In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by instructional coaches & PLS Classes instructors, Nicole Zakrewsky, Laura Mackenthun and Jim Jones to discuss their experiences, insights and suggestions around coaching.
Get in touch with Nicole: nzakrewsky@PLS3rdlearning.com
Get in touch with Laura: lmackenthun@PLS3rdLearning.com
Get in touch with Jim: jjones@PLS3rdLearning.com
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Steve [Intro]: 00:17 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:44 Conversation with coaches #2. Schools and districts have implemented a rather large array of approaches to providing coaching to teachers. These coaching programs can have great differences in both expectations and in outcomes. I’m recording several podcast conversations with coaches asking them to share their experiences, insights and suggestions and I’m hoping that their comments will encourage you to share your thinking back with us. Today, we have on the podcast, Nicole Nicole Zakrewsky, Laura Mackenthun and Jim Jones. And I’d ask if each of you would take just a moment or two to give a brief description of the coaching roles that you have perhaps had and or the coaching roles that you’re in now. Nicole, would you want to start us off?
Nicole: 01:47 Sure. So I spent about eight years in a small school district and my job was to coach the new teachers within certain departments, mainly the core subject areas. And specifically I was given goals of what the school wanted to accomplish and then my ideas were to work with the staff and the departments to help them implement those goals. So at the time, our biggest goals were increasing writing and reading across all of the curriculum. And because I have a lot of experience with reading and I also have a reading specialist degree, they chose me to be that person. So I spent time – we met as groups, we talked about what we were currently doing, we talked about where we felt we were failing, and then we would get together and come up with an attack plan. And then I would spend some time observing them in classrooms and I would watch for what I saw was going wrong or what was going very right and we would work together to make corrections to make the environment better for the students and the teachers both. Currently, I am not technically in a coaching position where I have a group of teachers that I work with, but I do get new teachers that I work one on one with within my department only. The new teachers come and sit down and I kind of go over what we expect out of them, what we’re hoping to do and I do classroom observations to help them make improvements and more suggestions for them on what they can do to increase the teaching to fit the needs of the students.
Steve: 03:17 Thank you. Thank you. Laura?
Laura: 03:19 Sure. Thanks Steve. So my coaching roles have revolved primarily around technology integration. We were a district that was moving toward increased access, mostly one to one for our students Pre-K-12 and had a teaching staff that was all over in preparing for that as well as administrators that didn’t quite know what that meant as well as non-certified in the community. So my task was to start from the very beginning with teachers Pre-K-12 of starting to see how technology could be used as a meaningful tool in their classroom and first get them comfortable in using some technology tools themselves. But then over time and as devices became available for our students, figuring out how to best use those technology tools to meet teaching and learning outcomes. So it began as a very technology based – almost a how-to coaching and evolved into where we wanted it to go and how do I do curriculum instruction and embed technology in meaningful ways into it. So getting our classrooms into that 21st century feel of teaching where technology is just woven into a lot of what our teachers do and our students do and making it that meaningful tool for what it can be.
Steve: 04:47 Thanks. Jim?
Jim: 04:48 Okay, Steve. Mine’s a little bit unique. I did a content-focused approach to improving outcomes in math. So I was technically a math coach and at that time it was a small school district and one of the most impoverished in Pennsylvania. And the math coaching role at that time was a part of the school improvement plan. And University of Pittsburgh came into our school district and there was an urban initiative to improve student outcomes. So the approach was really leveraged around finding new ways to leverage assessments and lengthen the curriculum and instruction. So much of what I did would be to take time to work with groups of teachers or grade levels to analyze student data. Drilling down to student outcomes in specific content areas. And then what we would do is we would take time to pre-conference prior to actual classroom observations just to identify student needs and to have meaningful conversations with teachers about the student outcomes.
Jim: 05:56 So the pre-conferences were really important because they allowed the teachers and myself and the administrators to work closely to identify the curricular, instructional and assessment ties. At that point you would have the conversation and we would have the pre-meeting and then we would have times where I would either one of two things. I would observe the students and the teachers in the classroom and I would also model classroom behaviors for best practices for teaching mathematics. So my role at that time, it was a K-8 role. I worked in two elementary buildings and in a junior high slash middle school model as well.
