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Instructional Coaching

Creating a Support Program for Excellence in Teaching

Fall 2013


Great teaching and passionate teachers are the heart and soul of St. Anne's-Belfield School (Virginia). Guided by the goals found in our new strategic plan, Head of School David Lourie decided in 2011 to restructure the academic leadership of the school. This new configuration includes an assistant head for instruction (AHI) in each division to support instruction and inform pedagogy in our classrooms. Lourie shared his vision for the role of the AHI with the three of us — Lisa Cetroni (lower school), April Waylett (middle school), and Beth Miller (upper school) — and asked us to assume these new positions. The AHIs serve as resources for teachers and ensure that the content and skills teachers deliver daily align with the stated curriculum.

We were eager to support the teachers, but realized we needed a new model for our task — improving instruction through coaching. To that end, Lourie and the three of us attended the Kansas University Instructional Coaching Institute in the summer of 2011. In the words of our instructor, Jim Knight, "When people talk about learning, the experience should be exciting, energizing, and empowering. After talking together, both instructional coaches and teachers should feel more competent and committed to making a difference in children's lives."

The time we spent together at the conference allowed us to develop an action plan for the work we would be doing with our teachers. We believe teachers and AHIs are equal partners with the same goal — to provide the optimal learning experience for all students. Teachers need to identify their own professional growth goals, while coaches actively listen and offer strategies for the teachers to achieve these goals.

Another aspect of our job as AHIs is to be well informed about current technology and how it can enhance pedagogy. To encourage and support the use of technology in the classroom, the school established a technology resource program that includes an iPad for each faculty member and access to classroom sets of iPads. Similar to the AHI program, each division has a technology resource coordinator (TRC). The TRCs work closely with the AHIs to ensure teachers have the necessary tools, training, and support to enhance their curriculum with the most appropriate technology.

In June 2012, the three of us traveled with the TRCs to the International Society for Technology in Education Conference in Philadelphia to discover how educators from around the world are using innovative technologies in the classroom. We were impressed, but at the same time overwhelmed by the vast amount of technology we were exposed to in three days; it underscored how fortunate we feel to be working in tandem with the TRCs, as well as the important role these individuals play in enhancing the use of technology in our classrooms.

As the AHIs, we are also responsible for developing and overseeing the New Teacher Program, which brings together the school's cohort of new teachers for formal and informal gatherings. The success of this program relies heavily on the support of experienced teachers who serve as role models to our new faculty. Some offer to share their reflective practice with the new faculty while others offer to be official mentors. Many veteran teachers also volunteer to be observed as part of the new teachers' requirement to visit two master teacher classes during the first trimester. Because the success and well-being of students are intimately tied to that of their teachers, helping new faculty foster constructive and supportive relationships within the school community is crucial.

In our new role, it quickly became clear to us that we would be learning and growing professionally as much as the teachers. In 2012, a seventh-grade science teacher invited April to observe his first attempt at incorporating a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lesson into his curriculum. He grouped students according to their instrument of choice: woodwind, string, percussion, or electric. He assigned students the task of researching, designing, building, and testing their musical instruments. The TRC joined the teacher's classes to demonstrate how to use URLs and choose the most informative and unbiased sites for research. In addition, students were introduced to the n-Track Tuner app, which turned the iPad into a data-gathering device for two experiments. This app allowed students to gather data on pitch for tuning and on decibel range for resonance. April was so impressed with the student engagement in this integrated project that she decided to create a STEM project that required students to design, build, and test bridges made from spaghetti. Projects such as these are shared at faculty meetings, in hopes of inspiring other teachers to incorporate project-based learning in their classes.

This is just one example of the collaboration made possible with our new academic model.

Lower School

Teachers' Responses to Instructional Coaching

Lisa, through the professional development program, has encouraged me to pursue my fascination with studying the mind, imagination, metacognition, and learning. I'll be heading to Boston to participate in a conference entitled "Learning and the Brain." We'll hear talks from Howard Gardner of Harvard's Project Zero among others who have done research on the mind and learning. I will prepare a presentation when I return to share with our faculty.

Lisa has also facilitated our Critical Friends Groups, who are cross-departmental faculty members. We have a chance to share perspectives and reflect on issues common to all members. This is a stimulating group of members who encourage and assist each other. We are glad to have this opportunity to share. Lisa has enabled these efforts and programs to flourish. I appreciate her guidance and wisdom as she channels our educational interests and facilitates our growth.

— John Russell

Lisa has been a firm supporter of my efforts to differentiate my math instruction in my classroom. She then went so far as to organize three days where teachers could visit my classroom and observe a differentiated math lesson in action. I have had at least four teachers observe me over the last few weeks. Each teacher was provided coverage for his/her own classroom while visiting.

