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January 3, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 13

Inclusive Coaching Focuses on Students, Not Teachers

Inclusive coaching, based on the premise that all teachers are lifelong learners, enables participants to self-direct their professional development with guided support (Sweeney, 2016). Yet, for this kind of coaching to be successful, we must overcome a long history of deficit models targeting "deficient" teachers who need "fixing."
As instructors within the Student-Centered Coaching Certificate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we work with new and veteran coaches in diverse and international settings. Coaches from New Mexico to Columbia to our home state consistently express the same struggle to build relational trust and maintain teacher buy-in, especially when teachers perceive coaching as purely evaluative.
Not all teachers are willing to put themselves under the microscope. They might have a lack of engagement in collaborative planning activities, choose not to share student work during analysis, or resist invitations to visit peer classrooms while keeping their own doors closed. Such reluctance might speak to a teacher's own insecurities or be well warranted by prior negative professional learning experiences. If we truly believe that coaching is a partnership of shared expertise, then teacher expertise needs a place at the table.
To make this change, coaching meetings must focus on student evidence (what students say and do in relation to learning goals) rather than teacher moves (what the teacher says and does). This change can seem overwhelming because it repositions the underlying beliefs that shape many coaching programs. But a commitment to shared ownership of the coaching process fosters teacher professionalism and a growth mindset without placing blame on teacher shortcomings. These values must not only be clearly communicated through a coaching vision but also reinforced by administrators who are able to walk the walk.

The Collaborative Work of Goal Setting

The shift to inclusive coaching starts with the goal-setting meeting. Carefully crafting learning goals provides direction for coaching collaborations and keeps the purpose of the work—students—at the center of the process.
During goal-setting meetings, teachers and coaches can work collaboratively to establish learning goals based on students' previous work, tests, and other evidence, as well as curriculum standards. Coaches can address concerns about classroom management, content knowledge, or instructional design by discussing how these pedagogies affect students' ability to learn.
The coaching process, broken down in Figure 1 below, still develops specific teaching practices, but those practices are a means to an end (the student's performance) as opposed to representing the teacher's performance.

Figure 1. Setting Student-Centered Goals

Esme, an instructional literacy coach enrolled in our coaching program, began the goal-setting meeting by asking her 1st grade teaching partner, Laura, what her students had been working on and where she saw them going next. Laura explained that most of her students did well but identified two areas where they seemed to be struggling and wanted to help them succeed during small group work. While Esme did offer instructional support, she did so by supporting Laura's goals for improving student evidence, rather than by telling Laura what her goals should be.

The Justification for Teachers' Goals

Because teacher agency is paramount to the goal-setting process, coaches should draw on research to look at how an educator will best learn. Adult learning theory, which recognizes that adults do not learn in the same manner as children, tells us that adults request explanations of why concepts are being taught, prefer learning that focuses on performing a common task, want instruction that accounts for prior experience, and desire self-directed discovery learning (Merriam, 2011).
Coaches can draw on adult learning theory by creating opportunities for teachers to share their experiences, connect new learning to their immediate contexts, and set learning goals relevant to their current needs (Aguilar, 2016). When teachers attend goal-setting meetings with instructional goals already in mind, the coach's role is to ask prompting questions to illuminate why the teacher has selected these goals.
When Esme and Laura were setting goals, Laura said that she likes to use centers and wanted students to rotate through various activities, but she needed help planning for each station. A common coaching reaction might be to jump into coplanning station activities. However, it was important for Esme to direct the conversation back to the students during the early planning stage. She asked several probing questions:
  • Before we think about the activities, do you have any student work we can look at to determine how you might group students? Are there any patterns in student understandings that might help to inform our creation of small groups?
  • Based on student evidence, do you think that all students need to work through every station? Do you notice any students who might benefit more from an extension activity based on the original learning goal?
  • Were students able to demonstrate their understandings in multiple ways on this assessment? How could we offer opportunities to engage different literacy domains to meet a wider range of student abilities?
This probing exercise grounded goal setting in students' knowledge. If a teacher's purpose is based on generalized notions or gut feelings, coaches can introduce the need for evidence, such as student work, to support conclusions. Teachers might see that they can adapt their original goals to better fit the needs of their students. The ultimate outcome is to help teachers identify their own justification for selecting each goal.

Goal-Setting with Prescribed Curricula

Many coaches find themselves in contexts where packaged curriculum predetermines the process and focus of goal setting. When curricular initiatives drive coaching efforts, teachers are often left out of the goal-setting process. These circumstances also tend to frame the coach's role as an expert providing direction on implementation of fixed curricula.
In order to shape instructional practices, teachers still need to understand what students know and can do, which requires a step backwards to analyze student evidence. If Esme were in this situation, we would advise her to allow Laura to drive the partnership by inquiring into Laura's expertise. Esme might ask: What prior experiences does Laura have working with stations? Has she noticed any patterns in recent student work that would indicate grouping as a support, and could Laura and Esme look at this evidence together? Is more student evidence necessary to determine what standard/skill to focus on?
These questions validate Laura's professional experience as a teacher and again move the focus to student evidence. If there is not enough evidence to differentiate planning, Esme and Laura could design a formative assessment to learn more about student needs, interests, and strengths relative to the curricular focus. This process of engaging in a goal-setting meeting with a predetermined goal, and then using student evidence to plan how that goal will be achieved, is depicted below in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Keeping a Student-Centered Focus Within Curricular Goal Setting

A coaching vision that begins with student-focused goal-setting meetings enables teachers to act as professionals who continue to learn alongside their students. This simple shift opens doors to positive coaching relationships and sets the expectation that growth through coaching is a meaningful practice for us all.
References

Aguilar, E. (2016). The art of coaching teams: Building resilient communities that transform schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sweeney, D. (2016). Student-centered coaching: The moves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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