How Teacher Coaching Can Transform Your School

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Too many schools districts today follow a compliance-based model of teacher feedback through evaluation: Administrators get into classrooms once or twice a year, score the lesson they see on the complete rubric, email or log the scores into a system, and move on to the next evaluation.

It’s unfortunately rare that teachers who are observed are given feedback that is targeted enough to act on. When new teachers are given a long list of things they need to improve, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and know where to start. And it’s easy for veteran teachers to view these interactions as mere “compliance,” -- something to be tolerated -- rather than a tool for growth.

It’s not hard to understand why this outdated process doesn’t lead to positive impacts on classroom outcomes. More and more, the message is becoming clear: teachers don’t need to be evaluated -- they need to be developed and coached. Let’s discuss how teacher coaching can transform your school.

Here at Whetstone, while we are process-agnostic, many of our most successful partners ascribe to the instructional coaching model laid out in two seminal books on the subject by author and educator Paul Brambrick, “Leveraging Leadership” and “Get Better Faster.

There are three main areas to this teacher coaching philosophy: going granular with teaching by breaking it down into discrete skills, coaching a teacher through effective practice, and making the most of observations by increasing the frequency of feedback.

Let’s take a look at each of these areas in depth.   

Going Granular

Just like the construction of a new school building, the building up of a new teacher requires a viewpoint that looks beyond the finished product of a polished, shiny, and effective educator and gets down into the nitty-gritty of what’s involved in actually learning to teach.

When a new school building is being built, we can’t simply look forward to the completed image of the building in our minds without going into granular detail on where each beam will be placed, or where each nail will go during the process.

The same is true for creating effective new teachers. Our approach requires looking at the process of new teacher learning at a granular level. We have to start with the beams.

As frustratingly slow as it might be at first, we believe that starting at the foundation is what gives a person (or a building) true lasting strength.

When coaching a new teacher, the key is to break any suggested changes or recommendations down into action steps. Action steps should be bite-sized and high-leverage. They should be bite-sized so the teacher can master the task in a week or two, and high-leverage, meaning it is the single most important thing the teacher can do to improve classroom outcomes during the intervening period.

Such granularity applies to teacher feedback, too. Instead of giving sweeping feedback that attempts to cover a broad range of areas in one or two yearly observation sessions, teacher coaches should instead provide specific feedback on the skills that teachers most need to work on at any given time, often in small chunks of one or two suggestions.

Plan, Practice, Follow Up, Repeat

The second step in our process involves adherence to the following mantra: plan, practice, follow up, repeat.

What this means in an educational context is simple: just like any other skill, practice makes perfect when it comes to learning to teach.  

Of course, as with anything else, the more effectively we practice, the better we perform. In “Practice Perfect”, Doug Lemov (Bambrick’s colleague at Uncommon Schools), details how this approach unlocks the transformative power of practice.  This is why it becomes necessary to first carefully plan before we practice. With teaching, this means that we must develop an effective teaching method or “script” before we bring it live into the classroom.

This planning also extends to our observations themselves. As educators, it is important that we plan accordingly by calendaring out our observations, debrief meetings, and weekly data meetings, all of which contribute to getting teachers teaching better, faster.

During the first step, the classroom observation, the principal is looking for a high-leverage action step that will have the biggest impact to improve the teacher’s performance in the next week.

Following that, we have a debrief meeting, where the principal and teacher meet and the principal leads a coaching conversation designed to help the teacher identify and understand the gap in their teaching, and set a high-leverage action step for growth.

Finally, at the end of each week of observation, we have the weekly data meeting, where the principal and teacher meet to look at student data to understand student mastery of objectives, and where necessary, figure out a reteach plan.

All of these steps are then repeated weekly or bi-weekly, with gradual but continual progress seen week-by-week.

Make Feedback More Frequent

We can all appreciate the role experienced doctors play in guiding residents toward accelerated development through frequent, direct feedback during their learning process with patients. As educators, why can’t we apply these same principles to teaching?

At Whetstone, we encourage the adoption of this model, believing that more feedback, more frequently will serve to accelerate the development of new teachers in a way that one-off yearly observation and feedback simply can’t match.

This isn’t just what we believe; the research backs this up. Studies by John Ross have shown that student achievement and teacher efficacy increase when the frequency of teacher coaching goes up.

Perhaps the most important part of making feedback more frequent involves something so commonly overlooked: the intellectual lives of the students.

When we increase feedback, we are able to intervene more quickly when we see something going wrong in the classroom. This not only helps the learning of the teacher, but it also helps the learning of the students.

By inserting frequent, effective feedback into teaching, in partnership with teachers, we are able to leave the instructor with valuable tools that they can implement long after we’ve left the room.

Summing It Up

By applying these key ideas into your observation programs, you can begin with these little steps, often starting with something as small as a sticky note, and slowly but surely begin to see lasting transformation in the ways your teachers teach and your students learn.

Have questions about the accelerated observation process? Contact Whetstone and get on the path to better teachers, faster today!