Steve: 06:35 I’m excited. We’ve got a great mix of reading, writing, math and technology experiences brought in here. Frequently in my work, I described that student achievement is created by students. I use the statement that teachers don’t cause student achievement, students cause student achievement. And what I mean by that is that the real work of the teacher is getting the students to do what I call the learning production behaviors. The work on the students’ part that’s gonna create the learning. So for the learning and the skill development to be caused by the student, it means the teacher needs to take on practices that generate those behaviors. So I frequently see that the work of coaches is in helping teachers identify how the teacher behavior brings about a student behavior. And I’m wondering if you could make some connections in how you’ve worked with that from either a design standpoint or how you’ve worked at it in your explanation or approach with the teacher, that your job as a coach was to assist the teacher in getting the student behaviors that she needed that would generate the learning.
Jim: 08:04 I could answer that question for mathematics. Specifically, you know, when we think about math, communication with the teacher and amongst the students is really important to establish understanding and that paradigm shift often was one of the most difficult to change for classroom teachers. So really it was making and providing teachers with understanding what it meant for students to be accountable to one another with their talk. So the teacher shifted from the old addage, “the sage on the stage” to then orchestrating using mathematical tasks, allowing conversations that happen, modeling behaviors that allow students to know that they were able to share their math understanding and what not. So really, it was finding a way for the teachers to become orchestrator of what that looks like. So, you know, for many traditional teachers, particularly those with many more years of experience, it was really, you know, sometimes me having to go into the classroom and establishing what that might look like.
Jim: 09:10 And also for the students, as you mentioned, the students are the ones who drive the learning and them becoming and taking ownership of the learning and the conversations and establishing, you know, the way that they solve the problem. And then being able to pay attention to one another and then ask leading questions. For example, you know, I noticed that you multiply the tens and then you add up your ones and then another student would, you know, jump off of that and then the conversation become rich and it will be based on the math. So I think that for mathematics, that was a big part of it, just changing what the classroom looked like and what it sounded like.
Steve: 09:52 So often when I’m talking in that setting about a teacher — about a coach modeling, I am encouraging the teacher initially, to be paying more attention to what the kids are doing then to what the coach is doing. So that the teacher understands what that looks like and sounds like. So then when the teacher takes on the behaviors, she can see the change. Nicole, you have something that strikes you as an example with this?
Nicole: 10:21 Yeah, so I agree with a lot of what he just said. One of the things I do, one of the very first things I do, is when I go into a classroom or when I talk to the teacher is I ask them, what do your students look like when you are teaching? What are they doing? Because if we have a lot of heads down or you know, cell phones coming out or other things, you’ve lost that engagement. So then we talk about what engagement looks like and what they want their students to be doing and what they hope for them to be doing. And a lot of times what I’ve noticed is teachers want students to do one thing, but they’re not necessarily doing that and they don’t know how to get the students to look and behave in the manner that they’re hoping for.
Nicole: 11:00 So we’ll talk a lot about how to build that engagement. And that has a lot to do with just building rapport with your students and really truly getting to know who they are and taking the time out to do activities where you might not be doing reading or writing. You might just be talking to each other for a period of time. And we talk a lot about, you know, teachers create the assignments, but what can you do to have students be part of that creation process also? Specifically in the English classroom, we will often times give students projects and we have this big talk of differentiation and what we need to do to make sure we’re accommodating the needs of everybody. So teachers will have those options given to the students. You can do this, this, or this. But sometimes, you will have a student say, “well, can I do this?”
Nicole: 11:46 And I would hear teachers say, well “no, that’s not an option.” Well let’s think about it. Can they do that? You know, if they’re engaged and that’s what they want to do and they’re highly motivated, then yeah, let’s make that happen. And a lot of times you can accommodate your teaching in your ideas to fit that. So we talk a lot about exactly how we want our students to be looking. And then it’s talking to the teachers about how to change the structure of what they’re doing or how they’re presenting the information to sometimes hand over some of the ownership and let the students figure that out on their own also. And I found with new teachers, it’s fairly easy to do because they’re new this, they want the advice. It can be more difficult with teachers who’ve been around for awhile because they’ve always done it this way and it’s always worked this way. So sometimes we have to take the time to point out, but are the students looking the way you want them to look? And they have to come to the realization almost on their own. Like, you’re right. They don’t look that way. So once they get to that realization, then we can make the steps forward. But the teacher almost needs to realize it first before we can move on.
Steve: 12:48 I’ve often found that if we can come at it from the approach of what the student behavior is that we need, then it avoids me having to get into conversation about whether what the teacher’s doing is right or wrong. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong. If what you’re doing isn’t getting the student behavior that you need, then you really don’t have an option but to do something else that can get you that behavior.
