Blue dress with white stripes. White cardigan. New sandals with sparkling jewels. I knew I couldn’t wear my normal everyday attire of jeans and flip flops. I was meeting the teachers and district personnel that I would be working with in my new position as a 4K Behavior Coach for School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties in Irmo, South Carolina. The district had launched implementation of the Pyramid Model with Dr. Kate Ascetta from the University of South Carolina as part of the Professional Development School District work. This led to the creation of a new position for a coach that would support classroom teachers as they began putting the Pyramid Model into practice in classrooms.

This is where I enter the story.

The teachers and district personnel were being trained on a tool used to measure the implementation of Pyramid Model practices in preschool classrooms. I was told that teachers had a year of Pyramid Model learning under their belt and the district was ready to hit the ground running. I was looking forward to rich conversations during the training about how the practices might take shape in their classrooms. I was also eager to help talk through any problem scenarios that may arise while planning.

The training was taking place at the middle school I attended. Memories came flooding back as I walked from the front office toward the cafeteria to the elevator at the bottom floor. As a student, I didn’t even know the school had an elevator. The closer I got to the room, the more nervous I became. Just like the trainer, I would not know anyone in the room. I took a deep breath and walked in. I saw one familiar face, the trainer, my coach from the University of Florida, and immediately felt a sense of relief.

As the training began, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. It was overwhelming trying to keep the names, faces, and schools together. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I thought everyone would look excited to meet me. After all, we were about to embark on an incredible journey, learning and growing together.

I did not receive the warm reception I anticipated. I was greeted with a mix of blank and angry stares. I would come to understand the reasons for this reception later in the school year.

As the morning progressed and the trainer unpacked the key practices that were part of the observation, the mood in the room was shifting. The jovial side conversations stopped. They were replaced with whispered comments, frowns, and confused looks. I scanned the room and realized that every table had fallen quiet and looked as though they were hearing this information for the first time. When we broke for lunch, the trainer and I left together. I looked across the table and asked, “Do you get the feeling that the teachers are acting like they do not know what the Pyramid Model is or what the TPOT is used for?” “You’ve got your work cut out for you,” was the trainer’s response.  This was the beginning of a hard year full of hurdles and roadblocks. One of the hardest days was when two teachers had a conversation about how stupid this was and claimed they would just keep doing whatever they wanted to do regardless of what that coach or the district says.

That coach was me.

As the year progressed, I began to understand the source of the negative feelings. The message about the Pyramid Model and the coaching that we would be doing was announced to principals, who were then charged with disseminating that information to their 4K teachers.  Each school’s administrator heard the message differently and shared the message differently with teachers.

We ended up with 12 teachers all thinking different things were going to happen, one coach thinking the teachers were much further down the road in their knowledge of the Pyramid Model, and a group of district personnel who were unaware that the lack of clarity and communication directly with teachers was causing the vision of Pyramid Model implementation to crack.

I knew my initial plan was not going to work. I needed to reevaluate everything. I felt the only way to “fix” things was to go back to the beginning and restart.  Restarts are not easy because usually the damage has already been done during the initial start. I was hoping that the damage was minimal.

I was wrong… again.

Teachers were frustrated that they were being ‘evaluated’ on their implementation of practices they felt they did not even know… I decided I needed to take the focus off of the observation tool and start focusing solely on the teaching practices that were important to the teachers to implement.

Teachers were frustrated that they were being ‘evaluated’ on their implementation of practices they felt they did not even know. Many attempts were made to emphasize that the observation tool was not an evaluation but an observation geared toward two things: guiding myself to know how to provide the best support to teachers in growth areas, and guiding professional development efforts in the district based on areas of improvement districtwide. But the only thing teachers saw was that there was a score at the end and anything less than perfection was not acceptable. The score was becoming the focus for everyone, when in reality the focus needed to be on teaching practices.

I decided I needed to take the focus off of the observation tool and focus solely on the teaching practices that were important to teachers. In doing this, we started building relationships and talking more openly. The teachers began to see I was there to support their needs, not coming in to tell them what they needed to be doing instead. Teachers started identifying areas in their classroom where Pyramid Model practices might accelerate learning, and together, we worked toward implementation.

