In this interview, our Senior Educational Consultant Lance Ozier shares what initially drew him to the field of education and what he does in a typical day as a literacy coach.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was raised on a farm in Georgia, surrounded by my family, who worked as farmers and teachers going back generations. Although I had always been interested in education, I resisted following in their footsteps until the summer after my freshman year of college when I began work at a nonprofit summer camp organized by Project Morry in New York. This was transformative in showing me just how much I enjoyed working with young people. Little did I know, I would return to that camp for the next fifteen summers.
After that first summer, I returned to my studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and changed my major from Political Science to Education. That's how much I had tried not to be a teacher. But I couldn't resist my calling for long.
After graduating, I stayed in Atlanta and continued to teach at the elementary school where I had completed my student teaching. I was fortunate enough to work alongside my mentor, who was a Reading Recovery specialist. This piqued my interest in how young people learn to read. The school was 100% English language learners, mostly immigrant and refugee families. The school was in a section of Atlanta that relocated and housed many families seeking asylum. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
As I returned to the summer camp each year, I realized how formative it had been in teaching me how to be a better teacher. Working with young people outside of a school environment gave me the perspective I needed to work better within one.
I decided to move to New York City to learn more about the challenges I'd experienced while teaching first grade. I took a leave of absence from my school in Atlanta to study Sociology & Education with a focus on policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where I was fortunate enough to connect with a community of educators doing middle school literacy work throughout the city. Due to a hiring freeze, I couldn't find work as an elementary school teacher so for about seven years, I worked as a middle school literacy coach throughout the Bronx.
At that time, the New York City Department of Education was revising its middle school curriculum to address low levels in reading proficiency. As it turns out, middle school teachers in NYC had received little to no training on how to promote classroom literacy, so there was a real need for professional development. As a literacy coach, I worked to support the faculty of middle schools collaborating with Teachers College.
Through both the summer camp and Teachers College, I continued my work with middle and high school students. I taught writing at a high school in Brooklyn for a few years, which was quite rewarding. Our writing work was published in actual books through the Student Press Initiative, which proved an excellent motivator for young people. Simultaneously, at the summer camp I worked each summer with students from age nine until they graduated high school.
As time passed, we began realizing that the entirety of our young people at Project Morry were graduating from high school. Keep in mind, this was happening at a time when NYC’s graduation rates were around 30%. I wrote my dissertation on how the camping experience informs classroom learning and improves outcomes for both students and teachers.
When I finished graduate school, I grew restless having worked in the same school settings for so long. Knowing that I wanted more flexibility and control over my schedule, a friend of mine connected me with Teaching Matters.
For the past five years, I’ve worked on a range of programs for Teaching Matters. Initially, I worked on the Assessment Matters team, a program focused on designing and administering student-centered assessment practices to inform instruction at NYC area elementary and middle schools. It was here that I emphasized the importance of data-driven instruction and formative assessments. This, no doubt, informed my work with elementary and middle school educators, coaching them to teach their students to set goals and conduct self-assessments. I also provided teachers with feedback on each of their lessons, shifting their focus toward achieving growth and specific outcomes.
Many times, we teachers feel we must drill skills, when really it comes down to engaging in dialogue with students to identify how they best learn. There is more to learning than teacher-administered grades. In fact, self- and peer-assessment can be just as if not more effective in helping learners identify and learn from their mistakes.
At a certain point, I found myself longing to return to literacy work, so Teaching Matters invited me to join the Early Reading Matters program. During this time, I worked at a school in the Bronx, where it became clear that in my fifteen years as an educator, so much had changed and yet stayed the same.
What's new is the robust technology allowing teachers to track data and individual progress. Fifteen years ago, this was not available, so that was a huge asset in monitoring our progress toward literacy goals. Then, the pandemic hit and, of course, everything changed. I began work on remote projects and student-facing learning materials when schools went virtual. It was rewarding to do something to help the city, particularly through such a special initiative to create K-8 student-facing materials.
