When Our Teachers Learn, Our Students Learn: Creating a Culture of Coaching and Collaboration
In life when we want to improve, we seek the support of a coach. Whether that is in the sports arena, the health realm, or a personal interest area, a coach can help us achieve our goals. Dweck (2008) notes that the main mission for parents, teachers, and coaches is to develop the potential of others. Though, when it comes to education, the thought of coaching signifies a deficit, a negative connotation, sometimes even an embarrassment. Yet, we know coaching works with athletes and educators. So, how can we create a culture of coaching in our schools that is truly supportive and seen as a means of showing care and compassion?
In the Meriden Public Schools, we believe that when our teachers learn, our students learn. All educators want to see their students succeed. By recognizing that personalized learning will have a positive impact on increasing students’ learning, our teachers helped design a professional learning model with coaching as an integral tenant.
Coaching models come in all different shapes and sizes. The district has grade level instructional coaches, student-centered learning coaches, technology integration coaches and is now planning for culturally responsive classroom coaches. Regardless of the focus, successful coaching strategies are universal and benefit all learners. We have found that our teachers welcome the support of a colleague who is non-evaluative, understands students, can adapt to the learning environment, and is knowledgeable about curriculum expectations.
The key to successful coaching is having a coach with high emotional intelligence. These individuals focus on the positive, have empathy, and are not perfectionists. They learn from their mistakes, are self-motivated, and set boundaries to avoid burnout. Coaches must be recognized for their area of expertise but also for their ability to establish confidential, trusting relationships.
We started by defining the essential ingredients of successful coaching relationships. Clear accountability expectations as to what will be implemented and how it will be measured were established. Coaches create trusting relationships by being good listeners, being non-judgemental and helping teachers transform their practice. The best coaches are authentic and genuine. Coaches are lifelong learners who continually develop their expertise and are always willing to share best teaching strategies. Embedded professional learning provides teachers with the necessary help required to meet the challenges of transitioning to more effective instruction and engaging all students in learning. Coaches show respect, provide timely, specific feedback, and monitor instruction to enhance student learning. An awareness of collection, analysis, and use of data allow coaches to develop high-level entry points for discussion of effective teaching.
Coaching is about maximizing people’s potential and ensuring continuous growth. We are pleased that the staff is truly buying into the coaching strategy. It should come as no surprise as most teachers welcome additional instructional support. Our best teachers are continuous learners who want to improve their skill set. “Highly successful people are more concerned with their own growth than with their comfort” (Sanborn, 2017, p. 54).
Instructional coaches are assigned to work with individuals or teams of teachers based on student performance data. Coaches work to promote best instructional practices by guiding teachers in the planning process, modeling lessons, and providing targeted feedback. Coaches work in their content area and grade level and ensure they are familiar with the curriculum, as well as the students, staff, climate, and culture of the building. Our coaches’ sole responsibility is to coach, thus providing them with greater flexibility to meet the diverse needs of the teacher and provide the anytime support that classrooms need. We collaborated with our teachers’ union, the Meriden Federation of Teachers, to ensure that coaches were supported and valued. Our strong labor/management collaboration was featured in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) American Educator magazine, “Moving Meriden: A Roadmap for Union-District Relations.” Empowering coaches as leaders helped achieve our vision and strengthen teaching and learning across our district.
By videotaping lessons and then reviewing focus areas with the coach, teachers see firsthand areas of success, challenges, and opportunities—both attained and missed. Videos are used to provide examples of specific strategies in practice, as well as document the role of the student in the learning or show evidence of what the student has truly mastered. Working with teachers on how to gather and analyze data from online programs allows the teacher to maximize instructional time and target areas that are in need of improvement. Learning then continues to be personalized so that we can remediate or enrich instruction. Our teachers increasingly seek support from our technology integration coaches. Coaches ensure technology initiatives translate into enhanced classroom experiences for students. Teachers who exemplify the use of technology in their classrooms are recognized as I’m Charged! educators, providing model classrooms for colleagues and encouraging innovative use of technology tools to facilitate and expand learning activities.
Essential to embedded coaching is prioritizing coach and teacher meeting time. This collaborative relationship must respect the confidentiality of the teacher and clarify the roles and responsibilities of both the teacher and the coach. Successful coaches model best practices and gradually release responsibility to the classroom teacher. Coaches are not evaluators. They are peers that support, encourage, and share new instructional strategies. “Coaching is a partnership. It is a collaboration between equals” (Toll, 2018, p. 6).