Nicole: 13:21 And I think that’s one of the first things I ask is, would you want them to do what you’re doing and are they doing what you want? And if not, what can you do to get them there?
Steve: 13:30 So in effect then, as a coach, you do work on changing student behavior.
Nicole: 13:37 Correct. Absolutely.
Steve: 13:40 Yep. Laura, can you chime in here?
Laura: 13:43 So I think both Nicole and Jim have had some great specific examples of things that they’re doing. And I think we’d see those same things and I do a lot of the same pieces. Part of this just overall piece though is we’ve changed some language around to often, not even talking about teaching and simply talking about learning. It goes back to that idea of people sometimes think they’ve taught it and the students haven’t learned it. Well then you haven’t taught it. So we’ve often just used that language of what’s the learning that happens, not even language around what are you teaching? And try to use the word teaching as little as possible and the word learning as much as possible.
Steve: 14:24 Yeah, that’s right on. I’ve often explored with people the fact that we can get over focused on teaching because it can be neat, orderly managed, planned and documented. The problem is that learning is often messy, irregular, spontaneous, and so that creating the opportunities to be studying learning – I pushed that big on peer coaching if I can get teachers into each other’s classrooms so that they have the opportunity to watch what it is the students are doing and it’s valuable to the teacher who’s watching. But then that’s a really powerful reflection conversation to have with the teacher because when I’m teaching, when I’m on, it’s difficult to pay that extended attention to the student learner behaviors, which are a lot easier to do when I’m that observer – in that observer coach role.
Laura: 15:29 Exactly.
Steve: 15:30 I’d like to explore another question with you and looking at the professional development research, it talks strongly about teachers needing to get the knowledge base on a new teaching approach or strategy. They need the chance to have it modeled, they need to be able to practice and get coaching feedback on the new strategy. If we are hopeful for professional development to reach the level of having an impact on student achievement. So I’m wondering how many of those elements do you see fitting into your coaching role and when is that part of the school’s professional development plan versus when is it part of a individual teacher’s professional development plan? Laura, you want to go first this time?
Laura: 16:43 Sure. I would say that we use a model similar to what you just described Steve, quite a bit. We have some late start type days in our district where we have an opportunity to pull together a large group of teachers and do some more formal type training. We often do that and differentiate within that group even to a high, medium and low what the teacher’s level of knowledge currently about whatever the topic is. And then the common format is that after that common message has been delivered in a large group, that then coaches are the ones who consistently check in with teachers to see how that implementation is going. Check with teachers to see what support is needed, what additional learning do they need, might the coach model that piece with them? But that format is something that we employ quite a bit in our district.
Steve: 17:38 Thanks. Nicole?
Nicole: 17:40 All right. So I’ve done this in two different districts and it’s both been approached in different ways. So the first time I did this, I worked directly with and I did more professional development. We had whole days blocked off where I was the person who led what was going on and we talked about what’s going on and we did practice activities with one another and how we can change that in the classroom. The bad part about that for me was there wasn’t any opportunities to go into classrooms and observe teachers, so the only feedback I had from teachers was the feedback they felt they needed. The observations they made on their own. Where I’m at now, it’s not a professional development thing. It is for new teachers only, where I do work one on one with them and I have plenty of opportunity to go observe the classrooms. I get to go in as often as I would like as much as needed and I try to do it on a regular basis and I meet with the teacher after school and we have discussions as to what I’m seeing versus what they’re seeing and I find a combination would probably be most beneficial, but I’ve unfortunately not been given the opportunity to have both the district-wide things with the one-on-one observations. They’ve always been separated.
Steve: 18:56 Thanks. As soon as you gain the one without the other, now in effect, you’re having to provide all the knowledge to the teacher one-on-one because you don’t have them together versus the other way you can get people together and give them the knowledge and the modeling. But difficult without the observation for coaching.
Nicole: 19:16 I completely agree. And I would like to change that. It’s almost impossible to work into our schedule where I’m at now. Our district is very, very large, so it’s difficult now.
Steve: 19:27 Jim?
