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May 13, 2021

Lessons from Coaching Teachers in Remote Times

Good coaching practices are doubly important now that teachers face ever-changing job expectations.

Instructional StrategiesTechnology
When I worked as a classroom teacher, my favorite moments were watching students strategize. I didn't really care if the first answer they got was right or wrong—it was a joy to watch students' mathematical mindsets start to set in and see their flexibility of thought and perseverance in the face of setbacks.
Now that I'm an instructional coach, my favorite moments are similar. I like working with educators on any instructional challenge: identifying the causes, designing a strategy to address it, and reflecting on the results. Coaches' greatest responsibility when setting up the coaching relationship is to allow teachers to reflect as they experiment with different pedagogical techniques and strategies.
When we transitioned to emergency distance learning last March, I worried that the sheer volume of work would leave teachers with no time for reflection or experimentation. Instead, I found that teachers wanted to continue to meet regularly, some even more frequently. They needed a space to discuss challenges, think creatively, plan for solutions, and reflect on the effectiveness of their efforts. Teachers who had previously been hesitant to identify their growth areas were able to pinpoint critical challenges to address.
To ensure that my support reduced teacher workload rather than added to it, I focused on five core principles to guide my coaching. These principles apply in fully remote, hybrid, and in-person environments and can be carried over into the next school year.

1. Be consistent, yet flexible.

COVID-19 has made it impossible to plan long-term, which is incredibly frustrating for everyone. By holding consistent expectations of what coaching will look like, we can bring some predictability back and allow teachers to plan around other workstreams and meetings. Coaches already strive to be as steady and consistent as we can, but it's even more important now. Teachers' schedules and workload will feel more predictable and manageable.

Coaching in Action

Natalie and I struggled to find time to meet for the first half of the year, as our other meetings were frequently cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute. It made it hard for us to stick to our plans or build rapport with each other. This led us to devalue our time together.
We acknowledged that our coaching patterns were not ideal, and when distance learning hit, we recommitted to a regular bi-weekly meeting time and agreed to protect that time at all costs. We still had to reschedule occasionally, but committing to a time made it possible for us to make meaningful progress with Natalie's instructional shifts. For a smoother scheduling process, I gave all of the teachers and school leaders I coached access to a meeting sign-up link and sent meeting reminders. We also tried to be realistic about time commitments and re-checked the schedule for potential upcoming stressors at the end of every meeting. Though these steps may seem simple, it is essential that coaches take on this scheduling responsibility to take the burden off teachers and leaders.

2. Focus on one thing at a time.

Prioritizing and working on one thing at a time can be incredibly challenging. However, selecting just one key focus area allows us to engage in deeper discussion and more planning, which tends to lead to faster progress and an increase in teacher performance and satisfaction. Coaching will go deep on important issues, and you will see growth more quickly. When I coach with BetterLesson—a professional development organization committed to supporting educators with student-centered learning—we use the Try-Measure-Learn coaching model with teachers and leaders to help us prioritize and track growth. This model identifies a high-impact strategy related to a teacher's classroom needs, supports the teacher in implementing that strategy, and immediately measures its impact to build next steps. Some crucial focus areas are connecting with disengaged students, providing support to families, and developing authentic assessments.

Coaching in Action

When I met with Joe, he had many competing priorities. As learning moved online, he was thinking about how to engage students, address tech access issues, create materials, use synchronous time, and help students with asynchronous tasks in a sustainable way. Each challenge was important, so we narrowed our focus by identifying what challenges were within his control, and which were most pressing or important. We then used the Try-Measure-Learn method:
  • Try: We selected one strategy to implement: embedding support into asynchronous materials so that students could complete assignments independently. Joe filmed a video with instructions for accessing and completing each assignment and prioritized finding assignments with self-grading and automatic feedback functions (like Google Forms Quizzes) so that students could check their work.
  • Measure: We assessed the impact of the strategy and saw progress. Joe noticed that he spent less time on the phone or emailing with students and parents each night, leaving us more time to address his other challenges.
  • Learn: We discussed the implications of the results. Joe identified that providing filmed support and immediate feedback were important tools for his students' success.

