ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Developing Talent Through Instructional Coaching
Elizabeth Coleman, Natalie Warden, and Marjie Murphy
Our school has an informal motto heard frequently around campus: “Coming to a Sacred Heart school, you have entered into a family.”
This motto reflects our connection to our colleagues in the international Network of Sacred Heart Schools, but it also characterizes the strength of the school community and our commitment to valuing all its members.
Like any family, we work, play, and share good times together. Also like any family, we have challenges that we need to overcome together. One such challenge is how to develop the talent of our faculty within this tight-knit community.
At Sacred Heart, we pride ourselves on our academic programs and our ability to support a strong faculty. We strive to personalize each individual’s professional growth in meaningful ways; however, our staff is relatively large (70-80 teachers and teaching assistants), making talent development a significant challenge.
That’s why our school recently funded new initiatives in curriculum, instruction, and assessment as part of a larger capital campaign. The “Initiative for Excellence in Teaching and Learning” has shifted teachers’ job expectations to more closely reflect national trends in education. Our faculty members have been pushed to rethink their teaching practices to reflect an increased emphasis on using assessment data and evidence to inform teaching and on developing a cohesive curriculum to serve all K-8 learners.
As these changes take shape within the school, leadership has developed structures to aid these initiatives—most significantly an instructional coaching program.
Instructional Coaching Up Close
Sacred Heart began instructional coaching during the 2013-2014 school year with two part-time consultant coaches. Today, two full-time staff instructional coaches work with individuals and groups of teachers to help them meet their professional goals.
We developed our coaching program based on the premise that on-site coaching is a more effective way to develop faculty talent than external, one-time professional development sessions. With one-shot, one-size-fits-all professional development, teachers are overloaded with a plethora of ideas at a single workshop, with few opportunities to reflect on how those ideas fit into teaching practice and little time to implement them in meaningful and lasting ways.
Alternatively, ongoing coaching that occurs over several months offers sustained, personalized professional learning. Most coaching cycles take place over an entire semester or school year, with teachers meeting one-on-one or in small groups with a coach and working toward a specific goal. Coaches pose questions to prompt deeper thinking about one’s teaching, such as: “If you were to implement this new element in your teaching, how would that look? What benefits would it provide you as a teacher? How would it benefit your students’ learning?”
Our coaching program is available to all teachers in the school, and the majority of faculty take advantage of it in some capacity. We believe that both experienced and novice teachers have room to grow and can develop their talents in different ways.
Below are two examples of teachers at different experience levels who have used coaching to meet their professional goals.
Betsy: Providing Differentiated Instruction through a Real-World, Interdisciplinary Project
Betsy is an experienced teacher who took advantage of our instructional coaching program to design and execute an interdisciplinary project with her class of fifth grade boys. Betsy had been reflecting on her effectiveness as a teacher and was looking for new ways to differentiate instruction, particularly for a group of high-achieving students ready for complex problem-solving in math.
In an initial meeting with her coach, Betsy discussed her goal of providing differentiated instruction to challenge all of her students, meeting them where they were at. Through this initial reflective coaching conversation, Betsy realized her goal extended beyond just providing targeted skill development for students of different abilities; she also wanted to engage her students in creative and active problem-solving around a real-world scenario. Knowing that the school was in the middle of redesigning the campus play spaces, and with the support of her coach, Betsy hatched a plan to have the students use their math, reading, writing, and scientific engineering skills to research, design, and present their ideas for re-creating the primary school playground space. This project, Betsy acknowledged, was a departure from her usual pedagogy and would test and expand her skills as an educator.
When Betsy shared her ideas with the other three fifth grade teachers, they expressed interest in making this a grade-wide initiative. This added an element of leadership development to Betsy’s initial goal.
Over four months, Betsy met with her coach to plan each phase of the project and draw up lessons that the other fifth grade teachers could also use. Her coach provided resources to help Betsy execute this type of student-centered, inquiry-based pedagogy and supported her in planning the logistics of each phase of the project. Additionally, Betsy’s coach prompted her to continuously reflect on how she was (or was not) providing all students access to the content and allowing them to develop their skills through differentiated instruction woven into the project design.
Through this months-long project, Betsy had the opportunity to not only reflect on and improve her instruction, but to also develop her leadership and communication skills over the course of the project planning and execution.
Betsy’s experience illustrates how instructional coaching can expose experienced teachers to new ideas and complex practices, helping them stay up-to-date on current trends in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and supporting their development as teacher-leaders within the school.
Brittany: Engaging Young Students in Scientific Inquiry and Engineering Design
Brittany was a teaching assistant (TA) for a first grade class while she finished her master’s degree and received her initial teaching certification. As Brittany completed her first year as a TA, she wanted to put ideas from her education classes into practice.
