a “one-man band.”

During Scott’s day, she took over teaching a kindergarten class. The day’s focus was what sound the letter ‘N’ makes, and Scott was modeling what reading instruction should look like. The district has PowerPoint slides for educators to use to teach reading, but the teacher is new and has never seen them in action before.

Later that day, Scott meets with the teacher for a one-on-one debrief. Scott asks her what she liked in the lesson or wants more of in future reading lessons. Their conversation focuses not on the content, but on how to get kindergarten students to focus long enough to learn about letters and sounds. The teacher asks for more physical activities in the plan, like getting kids to stand up and participate.

“The idea would be that I’m building routines that you would feel comfortable taking over,” Scott told her.

While Scott’s focus is literacy, she said teachers don’t just talk with her about reading. The conversations touch broadly on the challenges of being a teacher. She said she’ll often encourage a good work/life balance — something Scott herself struggled with as a teacher — so they can “be here for the kids at our best.”

“You got to leave work at work and not bring it home,” Scott reminds the kindergarten teacher. “Speaking of that, you have about three minutes until your contract time is up,” reminding the teacher that she should leave when her work day is over.

The teacher jokes that she’ll leave on time so that Scott doesn’t chase her out of the building. Again.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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