Jim: 19:29 Yeah. Thinking back to when I was actually a math coach, I think one of the most valuable times professional development wise, is when we actually, we really focus on the content of the mathematics. So we would have opportunities for teachers to come together prior to teaching a unit. And what we do is, we would go very carefully through all of the student outcomes and all the intended learning and we would have conversations about what that would look like. So at the time, the math curriculum was very traditional and one of the goals was that we were trying to transition teachers from, you know, the very traditional way of learning math, to focusing on problem based, actual type problems. So what would we do is we would often deeply explore the math that was there and we would have conversations about what we can do to change what it would look like and what it would do to more actively involve the students.
Jim: 20:30 So through doing that, I think that professional development was very valuable. One, because we were deeply exploring the math and having strong conversations. Oftentimes elementary teachers are very strong in math. So through that, we were able to reveal often that, you know, certain teachers may have had certain misconceptions or misunderstandings about the math. So we were able to clear that up in advance. And we also were able to have little modeling sessions and curriculum writing sessions where we rewrite problems to change, you know, to make them – for example, we would take very close-ended problems and we’d make them more open-ended so that we would be able to increase the entry points for the students and also to increase the ability for us to have conversations about the math. So I think it was very timely and it was also very effective in that model. Unfortunately I’ve never seen anything like that be able to be implemented at my current district, it’s a much bigger district, you know, most of the professional development is pushed down from the top. So at that time, it was very real, it was very timely, it was very relevant, it was very real-time. So, you know, for that number of reasons, it was very valuable. It was very powerful, actually. Fortunately, you know, often much of our professional development now really doesn’t match up.
Steve: 21:52 Struggle, struggle. Guys, I got time for one last question here. Most of the people who listen to this podcast are instructional coaches and administrators. And I’m wondering what word of advice you might give to a school administrators as to how they can best support instructional coaches having the ability to impact student learning by the work that they’re doing?
Nicole: 22:29 I think the number one thing that’s most beneficial is the time. Sometimes we’re given a job and said this is what we would like you to do, but there’s not time given to us to accomplish that. And very specifically, one year when I did this, every professional development day for the entire school year was designated to me in increasing reading and writing throughout the entire district. That was probably the most beneficial thing that I’ve seen done. And it changed the entire dynamic of the school. How we did things and how the students reacted. And honestly, our writing scores in the one year skyrocketed to the point where we even kind of questioned, whoa, did that really happen? So when you give us the time, we can accomplish things and that’s the biggest thing. Tell us what you want, tell us what your goals are and then sit down and let us meet with you one on one to talk about the progress and what we need and then give us the time to work with those teachers too. And sometimes when you’re a full time teacher, that means they provide coverage sometimes. So we can go and we can see the other teachers, what they’re doing. Get somebody in that classroom to take over so you can accomplish that job in the most efficient way possible.
Steve: 23:40 Thanks. Laura?
Laura: 23:46 I think about administrators giving coaches two things . One would be resources and the other would be respect. Thinking about what Nicole just said, the biggest resource likely is time. Sometimes it may be some physical resources, but the resource time is just so incredibly valuable. And I think about respect. Administrators need to think highly of their coaches. They need to speak highly of their coaches. They need to label them and show them as go-to people in a variety of ways. Teachers start to see that when they respect their administrator and when the administrator respects a coach and it goes a long way for building relationships and helping coaches be impactful.
Steve: 24:23 I use the line that the job of the coach is to make the principal look good and the job of the principal is to make the coach look good. So if both of them communicate that message, they got a chance to move things ahead.
Steve: 24:39 Jim, you want to close us out here?
Jim: 24:41 You know what? I would also add that time most likely is the most valuable resource of all. Without the time, many of the things we’re talking about are not only – I mean, not only are they difficult, they’re sometimes impossible. So having the time for teachers to come together and the opportunities to do some of these types of things, you know, without the time it’s almost impossible. So when I think back to, you know, when my coach and model was most successful, time was made available. You know, we would have entire days where they would have substitute coverage for a whole grade level of students and that allowed us to spend, you know, a solid seven hours a day doing some of the things that I’ve mentioned before. Now when we try to replicate the similar type approaches and we only have a period or two or time before school, it becomes very rushed and becomes trivial and it can’t be matched. So time I would say for sure is probably the most important resource of all.
Steve: 25:41 Yeah. Students can’t learn without us investing time for them so we can’t expect teachers to be learning without investing the time for the teacher.
Steve: 25:50 So guys, I really appreciate your joining us on the podcast. Have a great day guys.
[Group]: 25:58 Thanks you too.
Steve: 25:58 Bye, bye
[Group]: 25:58 Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 26:02 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley where you can send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.