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.
As a former math teacher, I had personally experienced many of the barriers teachers overcome to provide adequate instruction for students. So, when my principal, Ron Myers, asked me to serve as a full-time campus instructional coach, I decided to leave my own classroom for the good of everyone else’s. Now, I partner with Ron, an assistant principal (Maggie Norris), and another instructional coach (Sarah Menn) to streamline effective teaching and learning. In various groups, we support each other’s individual work and strive toward a common goal: the academic growth of our students.
How exactly do we make this happen? For starters, Ron meets weekly with Sarah and me to share an overall vision for the campuswide work we are doing. Our frequent check-ins have helped us develop strong, trusting relationships with each other. Our collaboration also focuses our goals of supporting teachers in their practice and identifying professional-development needs across our staff.
My daily work involves coaching dozens of professional learning communities across various subjects. When I first began coaching, helping teachers understand the benefits an instructional coach could bring to their classroom was a struggle. In order to show them firsthand, I set up walk-throughs so that every PLC member could observe each other’s classrooms. Then we discussed what they observed and how it compared with their own classrooms before setting individual goals and creating action plans to meet them. To give teachers complete ownership over the plan, I listened to what they would like to practice and promised I would provide feedback and support throughout the process.
For example, I collaborate with Maggie to coach our school’s science department—including biology, chemistry, and physics teachers who attend their individual science PLCs. These teachers meet at least weekly to discuss content planning, instructional strategies, and testing data. The meetings are meant to provide continuity and alignment of instruction for students as they move between teachers, and I try to sit in on as many as I can.
Though Maggie is an administrator, I see her as a co-instructional leader for our science PLCs. Our brief meetings, both ad hoc and scheduled, may be in one of our offices, informally in the hallway, or over the phone. Maggie and I also agree to share team discussions about data and instructional strategies, but I keep specific coaching requests from teachers confidential from the group and from Ron to protect their privacy. This continues to build up teachers’ trust.
Even when we successfully solve one problem, the work is ever-changing and ongoing."
The science PLCs are much more familiar with coaching now, but I’m still learning new tactics to improve my work every day. Asking the right questions to prompt discussions within the group is all about timing.
In the fall of 2015, our first year of coaching, Maggie emailed teachers prior to one PLC meeting to ask, “How will students be sorted and targeted during tutorials?” The PLC and I had a discussion that was more compliant than meaningful. Later in the year, when the PLC was discussing how to handle failing students, I asked the same question, which prompted enthusiastic discussion about how the team uses test data to reach students who need extra assistance. We finished the meeting with a plan to divide students by learning objectives that they needed to work on and work individually with specific groups. Follow-up data showed success for students. Even when we successfully solve one problem, the work is ever-changing and ongoing.
As I listen and take notes at meeting discussions, I discover more about the teachers’ instructional needs and identify possible next steps to meet them. I make clear that I support critical thinking and risk-taking, which prompts the team to think and discuss at deeper levels. Once, biology teachers were struggling to find time to create classroom content charts and vocabulary posters that would clearly communicate learning expectations. With input from the PLC meeting, I crafted horizontally aligned charts and posters for all biology teachers, which streamlined the content objectives we want students to know.
Most importantly, I’ve learned coaching techniques that ensure that every member can express his or her opinion in our group discussions. I ask quieter or newer teachers what they think about topics we discuss to make sure all voices are heard.
Since Sarah and I also attend PLCs in different content areas, we share best practices with one another and pass them on to our groups. This helps the professional growth of teachers and PLCs across our campus.
The conversations I have with Ron, Maggie, Sarah, the PLCs, and individual teachers move me to a better understanding of where we are now. Above all, the trust we have allows us to be honest about the places we have to go.
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Coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2018 edition of Education Week as An Instructional Coach Builds Trust