Over the summer, I worked on the @SchoolAnytime project, which we launched in the summer of 2020. For the last few years, I have been part of the Network for School Improvement’s Gates Foundation grant, focused on preparing middle students for success in high school.
Could you describe what a typical day looks like for you as a Teaching Matters coach?
The Gates NSI project is quite structured and programmatic. There are three main components: attendance, leadership, and ELA teacher support, each aligned to the 8th grade on-track measures.
The Attendance Team is comprised of school leadership and attendance personnel working to achieve a 96% daily attendance rate for each student. Community-based organizations (CBO) are often involved to enhance student motivation and increase attendance rates. We try to take a positive, rewarding approach to attendance, rather than a punitive one. What makes a student want to come to school?
Then there's the leadership component, where school leaders consider equity as it pertains to making sure 8th graders are on track to succeed in high school, particularly with regard to ELA performance. We look at the school improvement plan, community education plan, and instructional leadership team plan to monitor how the school is making progress with the on-track measures.
There's also a teacher component, which involves helping educators implement a rigorous, high-quality curriculum focused on Culturally Responsive Sustainable Education practices. We often test change ideas, which come from prior research or best practices, to determine their effectiveness on improving equitable outcomes for students.
Between the attendance meeting, the leadership meeting, and the ELA team meeting, plus the individual time to support ELA teachers in their teaching practices, the day is quite full!
Could you share some of the highlights from your day to day coaching?
A real highlight for me has been helping teachers understand how they can incorporate student-centered change ideas into their existing curriculum – which center students’ identity and build empathy with others in the classroom community – to promote equity in their classrooms.
Take, for example, our identity question change idea. This is a prompt asking students to connect to some aspect of their identity either before, during, or after reading a text. This simple question probes learners to make deeper connections between themselves and what they’re reading. And so from a culturally responsive standpoint, these kinds of questions center students in a way that allows teachers to validate and affirm identity markers, which are often closely linked with culture.
Cultural competence plays a significant role in this identity change idea. And what makes culture so complex – which is amazing for teachers to start to see – is that culture is both visible and invisible at the same time. In other words, we often have a lot of the identity markers of the cultural references that we identify with and yet don’t at the same time. Take my family, for example. I'm a white guy. My father is a white guy. I have three brothers who are all white guys. You would think – from a cultural standpoint – that we would have a lot of similar identity markers. And yet at the same time, I'm nothing like my father, and my brothers are nothing like each other. The identity question change idea resists these kinds of assumptions by asking students to reflect on and articulate their markers of identity. In this way, teachers begin to understand how they can use cultural identity to honor the tremendous individuality of their students while creating equitable communities and classrooms. At the same time, we urge teachers to be cautious and not overgeneralize, as culture is expressed on an individual basis.
That's what I enjoy most. When teachers can make these connections and understand that while these concepts may be complex, they aren’t necessarily complicated. To me, complicated suggests it's impossible and can't be done. Complex, on the other hand, suggests it's a challenge or issue that can be explored. I like for teachers to think about something being complex rather than complicated. It’s not, “Oh, I give up. It’s just too complicated to fix.” Instead, it’s, “Okay, this is complex, but I have the tools and methods at my disposal to figure it out.” This mindset is possible with the coaching and support that Teaching Matters provides.
Tell us what excites you the most about coaching and supporting teachers in different schools.
I like that there's always something different to do. What I like about coaching is that you get to interact with many different people in many different settings. I'm passionate about the work we do through the NSI project, like achieving equity, elevating student voices, and prioritizing culturally responsive practices.
And, of course, I enjoy working with the teachers because while I may be the one presenting new ideas, they often come up with better solutions in the end. Meaning, I end up learning more from them than you might expect. It’s the same with students, who are often better at coming up with their own strategies and solutions and communicating how we can best address their needs.
Lastly, I love the process of reviewing student data. We conduct a survey in the NSI project called the Culturally Responsive Panorama Survey, which is different from surveys typically administered in that it explicitly addresses identity and culture. This helps students understand that differences are to be celebrated, not ignored. I'm excited about this project, and it's been fun to work on.
Learn more about literacy coaching.