Why Teacher-Driven Coaching Looks Different for Every Learner
Recently, my school district—like many across the country—has begun to explore ways to increase students’ technology use in thoughtful ways, especially at the middle and high school level. Taking the idea from theory to practice is something that takes a lot of work, and classroom teachers can sometimes benefit from extra support to make this successful transition.
James, a secondary teacher in his third year, was one of many teachers considering what this might look like for the students in his classroom.
At first, James found thoughtful tech integration a particular challenge, given the high demands that teaching already made on his time. Initially, he shared that he felt energized by new ideas, but they quickly became overwhelming. Early on, he tried to introduce more technology, but the sight of so many of his students clicking through their school day wasn’t the instruction he had initially envisioned. So he reached out to me, his digital learning coach, to give him a better idea of how implementation might happen in a more intentional and sustainable way.
Because our work as educators is so complex and fast-paced, it is difficult to find the time to slow down. We need the opportunity to reflect on our practice and to learn from one another’s strengths in pedagogical practice. Supporting this work is the job of an instructional coach. This model requires buy-in and commitment from the teacher. It is a powerful practice for interested teachers who are looking for a thought partner to develop ideas with and grow their instructional expertise. A good coach doesn’t just help a teacher with lesson planning, but supports iterative cycles of learning to constantly reflect on and improve practice.
The first step in this process is to meet. It is important to establish trust and engage in goal-setting to frame the work going forward. After all, each teacher needs something different out of the process, so I typically start with a handful of basic questions to lay a groundwork for the future. What do you want your classroom to look like? What are you goals for your students? Since coaching should be facilitative and, above-all, teacher-driven, teachers must decide how best to use their time with me. That might involve observing a fellow teacher down the hall, visiting a nearby school, asking to be observed, engaging in a learning activity together like a book study or collaborating on a lesson plan. Afterward, there’s always an opportunity to debrief, process and set up a plan of action.
I try and instill a sense in each teacher that making mistakes and failing forward is part of the process, so long as they’re learning and growing.
Some of the early conversations James and I had were about Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model, which aims to move technology from substituting analog tasks with digital ones to using it to produce new and previously unimaginable tasks. James identified that a lot of his implementation was substitutive. Instead of reading from the textbook, students were reading from the online textbook. Instead of completing paper worksheets, students were completing digital ones. Not only did he feel that this wasn’t the most powerful way to leverage technology, but he started to consider his purpose for the worksheets to begin with.
Together, we spent time strategizing when to set aside the technology versus when to use it as a resource to truly enhance student learning. James looked ahead at his curriculum to where he could use tools to maximize student collaboration and highlight student voice—two of his major objectives. When we circled back in mid-winter, James had implemented some online collaborative tools with his students, such as Padlet and Google Classroom, to help students communicate digitally and work together on projects. This amplified the learning by giving equal weight to all voices in the room. In doing this, he also provided them with an authentic audience of their peers. Students were learning from one another, and not just from him.
For Kara, another third-year teacher considering technology implementation, coaching took the form of a peer observation. She sought a classroom culture that more strongly empowered her students to drive their own learning. So we arranged to observe a fellow teacher who effectively balances high expectations with positive student feedback, a practice that builds relationships with students while continuing to challenge them. We observed together so we could calibrate and debrief on what we saw. Kara then decided to “try on” new positive feedback practices, as well as some student engagement techniques, such as providing students with opportunities to relate topics of learning to their own lives.
Manuel, a veteran teacher, came to me for something different. In his case, he wanted to use technology to differentiate more for his students, and to offer students more personal choice in how they demonstrated their learning. So, following a staff session I led on this topic, we followed-up one-on-one to investigate further and brainstorm what might work in his classroom. He designed learning activities with clear expectations and learning outcomes but provided students with a choice in how they demonstrated their understanding, by offering a variety of creative options from comics to video creation.
As a coach, checking-in with teachers along the way is especially important, and feedback loops help provide ongoing support. I try and instill a sense in each teacher that making mistakes and failing forward is part of the process, so long as they’re learning and growing. This personalization also means that the time commitment can vary dramatically between teachers. Some benefit from working with me individually for a few hours on a very specific goal, while others seek to invest in regular collaboration, resulting in twenty-plus hours of work over the course of a school year. It is sometimes important for a coach to step away for a month to give space for a teacher to “try on” something new, checking-in only when the teacher is ready.
In my experience, coaching must be rooted in strong pedagogical practice. It’s not about supporting an increase in technology or pushing certain tech tools, but about considering the classroom culture and instructional models that best support it. For many teachers in my district, coaching is a time to experiment with different ways of shifting their classroom culture to empower and engage students in ways they hadn’t yet considered—much like moving a lesson up the ranks of the SAMR model.
Whether it’s working with new or veteran teachers, much of coaching is listening, meeting teachers where they are and, yes, more listening. At best, this work challenges teachers to engage in conversations about student expectations, routines and procedures, and relationships with students that are built on trust. For that work to be successful, any coaching must occur without judgment or advocacy, and must build upon need, as well as interest, resulting in a learning that is as personalized for teachers as it is for students.
Author: Annie Tremonte
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