Building administrators are instrumental in creating a positive coaching environment in their school by fostering a growth mindset and making decisions that elevate coaching. The coach must coach! Coaches should not be pulled to help with discipline, substitute for absent teachers, write reports, or prepare standardized testing operations. Principals should encourage all staff members to reach out to a coach and to help them enhance their teaching. Instructional coaching will only be successful if it is a choice. No one wants to be forced to do anything. We have found teachers are eager to have a coach and regularly set times to meet with them. Teachers, when having professional conversations with their administrators, frequently mention the significant impact that coaching has had on their teaching.
For school leaders, mentors, and teacher facilitators to incorporate coaching strategies in their work, coaches must understand district, school, and individual learning goals, and motivate and inspire others. Coaches are aware of all different types of learners and share information in multiple ways—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Sinek (2009) encouraged us to define the “why” before working together to formulate the “how”. Coaches ask probing questions, solicit feedback and input from teachers, and encourage self-reflection—rather than just providing answers. When feedback is provided, it is shared privately, and open-ended questions are included in all conversations. We are transparent about our objectives, we include all stakeholders, and we make sure that everyone has a voice in strategies implemented.
Coaches shared that it is essential for them to be present in teachers’ classrooms, interacting with students, viewing classroom routines, monitoring curriculum implementation, and supporting effective instruction. By being approachable for any and all requests, coaches develop trust and are viewed as a highly effective support. Coaches help with instructional pacing, analyzing district assessments, ensuring student growth, and tracking data for trends. All their efforts are designed to implement targeted instruction and tiered intervention.
Reason for Optimism
Building administrators have become stronger instructional leaders. The coaches, supervisor, and building administrators meet weekly to collect, review, and analyze individual student and whole class data. This involvement has helped school leaders better understand the curriculum and increased their awareness of implementation challenges. Professional learning opportunities are now personalized to meet the needs of the teachers. Additionally, teachers have an on-site expert who is readily available. This model provides the supportive accountability system that ensures effective curriculum implementation. With trusting relationships in place, classroom walkthroughs are welcomed and seen as a key lever in student success.
Again, we know that when our teachers learn, our students learn. Districts are encouraged to support their teachers by embracing a coaching model. Our experiences, both positive and negative, have led to the following 10 steps to creating a positive culture of coaching and collaboration.
Meriden Public Schools’ 10 Steps to Creating a Culture of Coaching
- Create a culture of collaboration
- Value a growth mindset
- Identify coaches’ supervisors
- Hire for emotional intelligence
- Clarify coaching responsibilities
- Establish universal agreement on how success will be determined
- Break down barriers of teacher isolation
- Ensure coaching is consistent
- Coaches coach; evaluators evaluate
- Learning is a continual process for all
Education provides the best opportunity for students to be successful, enjoy a productive life, and develop a passion for lifelong learning. What better way to do this than for students to see a coaching model in their classroom. As an urban district, we recognize the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty and leveling the playing field for all students. We cannot operate in silos of excellence but must collaborate and share best practices to overcome challenges in providing equitable access for all students. Embrace the challenge, foster collaboration at all levels, and make sure all stakeholders view coaching as an integral part of the learning process!
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Fulfill Our Potential. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Sanborn, M. ( 2017) The Potential Principle. Nashville, TN: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Toll, C. (2018). Educational Coaching A Partnership for Problem Solving. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Mark D. Benigni, Ed. D., superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools, was recognized as the CoSN 2019 Empowered Superintendent and as a 2015 Education Week Leader to Learn From. He is the author of Mentoring Matters: A Toolkit for Organizing and Operating Student Advisory Programs (Roman & Littlefield Education, 2011) and numerous journal articles. Follow him on Twitter @mpsbenigni
Barbara A. Haeffner is director of curriculum and instructional technology for the Meriden Public Schools. She is an advisory member of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation Committee and CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee. Her collaborative work has led to the district’s recognition by Edutopia Schools that Work and by Google as a Reference District. Follow her on Twitter @bhaeffner
Susan T. Perrone is supervisor of curriculum and accountability for the Meriden Public Schools. She is a former teacher, reading coach, and building leader. Follow her on Twitter @SusanPerrone