Reflections of a First Year Math Coach by Michelle Engle

When Michelle’s position changed from math interventionist to coach, her first reaction was, “Yes!” She had wanted to coach for some time and craved the opportunity to work with a variety of grade levels. And with the adoption of the Common Core, she felt confident that she would be able to help move students towards this new rigorous set of standards. While she was thrilled to become a ‘first year’ math coach, she also knew that she had a lot to learn. Here’s a glimpse of Michelle’s journey in the first few weeks of the school year.

Lessons Learned

I began by reaching out to teachers to let them know that I would like to work with them in their classrooms. I was excited when teachers agreed to let me join them during their math block. We were piloting a new math program, so I decided that I would watch the teachers’ lessons (sometimes chiming in with things I thought were important and being missed), take notes on what I saw, and then the teacher and I would debrief at a later time. During the debriefs, I found myself saying the same types of things over and over, no matter who the teacher was or what skill was being worked on. I heard myself saying, “I would try this next time…Be sure to include this in your lesson…Take a look at this activity I have…”

My approach quickly started to feel uncomfortable. While I honestly viewed these teachers with respect, I felt that I was insulting them during these conversations. I could see it in their faces. Although it was not my intent, I realized that the comments I was making seemed to be an evaluation of their work. I was implying that what they were doing was wrong, that they were not effective math teachers, and that I knew better than they did. To make matters worse, I was also noticing that the students were not gaining anything from me being in their classrooms. Many were still not understanding the material. The elation that I was feeling at the beginning of the year was quickly dissipating. As I reflected on my work, I recognized that it was me that was going about this in the wrong way. What I was doing wasn’t working and I had to do something about it.

I had received a copy of Student Centered Coaching by Diane Sweeney, so I took another look and decided that taking a student-centered approach was something that I would try in my next coaching cycle even though I wasn’t completely convinced it would work in a math context. Math is black and white and many of the skills need to be taught in a specific manner. I wondered if it would be beneficial if I wasn’t giving the teachers the “pointers” that they needed to teach an effective lesson. But I figured that if what I was currently doing was not working, so why not give it a shot? What did I have to lose? So I set up a coaching cycle with Tracy, a first grade teacher to try out student-centered coaching.

Setting a Goal for Student Learning

We began with a pre-brief to discuss what it was that Tracy wanted to work on. Tracy is an amazing teacher, but was unsure of what she should be covering for the Common Core Standards. We decided to begin with the first standard in our district’s math curriculum: Add and subtract within 20 – using the strategies of counting on and making tens. Tracy informed me that she already knew that most of her students could count on, but she wasn’t sure if they could decompose numbers in order to use the strategy of making tens. We settled on our goal for the coaching cycle, ‘Students will add and subtract within 20 – using the strategies of counting on and making tens.’

Pre-Assessing Students

After setting our goal, Tracy and I came up with a formative assessment to capture some student data. It included three different numbers that the students would decompose in as many ways as possible. Once it was completed, we looked over the student work and saw that many of the students couldn’t decompose numbers, and those who could, were only able to come up with one way. In looking at the data, we decided that we couldn’t start on adding and subtracting quite yet – we would have to fill the gap of decomposing numbers first.

Planning and Teaching Together

Tracy wondered if we should use 10-frames in our lessons. We decided that this was the best way to go because it’s known as a “best practice” of decomposing numbers and it’s an important strategy within the Common Core. I brought in some materials that I have using 10-frames and Tracy picked a few activities that she liked and thought her students could handle at the beginning of this unit. I came in a few times to observe the lessons, but this time rather than watching what Tracy was doing like in my previous coaching cycles, I shifted my focus to what her students were doing throughout these lessons and activities. During our debriefing sessions, we discussed what I saw the students doing well or where they needed more help. Then we tweaked our lessons to meet their needs.

Post Assessment and Results

After we noticed that the students were becoming more successful with decomposing numbers, Tracy and I planned a final assessment that was similar to the pre-assessment. In looking at the results, we found that 14 out of 17 students met the goal of decomposing numbers. We discussed how to go about reaching the three students who did not meet our goal, and came up with ideas like continuing this work in a small group or recommending them for our school’s tutoring program. They were on Tracy’s radar and she would continue to meet their needs.

We also wanted to see if the students were able to decompose larger numbers by making groups of ten. We needed to know if they could do this skill before moving on to the standard of adding and subtracting by making tens. I led a carpet activity on this topic and as we closely observed the students, it became evident that they did not have this skill down so we decided that Tracy would work on this as her next goal.

While I hadn’t been sure if student-centered coaching would be effective in math, I have to say I was happy to be proven wrong. It felt good to work in partnership rather than just telling the teacher what she could do better. And while we both learned some new strategies that we will both use again, the most important thing that came of this is what transpired with our students. We were able to see the strengths and needs of everyone in the class and differentiate regularly for each one. The students were even proud of what they were able to accomplish throughout the unit and ended up being successful in the end. And aren’t they what this is all about?

Michelle Engle is a math coach in Midlothian District 143 in Illinois. Other than being a math coach, she is also a proud new mommy to Lily. We all miss her during her maternity leave and can’t wait to get her back for her next coaching cycle.

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