Notes from Our CEO

Why does teacher coaching matter? Part 2: The Classroom is Changing

In 2006, when I was a senior in high school, my Calculus classes were taught on a chalkboard. In 2010, when I was a Spanish teacher, I taught my classes on a SMARTboard.

In 2015, when I observe classrooms, many of the classrooms I walk into are divided into two sections: half the students taking part in smaller group instruction with the teacher; the other half guiding their own learning on laptops.

Due to generational, technological, and regulatory shifts, the classroom is changing faster now than it has in the past century. Each of these shifts present huge opportunities and challenges for teachers. My next post will begin a three-part series on how instructional coaching can help teachers adjust to these shifts in order to drive student achievement and maintain job satisfaction. Below is a preview of each post:

  • Generational Demographics: It takes a village to teach the (dreaded) millennials and post-millennials. (Full Disclosure: I’m a millennial.)
  • Technological: Teachers have a ton of student data at their fingertips. In what areas do teachers need coaching to be able to apply this data in the moment?
  • Regulatory: 16% of the country has not fully adopted Common Core Standards. How can coaches support teachers moving between districts with huge variability in content standards?

As always, we’d love to hear from you! How else is the classroom changing for you? Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education.

Why Does Teacher Coaching Matter? Part 1: The Learning Curve

My first job was in a corn field. (Yep, you read that right.) corn

My official title was “de-tassler,” and it took at least two weeks for me to become proficient at the task of walking through miles-long rows of corn, plucking the tassels from the top of an ear of corn, and throwing the tassel on the ground. Seriously, that was the entire job, but as a 14 year old with no previous hard labor experience, I struuuuuggled to meet company standards. My sub-par de-tasseling led to some annoyance on the part of my supervisor at having to wait for me as I lagged behind my colleagues, but not enough to warrant additional coaching or practice, which would have required him to put down his phone.

Fast-forward to September 2010, to my first interaction with an angry parent as an elementary Spanish teacher. She was rightfully upset that her children were not speaking any Spanish at home, even though they had been in my class for a month. As a brand new teacher, I was more focused on managing behavior in my classroom than I was on instruction. Teacher coaching could have helped me do both faster, which could have gotten my students speaking Spanish sooner and more fluently.

None of us are 100% proficient in our jobs on our first day. The learning curve for new teachers is just as high as the learning curve for other professions, but the need for a teacher to progress quickly toward proficiency is especially urgent when you consider the impact teachers have on student learning. Teacher coaching matters for exactly this reason.

In addition to helping teachers improve their instruction, teacher coaching can also be a powerful retention tool for school leaders. Regular, frequent interactions can help reduce feelings of isolation for new teachers, and drive proficient teachers toward new challenges to prevent feelings of plateau. Done well, teacher coaching can strengthen a school’s sense of community, and ground the faculty in the institution’s common goals.

We want to hear from you. Share the benefits you or your school have received from teacher coaching in the comments below. And, for those non-teachers, do you receive professional coaching? If so, how has it benefited your work?

Libby Fischer is CEO of Whetstone Education

What is Teacher Coaching?

I could have been a great teacher. I taught elementary Spanish for two years in rural Mississippi. In those two years, my principal set foot in my classroom exactly once: to make sure there was nothing blocking the fire exits before a building inspection.

I struggled through my first year, and most days I left school with a sinking feeling that my students hadn’t learned anything, and that I had no idea what to do about that. Feeling ineffective day in and day out with no feedback from my principal and no clear path for growth was the main driver of my decision to leave the classroom after two years.

My story is not unique, and thankfully the tide is changing. More and more, schools and districts are implementing teacher coaching systems in their schools, so let’s get down to it: what is teacher coaching?

WHAT IS TEACHER COACHING?

Teacher coaching is just what it sounds like: the process of observing the practice of a teacher and coaching him / her to better outcomes through feedback, reflection, goal-setting, and practice.

While the details vary from school to school, characteristics of effective teacher coaching systems include:

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  • Frequent classroom observation, typically conducted by an instructional leader or master teacher
  • Post-observation feedback conversation held within 48 hours
  • Identification of 1 targeted area for instructional growth and a related “action step” (or “key lever”) to help a teacher improve
  • Co-planning and practicing ways the teacher can implement the action step
  • Follow up observation to assess the effectiveness of action step implementation

WHO IS DOING IT WELL?

There are teacher coaching standouts in districts and charter schools alike.

Our partners, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep pioneered systems similar to the bullets above, and their models are now used by both traditional public and charter schools nationally.

Denver Public School’s LEAP program is innovating around how to keep talented teacher leaders in the classroom, allowing master teachers to divide their days into teaching blocks and coaching blocks, during which they observe and provide feedback to other teachers.

