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Inside TFA

A Coach’s Start to the School Year

In 2014, Wisam Fillo was starting her journey as a Chicago-Northwest Indiana corps member. Now, she helps new teachers find their way as a Teach For America classroom coach.

College flags in a school hallway

September 10, 2019

It’s that time of yeara new moleskin notebook, a fresh pack of pens, and a wide open calendar. There’s something so energizing about the start of a new school year. Summer training has ended, and after a brief interlude, it’s time for our teachers to meet their students! As a corps member, I remember how excited (and anxious) I felt during this transition between summer training ending and the school year beginning. I look back at how I spent my time setting up my classroom, perfecting my first few lesson plans, and then sitting across the table at a coffee shop for my beginning of the year meeting with my Teach For America coach.

I’m back at the coffee shop, only this time on the other side of the table. After four years at my placement school on the South Side, having graduated my first group of ninth graders, it felt like a natural time to transition to something new. I wanted to stay in education, but also make a pivot in my impact and explore what it meant to coach adults. The summer of 2018 I began as a CRT (Culturally Responsive Teaching) coach during summer training and something just clicked. It taught me the value of mentoring relationships, and also showed me that my four years in the classroom gave me valuable insight for new teachers. After that summer, I transitioned to become a full time coach for our first year corps members.

This past summer, I worked as a CRT coach again, and I was extremely impressed by the 2019 corps members’ readiness to participate in a space that focused on very intentional identity work. We worked together to challenge implicit racial biases and flesh out how authentic student-teacher relationships are built and sustained. The most heartwarming moments this summer came in my daily interactions, where teachers expressed their gratitude. And the appreciation wasn’t centered on me; teachers were grateful for the space we were able to co-create where everyone felt comfortable leaning into vulnerability. This feedback has really informed the evolution of my original coaching vision: to be part of a coalition where teachers and coaches have a reciprocal learning relationship.

“When teachers aren’t able to paint the wins for themselves, I work to do it for them.”

Wisam Fillo

Chicago-Northwest Indiana Corps Member 2014

I try my best to infuse those same CRT hallmarks into my coaching practice. Initial one-on-one meetings have begun and teachers need to feel heard before they can begin to trust who’s sitting across from them. They’ll receive support from me, which can look a multitude of ways, but always includes a classroom observation every three weeks followed by an in-person debrief. The debriefs are some of my favorite moments in this job. When teachers aren’t able to paint the wins for themselves, I work to do it for them. When they come to me with student work, we collaborate on timely, responsive feedback. When they call for advice around restoring a student relationship, we brainstorm strategies so they feel ready to take the next step. Most importantly, the foundation of our conversations is our dedication to de-center ourselves, center students, while also doing the leadership work required to challenge white supremacy culture. 

Some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced have been when my teachers’ confidence builds by how they deepen their relationships with students. I remember one of my teachers expressing their inability to “do it.” I inquired what “it” was and they responded with “the ability to control my class.” We broke down that language and how our language around feeling the need to “control” students manifests in the classroom. We worked on co-creating a vision where students felt seen and heard. This teacher went from not feeling like themselves and exhausting all their energy before lunch to having the ability to see students joke not as off-task behavior, but as kids who are looking to experience joy. Moments where they could explore happiness together, offer each other a smile, and move forward with the lesson. This teacher grew to see their students through an asset-based lens. 

Although I’m not setting up my own classroom right now, I feel the same sense of pride walking into my corps members’ rooms. Their zest and passion for creating spaces that feel safe, challenging, and loving are inspiring. Seeing teachers and students faces light up as getting-to-know-you games are played this first week are grounding reminders that while this work is really hard, kids are at the center of it. When I see a joyful classroom where kids feel seen and heard, I know we’re doing something right.