Education Opinion

When Teachers Show No Growth

By Elena Aguilar — November 27, 2012 4 min read
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Anyone ever felt like their coachees aren’t making the kind of growth you want to see? Read this email from a coach in San Diego, CA.

I've been a math coach for 2 years. This year I work in a high school (I've never taught or coached in high school) and I'm stumped. I'm seeing very little growth in the teachers I work with. One has made a few changes in her instruction. Another is still trying to get management down. And several haven't made any growth at all. Week after week I observe their classes and I see the same things happening. I don't know what to do. Have you ever seen this? Teachers who make no growth? What can I do? Stumped in San Diego

Dear Stumped,

I know how hard it can be to feel like your teachers aren’t making growth. This can be frustrating and demoralizing. I wish I could tell you there was a mathematical calculation you could apply that would provide you with an answer, but there isn’t. That there isn’t a clear answer is precisely what makes coaching exciting to me--we often encounter conundrums which raise more questions than answers and which suggest many paths to explore. I love that there aren’t prescriptive directions.

Let me share some of the questions that come up for me in response to your query:

  • What have you been hoping to see in your teachers’ classrooms? What are the changes you expected to see?
  • Who determined what these changes should be? Who defined the growth teachers should make?
  • Are teachers crystal clear on those expectations? Did they have input about the growth they are expected to make?
  • Do teachers feel ownership over the coaching work you’re doing together?

I always coach based on goals set by my coachees, goals that reflect their school’s mission or vision. For example, a teacher might determine that she wants to focus on using group structures, formative assessments, or increasing the amount of academic language used by students. After identifying an area of instructional practice, then I help the teacher craft a goal that is time-bound and measurable--and that names student outcome as well as teacher practice--the instructional, curricular, management, and organizational practices that will lead to this outcome. What do we want to see students doing by the end of the year? Which teacher practices that will lead to this outcome?

For example:

Student Outcome Goal: by June of this school year, 100% of my students will correctly use X-set of academic vocabulary terms in their written work and in their verbal expression at least two times per week.

Teacher Practice Goal:
In order for students to meet this goal, I will ensure that all students know these terms, have regular opportunities to use them, and I will monitor usage to ensure that all of my students are proficient.

That’s the first step: What are we coaching towards? Then when you visit a classroom you’ll have very specific things to look for. Building on the example I just gave, I’d look for how the teacher is explicitly teaching vocabulary, how she checks students’ understanding of those terms, how she monitors and keeps track of every single student’s verbal and written usage of the terms, and so on.

Now that the “What” has been determined and identified (What are you looking for? What growth or change are you hoping to see?) then let’s consider the “how:"

  • How have you supported your teachers in making the changes they’ve aspired to make?
  • How did you assess their Zone of Proximal Development and their proximity to the growth they want to make?
  • And what kind of learning plan did you create with teachers?

If a teacher has determined that she wants to use a range of formative assessments in class, then where is she at in relation to this goal? Does she plan her lessons carefully? Does she have a bank of strategies to check students’ understanding? What are the precise skill and knowledge gaps that she’ll have to fill in order to accomplish this goal? Part of our work as a coach is to understand this scope and trajectory of learning for the teacher--what needs to be in place in order for her to effectively use formative assessment strategies?

Our knowledge about instruction helps us understand that the teacher needs to have chunked and paced the lesson in a way that she can accurately measure student’s learning as she progresses in bite sized bits. This is the work a coach does--we often need to sit down alone and write out the steps that a teacher needs to take in order to make change. We might need to do some reading, learning, and talking with other coaches. We must know what the path to success looks like--it’s our responsibility to articulate it and create a map.

Once we know where we’re going with our teacher-coachee, and what the path looks like to get there, then we start the journey. We coach. So what does this look like? What does a coach do along the way in order to help a teacher reach her goals? That’s the subject for another post! (And a book).

I have experienced what you describe, Stumped--not seeing growth in a teacher. There are many reasons why I think this can happen, and many things we can do--but before we get to those questions, we have to explore what we’re looking for in the way of growth, who has defined that growth, and how we’ve designed the journey to those ends.

Does this help? Let me know what my questions bring up for you. And remember that change can be slow, bumpy, and hard to see at first.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.