Both Lisa and I were pleased to find that following an observation, most teachers were ready to go back and try to incorporate in their own classrooms some of the strategies they observed. This collaboration has strengthened our bond as a professional community.

— Beth Curran



Critical Friends Groups

Whether new to the profession or a veteran, each teacher at St. Anne's-Belfield is part of a professional learning community. We are joined not only by our love of teaching, but by our love of learning. In light of the revised structure of academic leadership, we recognized a need to build upon and enhance the collegial relationships already in existence by forming Critical Friends Groups (CFGs). The CFG model is a professional learning community in which colleagues support one another in their professional growth with an eye toward instructional improvement.

Our role as AHIs is to support and provide teachers with resources to achieve academic goals outlined in the school's strategic plan, such as formative assessment, project-based learning, the lessons from neuroscience, and flipped-classroom instruction. Teachers join a small group of colleagues in the same division with similar pedagogical interests and goals. Throughout the year, the groups meet regularly to research, discuss, and share ideas and strategies related to their goals. Together, members of a CFG observe each other, communicate frequently, reflect on observations and conversations and, ultimately, challenge each other to improve. Individual teachers and our professional learning community become stronger as we constantly hone the art and science of teaching and learning.

Upper School

Teachers' Responses to Instructional Coaching

Beth is wonderful! She has helped us through the new teachers' transition with guidance and a sympathetic ear. The meetings were structured and productive. I enjoyed having her observe my classes three times and benefited from her helpful feedback.

Lisa has also facilitated our Critical Friends Groups, who are cross-departmental faculty members. We have a chance to share perspectives and reflect on issues common to all members. This is a stimulating group of members who encourage and assist each other. We are glad to have this opportunity to share. Lisa has enabled these efforts and programs to flourish. I appreciate her guidance and wisdom as she channels our educational interests and facilitates our growth.

— Sarah Swain

I don't get many opportunities to leave my classroom and observe others, and it's humbling to witness the great teaching going on around me. On the other side, at first it's a bit scary having observers come in to watch you teach, but our civil and productive discussions afterward have really helped me grow professionally, and others are feeling the same way.

— Ben Burghart



Establish Professional Growth Goals

Through the annual process of establishing professional growth goals, all teachers select an area of focus for their own growth. As AHIs, we meet with each teacher in her division, first to listen and understand, and then to brainstorm ways to achieve the individual's goal. The advice we give teachers ranges from encouraging an observation or a series of observations to suggesting videotaping or journaling. We want to place professional development into the hands of individuals and then support them. Sending teachers to a professional conference can be one component, but research indicates teachers are more likely to realize change if the goals are personalized and supported within the context of our school culture.

Our goal is to establish a constant stream of dialogue with honest feedback and ideas fueled by encouragement rather than by judgment.

Some of the more popular professional growth goals selected by teachers have included student collaboration and problem solving, better integration of international students, and improving writing skills across the curriculum. For example, an upper school math teacher met with Beth to share her vision for a more student-centered class. As a result of that conversation, Beth arranged for the teacher to observe two veteran faculty members who have successfully integrated student-centered lessons. The math teacher and Beth visited one veteran teacher's class, discussed their observations and agreed on what elements may work well in the math teacher's own class. To further address the teacher's goal, Beth arranged for the teacher to participate in two additional observations that included conversations with the veteran teacher before and after each observation. Professional dialogues like these enhance learning and build vital relationships among colleagues.

Occasionally, we or the TRC will model a style of instruction, or we may teach the class, allowing teachers to observe their own students. Teachers are encouraged to use videotaping as a means of self observation and reflection. They may invite their coach or a colleague to observe the video, and together they examine the effectiveness of the instruction. Our goal is to establish a constant stream of dialogue with honest feedback and ideas fueled by encouragement rather than by judgment.

Customized Professional Development

As our teachers examine their practices to find more effective ways to inspire their students and to help them achieve their goals, their hunger for information drives them to consult with their colleagues and tap into the larger educational community. We are fortunate that a generous professional development budget, which we manage as AHIs, enables teachers to take advantage of these opportunities for professional growth. For instance, the lower school visual arts teacher has an ongoing interest in current brain research and how it impacts teaching and learning, which are also goals of our strategic plan. He wanted to incorporate this research into his teaching of art. When Lisa learned of the Learning and the Brain conference, she investigated the program, found several sessions related to the arts and discussed it with the teacher. Together, they considered how the conference might help him reach his goals, enrich his teaching, improve student learning, and benefit the greater school community. In 2011, the teacher attended the conference with two colleagues. As he implemented new practices in the classroom and shared insights with colleagues, the ripple effect of his participation in this conference continued to improve his teaching and that of his colleagues.

