Professional Development

With Bug-in-Ear Coaching, Teachers Get Feedback on the Fly

By Madeline Will — February 26, 2019 6 min read
Coaches and teachers Jacqueline Willis (left), and Kristi Blackburn observe Angela Ledford, a teacher at Clyde Elementary School, teach her 3rd grade reading class in Clyde, N.C. Coaches speak to Ledford through a bluetooth ear device, while a camera allows them to see what’s happening in class.
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Michael Young was working one-on-one with a student when he heard a voice: “Maybe pause a little bit longer and wait for the student to respond.”

It wasn’t his internal monologue reminding him of something he learned in training. The voice belonged to an instructional coach 50 miles away, who was watching what Young was doing in the classroom through a livestream and communicating via an earpiece.

“It was really nice to feel supported and get direct feedback in the moment, because as much as you can do that through somebody being there and watching you, they always do it afterwards or by interrupting [the lesson],” said Young, who teaches special education at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash. “It was helpful information that changed the way I taught.”

The practice is called bug-in-ear coaching, and it has been around for decades in different sectors in some capacity. But in recent years, more and more educators are beginning to try it out.

The premise is simple: A teacher wears an earpiece during a lesson, which is being livestreamed for an instructional coach who is somewhere else. Throughout the lesson, the coach delivers in-the-moment feedback to the teacher, who can add something or switch gears based on what she’s hearing in her ear. Typically, the coach and the teacher will meet to debrief after the lesson.

Experts compare the coaching style to football, where coaches are communicating with the quarterback via a radio headpiece during the game.

“It just makes sense,” said Mary Catherine Scheeler, who spearheaded this line of research in education starting in 2002 and is an associate professor of special education at Penn State’s College of Education. “It’s more efficient because we’re correcting behaviors on the spot. I like to say practice makes permanent. If people are practicing things incorrectly, they become part of the repertoire.”

And a growing body of research shows it works. When educators are coached with this technology, they use evidence-based practices in their instruction more frequently. Research also shows that most teachers tend to keep up the improvements in their teaching behavior after the bug-in-ear coaching sessions have ended.

Ledford teaches her 5th grade math class with the help of coaches from another classroom.

Yet experts say there’s skepticism from some in the education community, who worry that real-time feedback while teachers are delivering instruction will be overwhelming.

“It’s hard to believe that you won’t be distracted by somebody talking in your head,” said Martha Elford, a faculty member in the department of special education at the University of Kansas. “I think [that] fear ... is one of the reasons that more people aren’t doing it.”

A Growing Practice

Virtual teacher-coaching services have become more popular in recent years—teachers record their lessons, and remote coaches review the videos and offer feedback. This approach has been especially popular in rural schools, or in districts that can’t afford to staff their own coaches.

But bug-in-ear coaching takes the approach one step further, happening in the moment. It’s a harder sell to both coaches and teachers, experts say, since it requires a level of vulnerability among both parties.

There are about a dozen states where bug-in-ear coaching is taking place, either at the preservice or in-service levels (or both), said Marcia Rock, one of the preeminent researchers in the field and an associate professor in the school of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

For about six years, Rock has been working with the North Carolina education department to scale up the bug-in-ear coaching across her state. This work is funded through a federal grant for improving instruction for students with disabilities.

Across North Carolina, the bug-in-ear coaching is used “as part of a full continuum of coaching” in evidence-based courses for students who struggle with reading and math, said Paula Crawford, the section chief of program improvement and professional development at the exceptional children division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

“The teachers acclimate very quickly to the bug-in-ear technology,” she said. “I’ve observed how within five to 10 minutes, teachers have been able to take the feedback and immediately change their practice within the classroom.”

Brooke Yarborough, a teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Canton, N.C., wears an earpiece while teaching a 2nd grade reading lesson to student Zachary Fergurson.

In fact, many experts say bug-in-ear coaching can reinforce teacher behaviors like asking meaningful questions and increasing student talk time. And research has shown that most teachers who receive coaching through an earpiece don’t find it distracting.

But it has taken time to build the capacity for this level of coaching, said Crawford, who is also the project director for the federal grant.

North Carolina’s department staff has trained more than 24 regional coaches in this practice. Under the direction of state staff members, those coaches are now training district coaches. The goal is to have multiple coaches at the district level trained to conduct bug-in-ear coaching with teachers, she said.

The next step, Crawford said, is to use walk-through tools to observe the teaching behaviors targeted by the bug-in-ear coaching, and focus on the impact of these behaviors on student performance.

The current five-year grant cycle ends in 2021, Crawford said, but some districts have already purchased their own bug-in-ear coaching technology, so they can continue this work outside of the grant. One earpiece costs about $25, she said, but if the district wants to use a Swivl video camera that tracks the teacher as she moves across the camera, it can cost up to $800.

‘Encouragement to Keep Going’

As educators see the benefits of the coaching method, experts predict that it will continue to spread. That has been the case at the University of Washington’s college of education, where researchers have done a series of studies with bug-in-ear coaching.

They have found that when paraprofessionals and other educators were coached through an earpiece, they significantly increased the number of opportunities they created for children with disabilities to communicate. Students used more language and advocated for themselves more often.

Educators said the voice in the earpiece gave them “encouragement to keep going, even if [the teaching technique] feels like it’s not working,” said Kathleen Artman Meeker, the director of research at the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington. “You have somebody there with you, shoulder to shoulder, helping you think through it without disrupting the flow of the day.”

In fact, the pilot studies were so successful that the college of education’s Applied Behavior Analysis program, which prepares students to work with adults and children with disabilities, is now integrating bug-in-ear coaching into its practicum. Last year, four master’s students participated in the coaching. Nancy Rosenberg, the director of the program, said she sees the potential for the use of this coaching in other departments as well.

But there are challenges to growing the program, Rosenberg said. The equipment needed can be costly, and recruiting participants has the potential to be tough, too.

“There’s a completely understandable unease on both ends,” she said. “To help someone in the moment when [the coach is] not there [is nervewracking], and [the coachee might ask], ‘What is it going to be like to receive feedback and have someone talking in my ear when I’m also trying to focus on what I’m doing in the moment?’ ”

Still, she said, the immediate feedback the students receive when they try out a strategy in the classroom is important.

“It’s really hard to do after the fact, to watch a video and say, ‘Oh, you could have done this [here],’ or, ‘You could have responded more quickly,’ ” Rosenberg said.

For Arianna Kruchowski, a certified behavior technician at the Academy for Precision Learning in Seattle, the bug-in-ear coaching allowed her to make simple, immediate changes to her practice.

“It was really convenient to have a direct supervisor watching my entire process. ... I thought it was really beneficial to my student,” said Kruchowski, who participated in the coaching as part of a University of Washington study. “Having a second eye on it, to observe the whole session—it was great.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Bug-in-Ear Tech Helps Teachers


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