3. Encourage experimentation by normalizing failure.

In each coaching meeting, I ask participants what their biggest goal, challenge, or focus is. This past year, all have said something like, "I want my students to be safe and to continue learning." This means that teachers need to try different methods to engage students and measure mastery. But the possibility of failure can sometimes restrict what we are willing to try. It's important that we emphasize that not everything will work for students, but even failures give us good data.
Consider using a routine like Debriefing and Setting Next Steps in coaching meetings to help teachers reflect on their current practice and take thoughtful risks. Or, consider using a protocol like Collegial Observations that will foster collaboration among the teachers you coach by asking them to observe each other's strengths. Through these protocols, we can normalize failure by emphasizing what the teachers learned and how it will shape future instruction, rather than emphasizing what went wrong.

Coaching in Action

In April 2020, Matt was still struggling to get his students logged on to Zoom each day. He tried calling and texting parents to remind them of Zoom class times. It was ineffective, so he knew he needed to try something else.
First, we planned for him to reach out to families to arrange conference times, so he could help parents set up a home routine and ask for their insight on how to improve engagement. He was only able to reach a few parents this way.
We went back to the drawing board and realized that one reason Joe was struggling was that he hadn't successfully built relationships with families yet. Joe then tried joining the social worker on her calls to families. She had established positive relationships with families already and was able to work with Joe and each family to set up an individual plan to get students engaged. Changes didn't happen overnight, and there were still some students he struggled to connect with, but our first failure led us to find a more effective solution.

4. Address staff members' emotional needs through integrating mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness strategies are not a cure-all for the stress produced by crises like the coronavirus, and they cannot and should not replace professional help. What mindfulness strategies can do is create time and space for calmness during hectic times and re-center us when we are feeling overwhelmed, disconnected, anxious, or any of the other feelings accompanying this pandemic. Sharing these strategies with teachers can help us refocus ourselves and clarify what is truly important.

Coaching in Action

Viviana and I were working on integrating mindfulness strategies into her synchronous sessions because she felt that students with high anxiety needed the emotional support. As part of our preparation, we decided to engage in our own mindfulness practices at the beginning of our meetings. We found that it slowed us down and allowed us to clear our heads of everything we were holding onto from our busy days. At the start of our meetings, we identified and named challenges that felt like they were in our way, then we intentionally set aside those that were not in our control or outside our key priorities. This process allowed us to understand each other's perspectives better. Because we were able to name and either address or dismiss each challenge, we were able to narrow our focus to Viviana's vision. Coaches have to be more intentional with building relationships now that we have fewer social touchpoints with each other, so methods like these can be useful for more personal connections.

5. Support teachers in building and maintaining systems.

This past year has been exceptionally hard for teachers, students, and schools to create routines and systems. Many teachers that I coach have voiced that the following activities are taking much more time than usual: responding to student and parent questions, planning engaging lessons and activities, providing technical support, assessing student growth, and giving meaningful feedback on student work. Though we may not be able to decrease the number of questions students and families have or the number of assignments teachers must assess, we can coach teachers through building time-saving systems. If teachers are feeling overwhelmed across the board, they may first want to create a personal routine for their own time-management. Consider working with teachers to create effective checklists.

Coaching in Action

To address the challenge of sustainably planning engaging online lessons, Monique and I created a weekly schedule in which she rotated through engagement ideas she could use in the first five minutes of a Zoom class to set a tone of positive participation. Once we built the system, she no longer had to come up with a plan for the beginning of each class period every week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, students did a social-emotional pulse check-in. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she gave students five minutes to look over their homework and type their answers to one of the questions in the chat. On Fridays, students reviewed their goals from the previous week and set goals for the week ahead. This level of predictability decreased Monique's workload while also making the start of class more student-centered.
These principles are good coaching practices at any time, so it's doubly important that we commit to them now while our teachers are facing ever-changing job expectations, are responsible for learning multiple new skills, and are expending substantial effort to engage students in an equitable way.
Note: All teacher names have been changed.

Emma Siesfeld has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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