Commentary

A School-Improvement Guidebook: Ask for Help

How a new instructional coach found her footing
Instructional coaches Sarah Menn (left) and Diane Caldwell (right) consult with one another in Menn's office.
—Brandon Thibodeaux for Education Week

How a new instructional coach found her footing

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Editor's note: In this special Commentary project, a team of educators from Byron Nelson High School in Texas—a principal, an assistant principal, two instructional coaches, and one teacher—offer their perspectives on the difficulties and benefits of implementing the continuous-improvement model. Read all of the essays in the series.

When my principal, Ron Myers, first asked my colleague Diane Caldwell and me to consider taking on the roles of instructional coaches for our campus, the concept was a new one to me. Though I had heard about instructional coaching at various education conferences, I was an Advanced Placement language and composition teacher and had no personal coaching experience.

Ron had seen firsthand the positive effect coaches had on student success through working with other coaches in a previous district, and he wanted to replicate that process. The idea of working side by side with teachers to improve their instruction was appealing. Diane and I agreed to take on the new challenge (though I remained in a dual teaching-coaching role until the end of this school year).

She and I prepared to hit the ground running at the beginning of the school year, but it did not take long for the cold rush of reality to check our idealistic goals. What we found in those first weeks was that teachers did not understand what instructional coaching was, and we had only a superficial understanding of how to coach and what it could accomplish.

We expressed our concern to Ron, who agreed to send us to training with coaching expert Jim Knight at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. This training was critical in sharpening our understanding of coaching with an instructional focus. Jim said that we "must embrace our current reality" if we are to improve. It is not enough to simply make a goal; we must acknowledge where we are first.

Diane Caldwell's notebook rests on her desk.
Diane Caldwell's notebook rests on her desk.
—Brandon Thibodeaux for Education Week

Diane and I returned to campus with a new perspective, ready to assess our school's strengths and challenges. We began using the Instructional Coaching Impact Cycle, a tool Jim provided to guide our conversations with teachers. We helped them 1) Identify student-focused goals; 2) Learn new teaching strategies through modeling; and 3) Improve through implementation, data collection, and reflection about progress.

As a result, the dialogue we had with teachers started to change. A handful of teachers began to step out of their comfort zone and take risks with instructional methods they had not tried before, using us for support. In mid-February of our first year, we began to see small returns from our adjustments—baby steps, but progress nonetheless.

As our first year of coaching came to an end, Diane and I used Ron as a sounding board to consider our goals for the next school year. At that point in our coaching, we had worked with a handful of individual teachers, with most of whom we already had pre-existing strong relationships. But how could we reach more teachers outside the departments in which we had taught? We realized we needed to address professional learning communities first and individual teachers second.

"Test scores and student engagement improved, and students had fewer missing assignments."

So, the following fall, we returned with a goal to reinforce, support, and empower teachers in their PLCs to make decisions and implement instruction that would challenge students and promote continuous improvement in learning. We based this on a strong campus belief in the power of collective efficacy—a term researcher John Hattie defines as group trust in teachers' ability to positively affect students.

Through questioning current instruction with the English/language arts and social studies PLCs, my conversations with teachers became less about teaching and more about learning, less about quantitative data and more about qualitative data, and less "what was missed" and more "how do we fix it."

What did this look like in practice? In the social studies PLC I was coaching, teachers wanted to increase the number of students scoring at the recommended level on the state test. We scheduled a "design day" to evaluate our current curricula, as well as instructional strategies from a site visit to a nearby school that was outperforming us, and materials we gathered through research. Our teachers decided that, rather than have students take notes, they would use class time to have students work with the notes' content in a more rigorous way and design relevant assessments.

As I helped teachers in rolling out this new curricula, we all met regularly to evaluate its effectiveness, work out challenges, and refine along the way. Test scores and student engagement improved, and students had fewer missing assignments.

The PLC also shared their professional learning with the staff, inspiring other PLCs to consider curricular changes that would be impactful for their own content.

Empowering teachers to make instructional decisions that improve student learning is at the heart of an instructional coach's work. To do this effectively requires working with each PLC and working behind the scenes. Diane and I collaborate regularly on instructional patterns that we see emerging in PLC meetings and bring these to the administrative team, making sure to uphold individual confidentiality. By doing so, we hope to promote campus goals and initiatives that support continuous improvement by all stakeholders.

Vol. 37, Issue 35, Page 20

Published in Print: June 13, 2018, as A New Coach Finds Her Footing
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