During this time, teachers opened up. One group of teachers said they were led to believe this was strictly a parenting program and that my role was to help facilitate incorporating the parenting program into the overall 4K program. One group of teachers was told that I was coming to evaluate the children’s behavior and “fix” it. One teacher even said “I did not know you were coming to watch me. I thought you were here to watch the kids. I feel like I was lied to.”

It all started to make sense. From the top, they believed that the message was delivered clearly about what was going to happen. In actuality it became a game of telephone, where one person whispers the phrase and the message shifts as it travels down the chain of listeners. Without fail, the message is always extremely different from the first person to the last.

It became evident that in order for this process to work, we needed to start communicating directly with teachers. We needed to be as clear as possible about our ideas and the vision for implementation.

It became evident that in order for this process to work, we needed to start communicating directly with teachers. We needed to be as clear as possible about our ideas and the vision for implementation.

We asked for more teacher input and we consulted groups of teachers about ideas to get a feel for what they thought before introducing ideas to the whole group. I started highlighting the great things that were already happening in classrooms around Pyramid Model practices and giving weekly shoutouts to each teacher, which included their administrators, so they could see their hard work and celebrate together. We started having more meetings with administrators, openly sharing the information that teachers were hearing and discussing how it would look in the classroom when teachers were engaging in the teaching practices. It began to feel like a team effort, where everyone was finally on the same page, in the same chapter, in the same book.

Then, it happened. A teacher ran up to me when I came to her classroom — ecstatic!

She had been working with students on the steps of problem solving using the solution kit to address common social problems. She read a scripted story with her class, introduced the solutions and what each would look like in action, and set up an area in her classroom where students could find materials when they needed them. This took about a month to put in place. We worked together to get the materials ready and I coached her through introducing the story and solutions, providing side by side support as she modeled for students.

One of her students struggled with sharing toys with her classmates. She would regularly lash out when she wanted a toy that was not available. The day before I came, she wanted to play with some of the materials in the house area that were already being used by another child.  She stood in the house area for a moment, watching the other child. Instead of lashing out, screaming and ripping the toys away, she walked over to the problem solving steps. She looked intently at the pictures, then picked up the solution kit. She flipped through the pictures and stopped on one. She walked over to the teacher and showed her “Get A Timer.”  She said, “I want to play with those toys but someone is using them. Can we set a timer so I can have a turn?”

I was just as ecstatic as the classroom teacher. I was even more ecstatic when I got to see several of her students using the problem solving steps and solutions kit throughout the day.  They were doing it! And the teacher was noticing positive changes in her students as they became more proficient in using the language and solutions. She thanked me at the end of the day. But I reminded her she was responsible for the successful implementation and I was just there to support her along the journey.

In the beginning, as teacher leaders and administrators, we were laying tracks without looking at where the train was going and the final destination. Now, we are moving along together with a shared understanding of the purpose of implementing Pyramid Model practices, which has led to an increase in teacher buy-in.

Today, teachers are asking questions, seeking out support, and implementing the teaching practices on a more consistent basis. One teacher stopped someone from the district and said that she has been working to increase the positive descriptive feedback she gives her children during center time. She shared that student engagement has never been better.

When teachers buy in, that’s when the magic happens.

This story is published as part of a storytelling retreat hosted by the Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP) housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. CEP partners nominated practicing educators, administrators, and system leaders to share their stories. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a CEP partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CEP_UofSC and @teachingquality.

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Carrie Trivedi

Carrie Trivedi currently serves as the Lead Behavior Specialist for Mix-EC: Multi Systems Inclusion Expansion in Early Childhood through the Yvonne and Schyler Moore Child Development Research Center at the University of South Carolina, College of Education. Previously, Carrie worked with School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties as a 4K Behavior Coach. She is a proud graduate of the University of South Carolina, earning both a bachelor’s in Experimental Psychology and a master’s in Early Childhood Education. She resides in Chapin, South Carolina with her husband and two daughters.