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 third-year teacher I am always on the hunt for new methods of teaching and managing my classes. I want to find high-yield strategies and practices that will help my students succeed. My coach (Diane Caldwell), my assistant principal (Maggie Norris), and, most of all, my professional-learning community have helped mold me into the teacher I am today.
The members of my PLC complement each other’s talents and deficits and have very open conversations. The PLC is a place where we all feel that we can speak honestly about our work. I can let my PLC know when an activity bombed or when I rocked it in class. I can bring ideas and modifications and get honest feedback from my peers. Maggie comes as often as she can, and our instructional coach, Diane, is always there. Through my work in this group, I have seen firsthand how an instructional coach can help teachers improve in ways that directly help their students. The practices I have learned in my work with Diane have helped my students leave my classroom with a greater understanding of what they do and do not yet know.
Diane helps us stay on track when we start on tangents and provides an outside perspective, bringing resources or practices from across the school that have been effective for other PLCs. She stirs our creativity with questions to help us recognize what it is that we want for our teaching practice or how, specifically, we need to modify tools for our needs. Members of my PLC frequently have brief meetings in the hallway, where we can exchange failures, successes, and modifications, so that by the end of the day we are already better than we were in the morning.
Another advantage instructional coaches can offer is that they work closely across the school hierarchy. Diane meets frequently with school administrators and often knows what is coming down the pike. With her input, when we are planning out-of-class interventions, we know which days are reserved for other events that may not have been announced to teachers yet.
Because I see Diane frequently, I know she sees my heart and that I care about my students. If she comes to watch me teach a lesson and I fall on my face, I know that she knows I’m not lazy, not bad at my job, not a complete failure, but that things just didn’t go the way I planned. She can tell me that a lesson went terribly without making me feel that this one class will be etched into my permanent record.
I can focus on making things better for the next class period or the next year, with a trusty guide by my side.
Since she began coaching last year, Diane has emphasized to the teachers she works with that she is not evaluating us at all and that her goal is in line with ours: to make us better educators. It took us all a while to let her see our weaknesses, but since we began collaborating with her as our coach, my PLC members have improved as teachers by leaps and bounds.
She can tell me that a lesson went terribly without making me feel that this one class will be etched into my permanent record."
Diane brings cross-content ideas to us from other PLCs around the building. Some of these ideas I hadn’t considered or possibly wouldn’t have considered, but because she has implemented these classroom practices with other PLCs within the building, it is easier to trust and believe they will have the desired effect. Several techniques from the math department have proven useful to my work, including introducing peer evaluation, using a common grading rubric, or considering other options for grading formative assessments in Advanced Placement classes.
For example, under Diane’s guidance, my PLC has begun standardizing our grading practices for common assessments. Prior to this year, we exchanged ideas to plan the tasks and formative assessments we would use throughout a unit, but spent much less time discussing how we would grade them.
This year, we realized that each of us was grading the same free-response questions a little differently; emphasizing the importance of certain phrases or vocabulary or expecting a specific written format. Diane showed us the five-point rubric used on all free-response questions in Algebra I. She helped us think through the possible expectations that we can associate with each number. With this instructional support, our PLC was able to hammer out a standardized grading rubric for a unit’s free-response question in just 15 minutes. We also saved this approach to our online calendar, so we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel next year.
Diane has made us aware of a better practice, guided us through how to personalize it, and then had us discuss how this changed our students’ outcomes. She knows and has impressed upon us the importance of reflecting on new practices and recording them. We can now reference these pros, cons, and modifications in the future. Diane has made us better educators, because she holds us accountable, listens to our ideas, and brings in effective practices that we have not tried before.
Working with an instructional coach has made me a better teacher. She knows my strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and is committed to helping me learn, so that I can be better tomorrow than I was today.
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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 A Young Teacher Embraces Honest Feedback