Leveraging Unit Planning into Coaching Cycles

Written by Diane Sweeney and Leanna Harris
Co-authors of Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance

Coaches wear many hats. They lead coaching cycles, informally work with teachers to co-plan lessons, unpack curricular units with teams, and support professional learning throughout a school. While each role constitutes an important part of a coach’s work, making connections between them leads to an even greater impact. One way we can achieve this is by making connections between unit planning and coaching cycles. Let’s take a look at how three coaches have done just that.

Scenario #1: Co-Plan Units with Teams
Working with teams to co-plan units is a powerful way to develop clarity and get on the same page when it comes to expectations for student learning. While we understand that schools and districts are at different places with curriculum development, more often than not, teachers need to work through how they will actually teach the unit to their particular students. In Sierra’s district, grade level and department teams are released for a three hour block at the beginning of each quarter to plan units together. As a coach in one of the middle schools, part of Sierra’s job is to work with each team during this time. She uses the following protocol and unit planning tool to guide this work. When teams wrap up these planning sessions, it isn’t unusual for teachers to want to continue working with Sierra through a coaching cycle. If this isn’t the case, she knows that they will be more prepared than they would have been without this time together. 

Protocol for Co-Planning Units

  1. Determine the goal or intended learning for the unit. This can be framed as, “Students will…”
  2. Unpack the learning intention into a set of learning targets (“I can…” statements).
  3. Plan the classwork, texts, and resources that will be needed to address each learning intention.
  4. Plan how the learning intentions and/or learning targets will be assessed.
    From: Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance (Sweeney and Harris, 2020)

Scenario #2: Pair Unit Planning with Coaching Cycles
In Jenn’s district, teachers don’t have the good fortune of extra release time for unit planning so many of them end up planning on a day-by-day basis. This often leads to a focus on isolated skills instead of deeper learning and transfer. To address this, Jenn and her principal decided to carve out time for her to support a few grade level teams to engage in a two step process that started with unit planning and then shifted to a coaching cycle. The kindergarten and fourth grade teams took Jenn up on the offer to join her for the unit planning stage of the work, and to her delight, most of them also decided to continue into the coaching cycles. The exception were a few teachers who weren’t quite ready to take this step.

By breaking the process into two phases, Jenn was able to move the teachers beyond day-by-day planning and toward a more coherent and unit-driven approach. 

Scenario #3: Plan Units Within Coaching Cycles
Kendall coaches at an elementary school with just a few teachers per grade level. To stay on the same page, the teachers mostly depend on guidelines around unit pacing. What’s lacking are details around the learning targets and assessments. This has created gaps in the teachers’ understanding of what needs to be taught (and learned). 

To address this, Kendall embeds unit planning right into her coaching cycles so she can build  teacher clarity and establish shared expectations. She has learned to take her time when she is working with teachers to develop the learning targets at the beginning of the coaching cycle. If this is rushed, then they may not reach the level of clarity they are looking for. As soon as they have the learning targets mapped out, then they are able to move through the rest of the coaching cycle. Doing this work within the context of a coaching cycle has led teachers to go beyond the pacing guide and think more about what their students need to know and how they will get them there. 

In Closing
With the many hats we wear as coaches, we strive to directly impact student and teacher learning as much as possible. Whether co-planning units with teams, pairing unit planning with coaching cycles, or planning units within coaching cycles, making the connection between these two pieces of our work leads to authentic engagement in coaching and powerful professional learning opportunities for everyone involved.

For more on lesson and unit planning, check out our new book, Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance (2021).