Education Opinion

Coaching Toward the Common Core State Standards

By Elena Aguilar — August 17, 2014 5 min read
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One of the most frequent questions I get from coaches is about how to coach teachers in the Common Core (CCSS). While there’s some content knowledge you’ll need to have about the CCSS, there are many coaching skills that apply regardless of the content. More important, there’s a big picture knowledge set that can help you determine the coaching strategies you’ll use with your teachers--and this is a knowledge set that’s usually left out of standard training sessions for coaches on the CCSS. So here’s what I think you need to know and remember when coaching teachers towards the Common Core.

Acknowledge the Feelings

First, this is all very scary. This--the Common Core and its associated changes--is rather terrifying for teachers and administrators. It’s happening really fast in most places, it’s mandating changes in curriculum, assessment, teacher evaluation, and much more. In fact, CCSS creates an opportunity for everyone in the education system to reflect on and make changes in many traditional practices and approaches. This is promising--there’s a whole lot that needs to change in order for kids to get what they need, but it’s also very scary. Some of the core practices in CCSS require phenomenal higher order thinking skills, collaborative learning, deep questioning of content and learning; there’s a chance that in the future, in true CCSS-aligned classrooms, kids won’t be sitting in rows listening to lectures and regurgitating facts on a test. But the rate of change is dizzying and this is what we, as coaches, need to manage. And change brings feelings.

One thing I hear from some teachers in this change is the following kind of comment: “I feel like I’m being asked to get rid of everything I’ve done for the last 15 years. I worked hard to develop those lesson plans and now I have to do something completely different. I don’t understand why.”

There are a few key things in this statement that transformational coaches will want to pay close attention to and address. First, recognize that teachers who are experiencing these kinds of emotions are feeling like their identities as educators are no longer relevant--they feel as if they are being asked to be different people. This is a very unique and difficult kind of pain--they feel like who they are is no longer valued, that the teacher they spent years developing is not longer relevant. To coach a teacher expressing such an experience means that we must first acknowledge the emotions. We don’t have to fix them or be a therapist (given our role as coaches we can’t do either of these things) but we do have to acknowledge the pain.

Explore the Why

The second aspect of this kind of a statement that coaches will need to address is the teacher’s lack of understanding of why he or she is being asked to change. In some schools and districts the messaging around the why of the shift to CCSS has been done well--teachers are onboard. In other places, administrators haven’t taken the time to explain the rationale for CCSS and to get teachers excited about how everyone can benefit from CCSS. Coaches need to understand how their coachees think and feel about Common Core; we need to then help them deepen their understanding, see the potential for student learning, and even explore the potential benefits to them as teachers from using CCSS strategies.

What we experience as resistance in teachers often comes from a lack of understanding. In my perspective, the shift to CCSS is moving at about a million miles too fast--because of this, we’re fighting battles along the way to get people understanding and bought into this new model. If we’d only gone a little slower we might not be experiencing as much struggle. Resistance is a by-product of going too fast. Our minds and hearts can’t keep up with the passing of legislation, adoption of new materials, and mandates. (I’m digressing into a rant about the speed of change in our schools. Again, let me advocate for a Slow School Movement).

Build on Existing Strengths and Skills

Back to the teacher who feels that she’s being asked to throw out everything from 15 years of teaching. Here’s a high leverage coaching strategy to use with such a coachee: Make bridges from the past to the present. As a coach, you need to know enough about the instructional shifts that the CCSS requires so that you can guide a teacher to an awareness about which elements she probably has already been doing. That’s the key: I can say with almost complete assurance that most teachers have been doing something that either is a CCSS strategy or that creates the foundation for CCSS. There’s got to be something in that teacher’s experience (even an aspiration for student learning) that you can surface and then build on. Our job as coaches is to search it out, highlight it, and then help the teacher build on it. You’ll want to strive to have this teacher feel as if the distance between who she is and where she needs to go (CCSS) is not as big as she feels. That it’s not about eliminating who she was but rather about making some shifts, building on some aspects, and trying some new things.

Common Core is scary. I can’t say that enough. There are many, many scary parts of it and we’re living in a very scary time for teachers. Acknowledge these feelings, which doesn’t mean get stuck in attending to them--but you’ll have a hard time coaching if you skip over them. Then help to shrink the distance between where the teacher is and has been and where she needs to go. And help the teacher see the why for CCSS. Help her add some feelings to the overflowing bucket of emotion, feelings of excitement and hope.

The potential in transformational coaching is that we explore and attend to a teacher’s behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being (read my book for more on transformational coaching). Coaching towards the Common Core requires us to attend to these three domains of our existence, in fact, there’s no other way we’ll be able to humanely support teachers in this transition without doing so.

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