The Teacher Coach

Situated within an independent, K-8 lab school, The Arbor Center for Teaching Program provides formal graduate study of educational ideas and practice for emerging teachers. The heart of the experience-focused Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) model is the co-teaching relationship between the student teacher (apprentice) and the mentor teacher. Apprentices, working to develop and refine their teaching practice over two years, depend on countless hours spent with a mentor teacher—planning, sharing, and reflecting on each school day. 

For the first year, apprentices co-teach solely in multi-age classrooms at the school where our program is based —Arbor School of Arts and Sciences (Oregon). During their second year, they also develop teaching partnerships within a local public school classroom. In both independent and public school settings, we aim for reciprocity and the opportunity for mentors to grow professionally through co-teaching as well. What does this mean for mentor teachers who are responsible for a classroom of young students already? How do we support our teachers extending their practices into the role of teacher-coach? 

At Arbor School, we see the entire faculty as engaged in a mentoring role. Conversation in support of a struggling student often occurs with teachers outside an apprentice’s primary classroom context—during recess duty, faculty meetings, or even in the copy room. Apprentice presentations for faculty meetings invite the advice and perspective of all faculty members, who willingly add their questions and ideas to apprentices’ assessment “experiments” or lists of what is essential in reading. 

Our apprentice program provides the incentive and opportunity for teachers to spend time in other classrooms as well. Within the 2nd/3rd grade team, apprentice teachers take lessons they are testing to both of our multi-age classrooms, thus receiving feedback from two different mentors and practicing the art of adapting a plan for different groups of children. During her “free” period, our Spanish teacher comes to observe an apprentice at work in eighth-grade science, using her well-honed assessment skills to collect and share incisive observations about the quality and quantity of student participation. Observing in each other’s classrooms is always refreshing, sparking admiration for our colleagues’ skill and new ideas for our own practices. 

Central within our definition of effective mentorship is a focus on attitude and character—threads that weave themselves throughout Arbor School. In this case, we expect mentor teachers to exhibit a strong commitment to and optimism about the teaching profession. In the face of the pressures and tensions that exist in teaching, our mentor teachers must demonstrate how to leverage these realities as a healthy impetus toward balance and clarifying foundational purposes for schooling. At Arbor, this means apprentice/mentor planning sessions that connect objectives for a math lesson to the deeper goal of building habits of generosity among fifth graders. In our public school partner classrooms, where student numbers can climb above 30, mentors and apprentices work together to maximize classroom collaborations and build student partnership skills. This means coaching budding fourth-grade engineers to design hydraulic systems in small groups, or modeling effective writing feedback by staging a mock peer conference between mentor and apprentice.

Our mentors desire to be role models to their apprentices, committing themselves to mentoring with the clear understanding that this requires energy, time, and effort. Mentors and apprentices put in long hours before and after school, planning, assessing and connecting theory and practice. Mentors believe that coaching and collaboration in daily planning and reflection will improve and refine their own instructional practice. This requires being open to new and possibly untested ideas and approaches posed by apprentices. Other times, mentors lead the way forward by offering their ideas and insights. Knowing when to follow and when to lead for the benefit of the students as well as the apprentice is a judgment that must be honed through experience. 

At Arbor, the results of this collaborative dance have been to lift teaching practices and to encourage innovations in curriculum. Apprentices have initiated such new ventures as the study of the migration stories of the Hmong people, and the making of “brain boxes” that literally map brain functions onto a three-dimensional representation of each student’s head. Two years of apprentices’ action research focusing on the development of self-assessment skills for K/1 writers has shaped a team-wide approach in which young writers and teachers set clear individual writing goals as a result of analyzing a student’s habits and skills. Then students reread their work and highlight evidence of having practiced this goal in their writing each week. (See Lauren Kristen’s article “My Paper is Lighting Up,” Independent Teacher, Fall 2011.)

People often say that it takes an excellent teacher to be an excellent mentor; this is certainly true. Mentoring faculty must have strong knowledge of pedagogy, subject matter, and classroom-management skills. They must be willing to be observed and to subject their practice to scrutiny and study. They must adapt their curriculum to the current needs and understandings of students even as they clarify central purposes and imagine students’ culminating performances that will guide their planning. The further requirements of mentoring a beginning teacher depend on such excellent practices. 

Within a collaborative, co-teaching structure, communication and interpersonal skills are also essential for strong mentors. In order to maintain trusting professional relationships, mentors must be approachable, patient, and clear. Equally important is empathy for beginning teachers’ struggles, efforts, and development. Remembering what it was like at the beginning of their own careers, mentors communicate hope and enthusiasm as well as the belief that a person is capable of transcending present challenges to strive toward future accomplishments. This means mentors helping apprentices to be patient with themselves or their students as they build curriculum that invites fourth graders into their first persuasive writing essays, or sixth graders into their first encounter with atomic structures. Active and attentive listening, asking questions that prompt reflection, and offering critiques in positive and productive ways are daily practices for our teacher coaches. “What prompted your decision? What evidence gave you the insight that students misunderstood?” a mentor might ask in reviewing an apprentice’s “teacher moves” and adjustments in the midst of a lesson.

While many strong teachers have opportunities to develop their communication skills to further their work with children, Arbor faculty must stretch these capacities toward coaching adults. This requires clear articulation of classroom values, expectations, and pedagogical approaches while remaining open to the questions and input of an apprentice/co-teacher. With this base established, mentors must then learn to observe and support apprentices as they plan and teach to these aims themselves. As mentors work with a series of apprentices over time, they have to adjust their communication and coaching to the needs of each person—just as they do with students. They must provide support through “in-the-midst” and reflective discussions, and through review of written work and plans. 

Mentorship, like collaborative teaching in general, requires a mixture of careful forethought and responsiveness to the ever-changing needs, possibilities, and delights afforded by each new set of students and, indeed, each new day. Analyzing why a lesson asking students to imagine themselves as Oregon Trail families confronting the dilemma of how to descend the infamous Windlass Hill worked well with one half of a group and not as well with the other can be the heart of a rigorous apprentice/mentor discussion about the influence of pacing, students’ background knowledge and interests, social dynamics, and even the time of day on student engagement and teacher effectiveness. Teaching apprentices to savor the interplay between planning and improvising is one way that we hope to develop teachers who remain in the profession and continue to grow throughout their careers—perhaps becoming mentors as well.

In order for our mentorship program to thrive and evolve, institutional support is also necessary. Our school’s director makes mentorship the focus of faculty meetings throughout the year and sees the development of strong mentor teachers as a powerful form of professional development. As teachers identify their own strengths and areas for growth within our aims for mentorship, we construct professional partnerships, discussions, observations, and coaching opportunities across our faculty body. Accordingly, for one week during the second spring of our MAT program, apprentices take the helm of their Arbor classrooms alone. During this time, mentor teachers from Arbor have the chance to connect with our public school partners. Arbor teachers visit the public school classrooms in which apprentices have worked, discussing teaching and mentorship across their school contexts. In the process, we hope to refine and develop our own teaching and coaching practices as fully and intentionally as possible. 

Annmarie Chesebro

Annmarie Chesebro is director of teacher training at Arbor Center for Teaching (Oregon).