In the Classroom Leadership
Music Teacher to Reading Interventionist: Helping your non reading/math teachers fill your need for RTI interventionists
December 19, 2016
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Crystal Nelson

RTI2 (Response to Intervention and Instruction) is no longer a new concept for many schools, but some are still trying to figure it out.  Finding the personnel to teach reading and math intervention groups has led many administrators to pulling in non-reading/math teachers to lead these interventions.  I was asked, as a music teacher, to take on a first grade tier 3 reading intervention group.  Based on my experiences, I have compiled some suggestions for administrators to support teachers who are asked to step way out of their comfort zones to teach something they have never taught before.
  1. Understand teachers might be dealing with some cognitive dissonance. Even when the  teacher wants to be flexible to do what’s best for the students and the school, it’s difficult not to question, “Is it reasonable to ask me to teach math or reading (already the subjects that get all the attention and emphasis) when I’m a music teacher (aka teacher of a subject that is already way undervalued in education and possibly in your school)?”  The positive attitude is the teacher’s responsibility, but you still need to be aware these are very real feelings grounded from a very real place. Furthermore, it is probably a reality that the non-tested subjects in your school have probably had their time cut or have students pulled out, or both.  When I first started, I was getting my Master’s in Educational Leadership, so my perspective had shifted with that program of study to where I was able to approach taking a reading intervention group differently than I would have two years earlier. Mentally, I was already there, so my principal did not have to make the case with me. For administrators with teachers who aren’t coming from this same place, I would suggest creating a need for those changes. Pose the problem in a context that allows the teacher to see the larger picture and how these changes are necessary to student success.
  2. Provide helpful training. Effective training can reinforce the benefits of a structured program teachers are using during intervention time and help fill in gaps in knowledge. If a structured program is not available, good training is imperative. Luckily, the state of Tennessee was providing some Intervention and Common Core trainings the summer after I started RTI interventions. These trainings detailed the components of learning to read (decoding, fluency, comprehension, etc.) and intervention strategies for those components.  Your state’s department of education might have resources or materials available to help train your teachers.
  3. Create a safe environment. Remember, these teachers are possibly feeling really insecure about their ability to teach something new and might be a little terrified they’re going to permanently damage the children. (Rationally, they know this isn’t likely, but it’s still a fear!) Your teachers need to feel safe enough to ask questions about what they are doing and to be able to address concerns. It’s a good idea to provide some extra supervision or informal observations in the beginning. My first year, I started out at a table in a strong teacher’s room with my intervention group, and she had another group at another table. She was able to monitor some to know I was on-track, and it made me feel a lot better. Later in the year, I moved into a quieter area, but my assistant principal was still in every so often to do fidelity checks. I had no qualms saying, “Let me know if I need to do something differently.” In a way, it’s easier to ask for help when you aren’t supposed to be the expert. I would be less eager to show my vulnerability in the music classroom. Last year, I had a math group for the first time, no structured program— just me trying to figure out what the students needed and trying to figure out the most logical way to structure the content. I was somewhat uncomfortable with my assistant principal in there watching, but I said, “Feel free to jump in if you see something that I should do differently.” I recognize doing right by the students trumps my discomfort at someone else observing me do something poorly. As it turns out, she was happy with the work I was doing. Being able to discuss why I chose the focus I did and having discussions about how I’m teaching, helped me feel a lot more secure.
  4. If at all possible, have your teachers use a structured program. This provides the appropriate sequencing and activities needed to teach the given skill. Using a structured program gave me a solid foundation of knowledge and gave me a sense of security knowing I wasn’t going to do anything horribly wrong. As confidence builds, it doesn’t take long before teachers can use their best judgement and make modifications as needed.
  5. Encourage teachers to make connections between teaching their subject and teaching a totally new subject. I have discovered that teaching reading is incredibly similar to teaching music. There are content-specific things I need to know and have learned, but the “how” of teaching decoding, building fluency, analyzing, and teaching from literature is shockingly similar. Even when it came to math, I just used my knowledge of how to break down the goal, “what I want the children to be able to do,” and take it back until I’ve figured out the steps needed to meet that goal.

Obviously, how you approach your non-reading/math teachers with leading intervention groups will have to do with the individual personalities of those teachers, as well as the resources you have available. You might have a situation where the teacher can observe other groups, you might need to set up clear expectations for how intervention time should look, etc.  But I wanted to share what made me successful as an interventionist.  Basically, provide teachers with the resources they need to be successful (materials, training) and treat them with the same understanding you would need if you were in the same situation.

Crystal has taught at Camden Elementary for six years teaching PreK-2nd grade general music and reading intervention and serves as RTI Co- Coordinator. Crystal served as the Benton County Education Association president 2013-2015, is an active member of Delta Kappa Gamma, and was named Distinguished Educator of West Tennessee by the Tennessee Education Association in 2014. Crystal is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Martin where she earned a B.M. in Music Education. As a life-learner, she has also earned her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and an Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice from Trevecca Nazarene University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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