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October 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 2

Tell Me About… / A Memorable Coaching Experience

Asking the Right Question

Years ago, I was explaining to my coach with great pride the elaborate special education–type conferences that our school had developed to catch and support students who were on the road to failure. She commented, "What do the data show about the effectiveness of the process?" I stopped short, realizing that I had never collected such data. Soon I embarked on a mission to verify whether students had improved following the conferences; to my dismay, they had not. My coach's critical question led to a revamping of our system for conferencing. It became much simpler and student-led. And, guess what? We got better results!

A Bug in My Ear

I participated in Project TEEACH, a University of Alabama program to prepare special education teachers. Our coaching support included an open line of communication with our professor. When one of my students' misbehavior seemed more than I could manage, I Skyped the professor. As I continued to teach, she watched the student with the behavior problems and told me when and how to reinforce the student's positive behaviors and when to ignore certain attention-seeking behaviors. This "bug in my ear" helped me become more confident managing all the students in my classroom.

Learning to Talk to One Another

About 10 years ago, our teachers' union was filing seven or eight grievances a year. We simply did not know how to talk to one another. At about that time, I received training in Cognitive Coaching, and I realized that the strategies I was learning to build rapport (such as pause, paraphrase, pose a question) could greatly enhance communication in our district. We began to offer the eight-day Cognitive Coaching seminar to our administrators and teacher leaders; then we expanded the course to mentors, class and club advisors, athletic coaches, classroom teachers, and the rest of the teachers' union executive board. As a Cognitive Coaching training associate, I continue to offer the seminar free each year in my district. About two-thirds of our staff has now been trained. The result? Our negotiations are much more productive and collegial.

Fun and Games for Learning

I was coaching the teacher of an elective math classroom for students who were above average in curiosity and inquiry but low achievers in their regular math class. Using the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Illuminations website, we found computer games to enrich the math curriculum. This resource cut our planning time in half and enabled us to focus on the mathematics behind the students' strategies. Within a few class periods, the students started to smile, laugh, and discuss the strategies and mathematics in the games. The teacher I was supporting said, "I had no idea they could do that; this is much more fun!"

Making Kids Feel Like Superstars

I was working with a 1st grade teacher to assist two boys who were struggling with using reading strategies. We decided to videotape the boys reading a familiar book. We used the raw footage and Windows Movie Maker to highlight times when the boys successfully monitored their own reading. The boys also recorded themselves reading a book, and they used the video to demonstrate for a kindergarten reader how to use strategies to self-correct. When the boys watched their videos, they felt like superstars! These students have made great progress since seeing themselves as readers.

The Power of a "Ghost Writer"

As a technology integration specialist, I do a lot of coaching. I nudge, needle, and nurture. I felt particularly successful when a teacher called me her "ghost writer." She explained that I came into her room with great ideas and strategies, and she used that input to make instructional changes that she valued. That summed up my goal—to help teachers get excited about trying new approaches while feeling that the book is still theirs to write.

Customer Service

As a literacy coach, I consider myself a salesperson. To sell my wares, I need to have a clear sense of who my customers are. Do I sell what they need? Can I accommodate custom orders? Are my hours convenient? Is my customer service satisfactory? Do I understand my competition (other district initiatives)? Is my store (my office/myself) inviting? Am I providing up-to-date products? Can I deliver what I've promised? How can I make each customer feel important? What structures will ensure repeat business? These and many more questions drive my work with colleagues daily.

The Courage to Collaborate

During my 25 years as a science and technology coordinator, I have had the privilege of coaching teachers in various areas of instruction, assessment, and curriculum. The most important lesson I've learned is that coaching requires collaboration. For example, as part of lesson study, our science teachers collaboratively planned and taught a science lesson, which was videotaped and then viewed by the group. After viewing the video, one teacher realized she was doing too much thinking for her students. Despite the teachers' initial anxiety about being observed and receiving feedback, they gained confidence from the opportunity to see what was going on their classrooms.

Lessons from My Coaches

I have been coached by incredible coaches at every level, from my first experience on a youth community league in elementary school, to being coached by two NCAA National Coaches of the Year at the University of Northern Iowa, to eventually being coached as a member of the 2004 Olympic training volleyball team. Other than my family, my coaches have had the greatest impact on my life. They have modeled and taught me the coaching skills that I now apply as an elementary school principal—to begin with the end in mind, to never overlook the need to build a strong foundation of essential skills, and to put time and effort into building strong relationships.

A Culture, Not a Cult

When we introduced instructional coaching in our district three years ago, the rumor was that we were starting a "cult." Clearly we needed to improve our communication around coaching. Three years later, our district has embraced a culture of coaching. Coaching is the vehicle we use to develop curriculum, look at student work, analyze data, and increase our effectiveness. Now it is not uncommon for our educators to request coaching. As an added benefit, many of our coaches report that they also use the coaching format and skills in their personal lives. Clearly, our movement from cult to culture has had an effect on our district and beyond. Communication was the key.

Step-by-Step Shadowing

Years ago when I was principal of an elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia, I was asked to coach an assistant principal at another elementary school as she prepared for a principalship of her own. I had her go through the budget process with me step-by-step so that she could observe how I interacted with staff, what I asked for in budget proposals from grade levels, and how I set priorities on the basis of need and correlation with our school-based plan. The following year, she became an elementary principal and followed my lead in her budget process. She shared with me that having the experience of "shadowing" my budget process made it much easier for her.

Kids Win

In sports, the coach leads players to victory. In education, the coach collaborates with teachers to lead students to victory. Birdville Independent School District's instructional technology specialists believe that all instruction should focus on kids, the curriculum, and the strategies for meeting the kids where they are and taking them to new heights of rigorous learning. Coaches guide teachers through lesson design so they can apply new thinking about instruction independently. Often, the most powerful coaching is coupled with stories and examples from other teachers who have had similar experiences. The best coach is someone who can motivate teachers and show them authentic examples of instructional practices, instilling confidence to embrace innovative pedagogy. When the coach and all instructional stakeholders collaborate, kids win.

Tips from the First Year

  • Build relationships with teachers by learning who they are outside of the classroom.
  • Model a lesson in the beginning of the year and have the teacher observe you. This feedback will give you insight as to what the teacher values, in addition to building trust.
  • Don't ask a question if you already have the correct answer in mind. (This applies to both teachers and students.)
  • Set the standard for working collaboratively: "When we're together, we will focus on how to develop students as learners. We will not blame kids. We'll be focused on learning and growing."

Inspiring Boys to Play the Game

My life is pretty busy with teaching and elderly parents, but I came across an opportunity. A boys' basketball team was on the lookout for a new coach, and I thought I would give it a try. The first thing I told them was I didn't care what the score was at the end of any game—what mattered was that they wanted to be a part of a team and that they were willing to leave their best effort on the court and be proud of that, not the outcome. As the season went on, my fellow coach and I worked hard to empower the boys to be the best they could be. We required that they wear a shirt, tie, and slacks every game day; and we asked that one of their parents e-mail me that their son did all his laundry and ironed his own clothes. From the previous season to a year later, the amount of growth was enormous. The team finished the season second overall, and the players gained the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves. We couldn't have asked for any more.

Teaching and Learning

Coaching and being coached are very similar. In both positions, you need to be open-minded to understand and learn new skills. As science co-coach, I was responsible for helping the new teachers learn about the best practices, assessment options, dealing with diverse learners, and differentiation. The coaches had monthly leadership seminars to help us build our skills. It was a great learning experience to be on both sides of the table each month.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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