By Candice Stafford, Principal
Introduction by Leanna Harris
This past summer, I had the pleasure of facilitating an online course in The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching with a cohort of twelve coaches, administrators, and teachers from Norwood Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland. Nine months later, school principal Candice Stafford shares her thoughts on Norwood’s journey with Student-Centered Coaching.
Norwood Elementary is a Title I school with over 33% of our students receiving ESOL services. We have approximately 500 students and a very dedicated staff. I have had the pleasure of working with the Norwood staff and community since 2014 when I joined the school as assistant principal. I am now finishing my second year as principal of Norwood. Our instructional coaches include our staff development teacher, reading specialist, MTSS teacher, and reading/math resource teacher.
Interestingly enough, the virtual school environment of the past year actually helped jump-start our deep dive into Student-Centered Coaching. The idea to begin this journey started when our Staff Development Teacher suggested the book, The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching (Sweeney and Harris) to rework how our instructional coaches support teaching and learning. Prior to this year, our coaches had worked with specific teachers; those deemed as needing extra support or teachers new to a grade level or the profession. Teachers rarely initiated working with a coach because they didn’t want to be seen as needing help. In this model, the coach was perceived as holding the power. The suggestions and directives given by the coach were expected to be followed for progress to occur. Once the coach left, the teacher may or may not have continued to do the “things” the coach suggested because he/she did not have ownership in the process. Coaching was done to them, instead of with them.
To shift this mindset among my staff, I knew I needed more than a title change. I needed immediate buy-in from teachers. I needed teachers to understand how Student-Centered Coaching was different than the coaching they knew. And I needed teachers to be lined up and excited to engage in a coaching cycle right at the start of the year. So, my assistant principal and I formed a coaching cohort consisting of ourselves, four instructional coaches, and a leader from each grade level and special area team. As a team, we met weekly for eight weeks to learn, grow, and establish a plan for implementing Student-Centered Coaching at Norwood. All of us were hooked, and at the start of the year, the teachers and coaches from the cohort took the lead introducing Student-Centered Coaching to the rest of the staff.
At Norwood, participating in a coaching cycle is encouraged and celebrated, and no one is told they must participate. For every round of coaching cycles, teachers decide for themselves whether to engage. So far, 82% of our classroom teachers have chosen to engage in at least one coaching cycle and 8 of our 21 classroom teachers have partnered with a coach in two or more cycles. Of all coaching cycles completed this year, 78% of these cycles resulted in an increase in student achievement based on the post assessment.
Have a Plan
As we all know, when kicking off a new initiative, a well-developed plan is needed. It is important to note that ALL cohort members have been included in our plan and process every step of the way. Their voice matters. The authentic engagement, determination, and dedication of all cohort members greatly impacted our success with coaching this year. To implement coaching in our school, together as a coaching cohort, we did the following after completing the online course and prior to the start of the school year:
- Identified and defined our core values aligned with student-centered coaching as a team
- Determined coaching cycle start and end dates
- Established coaching cohort review dates to take place mid-cycle and end-of-cycle for each coaching round
- Developed common tools for coaches to use with teachers during the cycles
- Created a schedule for weekly coach-administration check-ins
- Established a system for collecting data and assessing the success of each coach-teacher cycle using student evidence
- Developed strategies for consistently reaching out to teachers at key points during the year to gauge interest in upcoming cycles
- Scheduled opportunities for teachers to share their coaching experiences with their colleagues at grade level meetings and faculty meetings.
- Developed a high-energy launch for coaching to take place the week teachers returned from summer break
What Does Student Centered Coaching Look and Feel Like?
Two words: true collaboration. Teachers and coaches are digging into the work as partners in teaching and learning. Most importantly, the focus remains on student achievement. Student evidence and progress are the fuel that keeps the cycle going. To start, the teacher and coach identify the student goal/standard for the coaching cycle, outline the learning targets/progressions required to meet the demands of the standard, and identify the pre- and post-assessments to be used. It is much easier to plan for a successful coaching cycle when the foundation of the cycle (the student goal) is strong enough and relevant enough to support the work between coach and coachee over the 4–6-week cycle.
Our initial goal was to have teachers and coaches meet at least once weekly for co-planning and then once or twice weekly for co-teaching. The reality is they have co-planned and co-taught much more than this. Analyzing student evidence is the heartbeat of each co-planning session and coaches support teachers during the process by keeping the learning goal at the forefront. Teachers remain in the driver’s seat, however. Through skilled prompting and questioning coaches push teachers to really think about how their instruction impacts learning, identify appropriate scaffolds, and plan truly responsive instruction that is aligned to the goal. Coaching moves are discussed and selected prior to co-teaching which keeps student learning at the center and keeps the teacher-coach partnership in check.
You may be thinking, so what impact has coaching had outside of the formal coaching cycle? Well, the conversations among our instructional coaches and teachers during grade level meetings, collaborative planning, and data analysis discussions have been elevated to a level I have never before experienced on such a broad scale with so many educators. Teachers are initiating conversations around standards and student evidence and using that information to plan responsive instruction. Collaborative planning sessions have shifted to unpack units, identify effective practices, and deepen understanding of the curriculum. The positive effects from coaching have been contagious!
The Role of the Administrator
In a year of continuous change, I am grateful that coaching has been a constant. To keep it constant, I have protected coaching time. I have held myself accountable to meet with each coach weekly and I take an active role in every coaching cycle review meeting. Our conversations focus on the work coaches are doing in their cycles, instructional trends within the building, and next steps for staff professional learning. I have also made sure to provide monthly deep-dive planning sessions at each grade level in addition to our bi-weekly grade level meetings where we analyze student evidence and unpack units and standards. Coaches participate as partners in teaching and learning during these sessions. Personally, my next focus is to increase the amount of coaching I provide to my coaches. The book, Leading Student-Centered Coaching (Sweeney and Mausbach) has helped me get moving in this area, but I know I have more work to do. With all the twists and turns of this year, I have not done as much as I had planned regarding regularly observing the individual aspects of coaching cycles to provide specific feedback to my coaches. Moving forward, scheduling time during each cycle to observe each coach is an important goal of mine.
Building capacity for responsive instruction and continuing to develop a professional learning community is a top priority, and coaching has, in every way, supported and accelerated growth in those areas. The time that I have spent this year observing coaches and teachers in action–during co-planning, co-teaching, and lesson debriefs has been such a pleasure to witness and be part of because I see the positive and sustained impact on teachers and students, and more importantly, my teachers see it too.
At this point, I struggle to imagine reverting back to the system of instructional support previously in place. Student-Centered Coaching has served our teachers and students that well this year! Teachers deserve this type of partnership and opportunity for growth. As a coaching cohort team, my colleagues and I are excited for the possibilities that next year will bring with year two of coaching. To ensure another strong start, again we will meet throughout the summer for continued learning, plan our coaching cycles, review our areas of strength and those in need of improvement, and of course, celebrate our success in year one.