The TAs in her grade were responsible for taking the lead in planning and teaching science, so Brittany developed a new first grade curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. She was passionate about designing learning experiences that would engage students in scientific inquiry and engineering design to get them actively thinking about, talking about, and doing science.
Brittany did some initial unit planning over the summer and then began working with her coach that fall. The coach provided feedback on her unit and lesson designs, helped her secure the materials she would need to execute the new curriculum, and prompted her to reflect on the experience of shifting her pedagogy to a more inquiry-based approach that invited students to take the lead in asking their own questions, making observations, and designing and testing devices as they engaged in engineering design.
Working with a coach helped reinforce skills Brittany had begun to develop as a new teacher, such as designing performance assessments with accompanying rubrics. Brittany also worked with her coach on effective ways to lead the other TAs in executing this new curriculum. During the coaching process, Brittany transitioned from a novice TA to a more experienced teacher, curriculum designer, and teacher-leader.
Brittany’s experience shows how coaching can foster the skills and dispositions young teachers need to develop to take on future roles as teacher-leaders.
Building Capacity and Confidence for the Future
In both of the examples presented here, the teachers were encouraged by their coaches to develop their leadership skills. While not every coaching scenario may include the opportunity to build a teacher’s leadership skills, finding such opportunities is a high priority for the instructional coaches at our school. Given the size of our faculty, it isn’t possible for everyone to receive individual coaching similar to the above examples. To that end, our coaches have intentionally worked to build talent and capacity throughout the school by helping teachers take on leadership positions and begin coaching one another.
One such example of capacity-building was the formation of a professional learning community (PLC) dedicated to the topic of peer coaching. This PLC formed because three veteran faculty members were curious about both the coaching process itself and how they could improve the collaborative work they were already doing with other teachers.
Both instructional coaches met with these faculty members on a weekly basis. The coaches helped the teachers explore professional texts and develop coaching philosophies in addition to shadowing coaching sessions and then debriefing on what they learned from those sessions. The PLC helped its members establish peer coaching relationships with other colleagues and provided a safe and reflective place to work through issues inherent in those peer coaching roles. The group used role-playing, practice, and discussion to anticipate and troubleshoot difficult situations. In particular, the PLC addressed issues of confidence and self-doubt, emphasizing that a leadership role does not necessarily require positioning oneself as an expert or “superior” to a colleague.
One notable outcome of the PLC was the way in which members began to rethink their own identities and roles within the school. With a new perspective on themselves as leaders, these faculty members developed detailed job descriptions for their roles, established clearer boundaries and healthy working relationships with colleagues, and set powerful long-term learning goals. Their talent development further manifested itself in their increased ability to advocate for themselves and to effectively collaborate, which ultimately allowed them to act on their beliefs about what practices would provide the best outcomes for all students in our school.
Another way that coaching has helped build capacity and develop faculty talent is through the process of school-wide curriculum design. We conducted our most recent curriculum examination and redesign effort to build leadership capacity within the faculty, redesigning the school’s writing curriculum so that it would be both teacher-generated and vertically aligned.
The coaching department carefully planned a year-long process, beginning with recruiting “curriculum gurus”: teacher-leaders at each grade level who were coached to lead their teams through the redesign process. The coaches worked with the curriculum gurus on how to lead meetings, keep discussions productive, and ensure that all team members felt their voices were being heard. As a result, our faculty became more familiar with the Common Core writing standards, set grade-level expectations where the standards were not clear, and created vertically aligned writing units and assessments across all grades.
Learning from the challenges and successes of this process, we are now prepared to follow this model through more in-depth curriculum reviews in other subject areas. We continue to use coaching to help faculty members understand that their role includes curriculum design, helping them to not only develop their talents, but also view themselves as experts whose knowledge is valued and used to continuously improve our school.
Coaching for Talent Development
What if all the faculty viewed their own talent development as an ongoing, sustained process woven into the everyday execution of their jobs? Imagine the ripple effect this mindset could have throughout a school!
As more of our faculty engage in instructional coaching in one form or another, our school has begun to see the fruits of this mindset. More teachers are offering their expertise in faculty meetings, faculty leadership teams have formed around common interests, teachers lead on-site professional development sessions, and more.
At Sacred Heart Schools, we see the goal of instructional coaching as not simply targeting faculty talent development on an individual level, but also fostering a collaborative workplace where faculty support and learn from one another and help develop each other’s talents. Through this future-focused faculty talent development, we are building a culture of growth that is focused on what is best for the entire family that is Sacred Heart.
Elizabeth Coleman, Natalie Warden, and Marjie Murphy
Elizabeth Coleman and Natalie Warden are instructional coaches at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago. Marjie Murphy is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago.