Student-Centered Coaching as a Pathway to Equity (part 3 of 3)

(part 3 of a 3 part series)
Written by Julie Steele, Consultant with Diane Sweeney Consulting

Welcome to 2021 and the last installment of our 3-part series focusing on Student-Centered Coaching and equity. If you’re just joining us, you can catch up by reading part 1 and part 2 of this series. If you’d like to learn more, check out our new online course titled, Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance where we provide strategies for coaching toward equity in online settings.

As you read, I invite you to remember that this blog is not intended to address all of the equity issues in today’s schools, but rather to suggest how Student-Centered Coaching builds partnerships to promote high-level learning for all students. Today we will tackle how coaches can use co-planning sessions to close the gaps that are growing ever so rapidly, especially among our most underrepresented students.

Intentional Planning Leads to Rigorous and Engaging Work
As we respond to the demands of the world we live in, we have raised the expectations for both how and what our students learn. While you and I may have learned by practicing rote memorization and focusing on ‘drill and kill’ skills, these methods do not meet the demands of the future workplace for our students. Today’s employers are looking for people who can think critically, solve problems, and collaborate with others to reach their goals, whatever those may be.

Because of these changes, teachers are tasked with creating learning experiences that resemble less and less of ‘back in the day’ teaching and schooling.  Additionally, students are more impacted by the use of technology, parents working multiple jobs to survive, and life-changing trauma. Therefore, it’s fair to say that teaching practices need to be vastly different today because the needs of our students are just as different.

Considering this reality, we suggest that every teacher, regardless of experience, benefits from partnering with a coach to hone in on their intentional planning skills. This means we take a deep dive into the standards and the intended learning outcomes that are expected. Aligning our coaching work to the standards allows us to partner with teachers to create the appropriate scope and sequence of rigor and engagement in the learning that students experience each day.

Coaching for Rigor
It’s easy to think that increasing rigor equates to piling on more work or pushing down content that has traditionally been for older students, but real rigor is not about things that are inherently harder for students. Instead, we can measure the amount of rigor that our students are engaging in by their depth of thinking and understanding. This leads coaches to ask how they establish a path for their coaching conversations that will yield more challenging work for students.

Co-planning is one of the core practices that separates Student-Centered Coaching from other instructional coaching approaches. Our belief is that all students can learn at high levels and that the practice of co-planning allows coaches to ‘get their hands dirty’ and co-create rigorous and engaging instruction by assisting teachers to make responsive decisions during the learning process.

Rigor and engagement are not topics we discuss in isolation but rather among things such as the purpose and relevance of the unit and how we will chunk the learning to create clarity for student learning. As coaching partnerships begin digging deeper into the curriculum, the conversations shift to looking at the unit more closely in search of opportunities to present students with tasks that will challenge their thinking in new and interesting ways.

Clarifying what rigor is and what it isn’t is a great place to begin the conversation. We certainly acknowledge that rigor varies depending on the age and stage of the students, but you can begin by discussing the following questions.

Coaching questions for rigorous work:

  • What do the standards say students should be doing in terms of their learning? 
  • Are there bigger ideas or concepts we would like students to think about?
  • What thinking processes will we need to model for students?
  • Are there assumptions we have about students that will get in our way as we plan? 
  • Where might we expect students to struggle with higher-level thinking concepts? How can we prepare for that struggle?

Coaching for Engagement
The aim of our coaching partnership is to help teachers create an intersecting vision of encouragement and engagement so that students can confront new ideas and problems that challenge them and promote new thinking. According to Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, “disengaged students learn less and are often negatively labeled as ‘unmotivated’ or ‘a behavior problem” (2020, p 102). When we are swayed by these labels about students, we struggle to unleash the potential for them to stretch their thinking and foster a love of learning.

Coaches can help teachers recognize that gauging engagement is not about time-on-task or simple compliant behaviors, such as turning in assignments, from students. (A coach from Battle Ground School District recently discussed this in our latest podcast episode. You can listen here.) Certainly, those things are important but they don’t influence learning as much as the cognitive effort students put forth when the learning gets tough. Therefore, teachers also benefit from coaching conversations about when and how feedback will be given to students throughout their learning. Students have a higher probability of staying engaged, even when the work gets tough if they receive regular and focused feedback from their teachers.

Again, we leverage co-planning with teachers to impact how engaging learning is for students. For it is in these planning conversations that we analyze student evidence to make decisions about what they are ready for next. At this point, we can decide whether students are in need of more direct instruction, additional models to follow, or if they need opportunities to engage in guided conversations with peers to solidify their thinking. When we make these in-the-moment decisions, we are being responsive to the most pressing needs of our students. It is this type of response that shows students that they are being supported in their learning and not just sent off on a solo journey which is also known to increase student investment and engagement in their learning.

There are many ways we can coach into engagement. The following questions illustrate some of these opportunities: 

  • What if we  list out all of the concepts students will tackle during this unit? What do the standards intend for students to do with those concepts? 
  • What instructional or technology tools do we have that would assist in making the learning relevant and are aligned to the standard’s outcomes?
  • As we seek out instructional materials, are there high-interest topics we could layer in to provide students with choice in their learning?
  • How can we create experiences that have multiple ways students could tackle the work? Can we identify multiple entry points or different ways to show their learning?
  • What is our schedule and plan to offer students feedback throughout the unit?

Final Thoughts
Congratulations on making it through the first semester, which is a feat many of us were unsure of back in August. We can assume that the rollercoaster has not yet finished, but we can be hopeful that the large, altitude drops and spins back and forth and upside down have settled a bit. As you ease into the new year and new semester, we applaud the hard work coaches and teachers continue to do for the benefit of students’ academic and social-emotional needs. As our educational landscape normalizes a bit, we hope these equity-focused blogs have provided you with another layer of support in your work. 

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.

Julie SteeleJulie Steele is a certified Student-Centered Coaching consulting with Diane Sweeney Consulting. Read more about Julie and the rest of our team.