As the school year drew to a close, this teacher was eager to apply his understanding of neuroscience, so he submitted a proposal for restructuring the visual arts curriculum. In conversations with Lisa, he clarified the scope of his vision, explained the benefits to his students, and created a timeline for his work. In response to his and other teachers' interest in extending their professional growth and revising curriculum during the summer, we created a summer stipend program. As AHIs, we felt this was a great opportunity to support teacher-driven initiatives and foster enthusiasm created from professional development.

Middle School

As someone who is both a new teacher at St. Anne's-Belfield School and new to teaching, I am extremely grateful for the support and feedback I receive from April. While it is easy to feel as if you are under the microscope the second a visitor walks into your classroom, April's presence during her visits has not and is not meant to provoke this kind of reaction. From the start, I knew that these types of visits are not assessments or formal evaluations of my teaching abilities. Rather, they are a way for April to simply see what I do in the classroom and to share her thoughts on what she has observed.

Over the first three months, April visited my classes regularly and provided helpful suggestions for ways I might do things differently in the future. One of the most significant benefits of these meetings has been her ability to speak on the participation and engagement of certain individuals in my classes. I am fortunate to be starting off my teaching career in a school that cares so much about its faculty's professional development. When you have someone like April to help you along the way, improvement is an easy, positive, and well-supported process.

— Mary Sisson

Our Critical Friends Groups allow faculty members to work closely together and collaborate on a particular subject. Interactive activities provide us with an opportunity to work through issues, and discuss solutions. It's refreshing to learn and share ideas with faculty members in other departments and grade levels. April has selected some very thought-provoking articles, video clips, and speakers for the faculty. Most of the time, we continue to think about and discuss these topics for days after we worked in our critical friends groups, and I think that is really cool. It is keeping us on our toes and fresh!

Having a professional, like April, objectively observe your class and give you feedback is beneficial on so many levels. Feedback of any kind is helpful to both teachers and students. April's feedback provides teachers with concrete ideas on how to teach more effectively in the classroom. An added bonus is when you receive feedback on classroom management or helpful hints on how to interact with certain students in a different way.

— Marianne Starsia



Observational Rounds

Few teachers have the luxury of watching their peers master their craft. Finding time to share the evolution of a great lesson, or the missteps made along the way, is challenging. Teachers are not born great teachers. The path to becoming a great teacher is marked by missteps, experimentation, and learning from those who have mastered this time-honored profession. Teachers may have an innate love of teaching and learning; however, the ability to make knowledge and skills available to students is an art form that takes years of practice.

The results of a carefully crafted unit, test, or project are far from an end product. The best educators are those who continue to tweak, refine, question, or discard. They seek feedback on their work, they work in teams, and learn from their mistakes. Recently, one of the more exciting practices we engaged in at St. Anne's–Belfield was borrowed from the medical community, which involves small teams of teachers visiting colleagues' classes. In the upper school, our senior seminar teachers volunteered to be the first to participate in this professional growth opportunity. Following the first series of "observational rounds," the teachers and observers met over lunch to share their findings. Opening our doors to one another and engaging in provocative dialogue about teaching are positive steps toward our goal as a school.

Post-Evaluation Support

In retrospect, as AHIs, we realize the rich information gathered during formal teacher evaluations should inform our future work with teachers. Attending the University of Kansas program helped us to understand more fully the vital role of a support program to accompany a system of evaluation. We also learned that the majority of schools using an instructional coaching model separate the coaches from the evaluators. After all, the key to self-improvement must start with feelings of security and trust. The system of post-evaluation we developed does just that. Each teacher's evaluation process concludes with a meeting with the head of school. At this time, the teacher and head discuss goals illuminated by the process. The AHI and teacher then meet to begin their targeted work toward attaining these goals.

As administrators and teachers, we have a clear goal. "St. Anne's-Belfield School will establish itself as an educational leader, ensuring that our academic program includes mastery of essential 21st-century skills and knowledge." While the basics of reading, writing, and computation remain at the core of our curriculum, we continue to emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, cultural literacy, and persuasive communication in ways that are meaningful for our students as they apply their skills and knowledge to real-world issues.

These are exciting times of reflection and innovation for our school, and, as the AHIs, we feel privileged to play a crucial role in preparing our students and our teachers for the future. Lisa Cetroni, April Waylett, and Beth Miller are the assistant heads for instruction (lower, middle, and upper school respectively) at St. Anne's-Belfield School (Virginia).

Lisa Cetroni, April Waylett, and Beth Miller are the assistant heads for instruction (lower, middle, and upper school respectively) at St. Anne's-Belfield School (Virginia).
 
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