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Life Outside the Bubble: Coaching in a Low-Performing School

By Glenna Carlton Sigmon — December 28, 2016 5 min read
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I have been living in a bubble. I am a teacher who recently moved from the highest-performing school to the lowest-performing school in my district. I knew I was in a bubble, but I did not know how the bubble distorted my view.

Life inside the bubble was predictable. My school had clear expectations and goals. Everything was thoughtfully planned and organized. Each team within the school’s organization had its own version of plans and goals carefully aligned to those of the school. Support was available in tiers—some mandatory, some optional—including new teacher support, workshops, professional literature, and peer mentoring. Teachers worked together daily to plan, execute, and reflect on lessons to provide a high-quality learning environment for all students. Exceptional student educators, guidance counselors, behavior interventionists, maintenance workers, food service staff, and administrators worked in tandem to support teaching and learning. Protocols and systems were in place for any situation that might arise during a school day. My school was a high-functioning network of professionals, with data to prove it.

When I was in the bubble, I heard of “F schools.” I assumed that the unfortunate circumstances of the students’ personal lives were to blame for poor data. I assumed they were “F schools” because the kids were so distracted by chaos that they didn’t have any attention left to give at school. I pictured a dilapidated building with outdated technology and limited resources. In my imagination, teachers were either stubborn and jaded or barely surviving.

I was wrong.

Students outside the bubble are just like any others. They are hungry for knowledge and they can learn. Teachers are eager to learn as well. They are motivated to help their students experience success. My new school building is clean and equipped with computers, classroom audiovisual systems, document cameras, and video equipment. And the classrooms are brimming with books, math manipulatives, and other resources.

So why is life outside of the bubble still an F? It’s not from a lack of trying to improve. Teachers regularly meet with each other to discuss data. We discuss goal setting with students based on data. Administration discusses multitiered support systems and corrective instruction with teachers based on data. The school is great at pinpointing the data. The problem lies in the follow through. It is time to take the next step and do something about the data.

Clearly, these students are not engaged in their learning. These teachers want training for instructional strategies and best teaching practices. They need exposure to pedagogy designed to engage children of poverty. The time for action is now, and we know that teacher leadership is the solution. The best way to create a widespread impact is to infiltrate the school’s culture from the inside out.

I did not seek out this opportunity on my own, however. My work with the Florida Teacher Leader Fellowship program caught the attention of district administrators. They already knew the needs of my new school and recruited me as an instructional coach. I am there to empower the instructional staff to take that next step and improve the lives of these students who desperately need high-quality education.

Strategies to Improve Instruction

I have already begun the process with video journaling and reflection. Several teachers have expressed interest in letting me videotape their instruction. At this point, we plan to use the video footage for self-reflection and feedback purposes. Then we will transition to modeling instruction for school-site colleagues. Eventually, this footage could be used across schools in our district, particularly the schools that have historically been identified as “low-performing.”

Collaborative lesson planning has already proven to be an efficient way of facilitating teacher learning. More importantly, this model has allowed teachers to develop a vested interest in what is being taught and not just the how. I meet with each grade level twice a week to create and discuss lesson plans aligned to the depth of the Florida State Academic Standards. We have rich conversations about higher-order thinking lessons and improving student discussion. We brainstorm ideas to engage all students in their learning. My plan is to facilitate lesson planning until each team has built its capacity and confidence to the point where team members can conduct standards-based, collaborative planning independently.

Another support structure we have put in place is live, modeled instruction. After planning standards-based lessons with a team, I model the instruction for teachers in their classrooms with their students. This provides an opportunity for both of us to learn. The teacher watches my modeling with a true purpose. We meet before the lesson and agree on a specific, observable characteristic of effective teaching (i.e. collegial student discussion). Using an observation form, the teacher takes notes as I model. Later, we meet to debrief. My learning happens during the instruction as I observe how the lesson impacts student learning and engagement in real time. The debriefing also provides valuable feedback to guide instruction as we move forward in our collaborative planning. It’s a win-win situation.

The best news is that word is already beginning to spread across the school. Teachers are getting excited. Just today I had three requests for instructional strategy coaching, and as I type, my phone is blowing up with texts from teachers who tried new ideas for instruction that worked! The school’s culture is changing before our eyes. Teachers are experiencing quick wins, and it feels good. Frustration is turning into determination. Kids are learning. Classrooms are alive with possibility.

I love my life outside the bubble. I’m in this for the kids, for my colleagues, for our school and our district, and for our profession. I’m in this to pop the bubble. I’m in this as a teacher leader.


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