We want to hear from you! How does your school do teacher coaching? In your opinion, what organizations are doing teacher coaching well? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

How NOLA Shaped Whetstone

It seems hyperbolic to say that Whetstone’s DNA has as much New Orleans in it as, say, jazz, but it’s not not true. Whetstone is a New Orleans-based technology company that builds teacher coaching and evaluation software. If you’re reading this blogpost, you probably know a little about our work already, but if you want to know exactly what we do, click here. The purpose of this post is not to detail how we help schools support their teachers, but rather to discuss how this wonderful city we call home shaped our company.

New Orleans

Three factors have molded Whetstone into the company it is today:

  1. Hurricane Katrina
  2. NOLA’s unique school governance structure
  3. Crawfish, daiquiris, & jazz

Hurricane Katrina:

When we originally built Whetstone in 2011, it was designed strictly to manage once-a-year state teacher evaluations. However, our users’ demand for a software tool to manage high-frequency teacher coaching data drove us to quickly evolve our product to solve for two needs: annual evaluation and weekly coaching. Like many things that have happened here over the past 10 years, this demand ties back to Hurricane Katrina.

After the storm, organizations were set up in the city with the intention of “importing” into New Orleans the highest-leverage education ideas from around the rest of the country. (Before I say anything else, I must say that it cannot be overstated that good things were happening in NOLA schools pre-Katrina. Nevertheless, what happened after is important to Whetstone.) Post-Katrina, a flood of money was given to schools to implement these “imported” ideas, one of which was high-frequency teacher coaching. Many of Whetstone’s early adopters were principals and instructional coaches who joined instructional leadership fellowships at the New York-based Relay GSE and Columbia Principals Academy. After trainings and school visits in New York, the Bay Area, and Boston, these leaders returned to NOLA begging us to build features into Whetstone to support frequent teacher observation and feedback in their own schools. So, we built it for them. Now, our early adopters are the ones being shadowed by school leaders from Kansas City, Denver, and Washington, D.C., who are interested in implementing instructional development technology in their own schools. When it comes to data-driven teacher coaching, NOLA has become an exporter.

Royal Street

School Governance Structure:

I know that subtitle is a snoozer, but stick with me, I’m getting to Mardi Gras in the next paragraph. Over 90% of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools. Because of their autonomy, each charter school in the city created teacher coaching systems that differed from its neighbors. Some schools shared feedback with teachers quarterly, some weekly; in some schools, the principal was the primary teacher coach, while other schools utilized veteran teachers. Some schools used the state evaluation rubric to guide weekly feedback; other schools used completely qualitative coaching templates. Given this wide range of processes, we were forced to build Whetstone’s infrastructure to be flexible enough that it could be used by schools with seemingly opposite processes and philosophies. This flexibility allows us to work with all kinds of schools with all kinds of systems: traditional public, private, and charter schools alike.

Crawfish, Daiquiris, & Jazz:

Many outsiders fixate on Bourbon Street when they think of New Orleans as a party city, but anyone who’s been here more than a couple of days will tell you that parties in New Orleans come in all shapes and sizes, and all times of day or night. This truth has manifested itself in a few ways at Whetstone:

  • Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are official company holidays.
  • We celebrated our first six-figure sale with a $2.50 bottle of Thunderbird, because champagne isn’t sold in the neighborhood where we work. (Nobody seemed to mind.)
  • More than once, meetings have been delayed because “traffic was stopped for a parade.”
  • Our new office was selected because of its large outdoor space where our Chief Technology Officer can boil crawfish.
  • Rather than a traditional weekly happy hour, we have “La Croix-ppy Hour” on Thursday afternoons. Sipping sparkling water gives us our “bubbly” fix, and lets us celebrate our small wins and still be able to return to our workload with clear heads on Fridays.

Crawfish

For all the reasons named above, New Orleans has been integral to our success in taking Whetstone from a small slice of the Bayou to 150 schools across 12 states. But, real talk: starting and growing a company is HARD. I think I speak for our entire founding team when I say that if we didn’t have New Orleans to go home to when we leave the office each night, we probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We’re still trying to figure out the whole work / life balance thing, but the beauty and comfort of launching a business in a city that’s not defined by the rat race is that everyone around you genuinely wants you to have a good time. While it’s rare that we actually stop working at 5pm, what keeps us going is that when we do finally call it a day, we walk out the office door and straight into whatever party New Orleans is throwing itself that night.

So, here’s your official invitation -- come see us in NOLA. We’d be happy to show you around the city and, if there’s any time left over, we’ll even show you Whetstone.

Libby Fischer is the CEO of Whetstone Education.