Creating the Conditions for Effective Coaching
Instructional coaches come in many forms these days—from Common Core coaches to literacy coaches to technology specialists, districts are investing large sums with the hopes that targeted support of teachers will transform teaching and learning in their school systems.
What we see in some of our Mills Teacher Scholars district partnerships is that on the ground this investment has some major challenges. Coaches are pulled into testing students, asked to cover classrooms when there is a sub shortage or fill other operational school needs. Often coaches are exceptional teachers who have not had the chance to build their coaching skills before given the task of working with colleagues.
Moreover, and possibly most importantly, even when experienced coaches enter a school site, they find that most teachers feel that they are not “ready” to take advantage of the coaching services. I have heard teachers share that they have not had positive experiences with coaches, see the offer of coaching as an administrators’ veiled critique of their professional capacity, or simply do not feel it is worth the time investment.
Coaching works when teachers possess a growth mindset, an openness to examining their practice, and a trust in the value of the collaborative process. While there is a large body of research indicating coaching’s effectiveness, the readiness factor is frequently not addressed when districts and schools set up their coaching initiatives. At most schools, it takes time and intentionality on the part of school leadership to set the conditions for teachers to hold this learning stance.
Through our inquiry process Mills Teacher Scholars builds these conditions for adult learning. Teacher Scholars develop the capacity to engage in various forms of coaching and collaborations. Through 15-30 minute one-on-one coaching conversation between group inquiry sessions, facilitators (or teacher scholar leaders at our teacher-led sites) support teachers to move forward with their inquiry practice. Often, the most important part of these coaching conversations is reminding the teachers of their previous thinking and giving them the opportunity to clarify their evolving thinking through articulating the jumble of ideas they haven’t quite yet made sense of.
What Does This Look Like in Practice? Implementing Broad, Inquiring Deep at Colonial Acres
In the midst of a Balanced Literacy initiative, teachers at Colonial Acres in San Lorenzo strive to implement multiple new programs, in addition to the new Common Core State Standards. Many teachers are using Lucy Calkins Writer’s Workshop curriculum for the first time, as well as trying to consistently implement Guided Reading. It is hard to think deeply and consistently about improving one area of instruction when faced with so many competing demands. The Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work gives them an opportunity to zoom in on a small slice of their Balanced Literacy program.
In early January, I met with teachers at this site for their inquiry coaching sessions. Third grade teacher Litzia Collins and I sat down to look at student work together. Litzia, a veteran teacher who is new to the school, had decided in September to focus on student writing. Initially her concern was setting up a Writer’s Workshop structure that helped students take their work from pre-writing to draft to published product. After conversations with her new colleagues in our inquiry sessions, her thinking evolved; she began to hone in on the idea of having students assess their own and peers’ writing drafts by indicating “glows” (areas of strength) and “grows” (areas for improvement) before they set about revising these drafts further.
Litzia and I began by looking at a below grade level English learner whose “glow” focused on his use of conventions and punctuation and his “grow” said, “The student did well” (referring to himself in the third person). I suggested that we look at a more proficient focal student to get a better idea of what success on self-assessment might look like in third grade. In this case, the more proficient student was able to give a specific place in her writing that had strong description and a particular location in the writing that could be improved.
Through this process of thinking together about student work data, Litzia clarified thinking for herself that she could pass on to her students through more explicit instruction:
a) It was important to her that students’ glows and grows were specific and she wanted them to focus-in on ideas that she had brought in through her mini-lessons around vibrant details and sensory language.
b) Not all of her students understood the difference between revision and editing. Students like Juan needed more support to understand that the glows and grows were an opportunity to focus on revision—ideas and organization—not conventions.
c) Some next steps for her were to provide more opportunities for modeling and to practice the language and content of feedback/assessment. In particular she decided to try out an “author’s chair” strategy where students shared their writing and the teacher and peers gave the feedback. She also recognized that her English learners needed some scaffolds around the language of feedback. She planned to work with her class to generate a chart with some sentence starters for students to draw upon.
Readiness for Collaborative Professional Learning
As teachers gain trust in the process of working with our facilitators and teacher leaders around a self-determined inquiry focus, they become increasingly invested in their personal inquiry and the collaborative learning process. Looking at data with colleagues and coaches becomes professionally meaningful and becomes part of the school culture—an essential practice to meeting the needs of individual students. With time and support, we begin to hear teachers coaching each other in the monthly inquiry sessions. The teachers themselves take on supporting their colleagues’ learning, asking one another questions that previously were restricted to more formal interactions with coaches.