Student-Centered Coaching as a Pathway to Equity (part 2 of 3)

(part 2 of a 3 part series)
Written by Julie Steele, Consultant with Diane Sweeney Consulting

Welcome back to part 2 of a 3-part series on Student-Centered Coaching and equity. If you missed part 1 you can access it here. As we continue this conversation, please keep in mind that school systems experience many equity issues that require system-based solutions. However, we believe that Student-Centered Coaching provides a rich opportunity for coaches and teachers to examine equity practices around planning, teaching, and engagement. In part 2, we will discuss how Student-Centered Coaching aids in removing barriers that get in the way of student learning.

Coaching to Remove Barriers
There is no question that students arrive at school carrying heavy loads that may create barriers to their learning. These barriers range from financial, racial, and gender issues to differences in languages, learning styles, and social-emotional needs. This can cause students to enter school each day with the fear of finding a place of belonging and acceptance, let alone a place to learn.

Teachers have long been considered superheroes, yet many of them feel incapable of resolving the issues that prevent students from succeeding in their classrooms. We believe that having a coach can help them find ways to reduce the burdens that so many of our students carry into the classrooms. When we shift our coaching practices from being teacher-centered to student-centered, we can begin to dismantle the barriers that our school and classroom systems inadvertently exacerbate for our students.

Student-Centered Coaching focuses on student learning. The evidence we gather and the expectations we have for their learning are used to guide intentional instructional planning. We use this information to set goals, create student-friendly learning targets, and discuss how students will make their learning visible. We also work with teachers to uncover how students’ voices can be invited into the classroom and how their needs are regularly assessed and responded to with high-quality instructional practices.

Coaching to Remove Barriers Related to Expectations
Even with instructional plans that are driven by student evidence, the highest expectations for all students, and the best coaching support, we know that there will be times when students will struggle. When they are experiencing difficulties in their learning, coaches can work alongside teachers to create modifications based on the evidence that is collected and analyzed, not on assumptions about what they can or can’t do. Making decisions for students based on assumptions with little to no evidence is an ever-growing equity problem in our schools. Student-Centered Coaching encourages teachers to utilize opportunities to see the whole child while keeping high standards and expectations and providing scaffolding when and where the evidence points to the need. The following coaching questions open up conversations around how teachers can guide students to reach their expectations.

Coaching Questions Related to Expectations Barriers:

  • What types of student evidence do we need to see or hear from students to monitor their learning progress?
  • Are we collecting evidence that matches the targets we want kids to reach?
  • How might we accommodate or modify the instructional materials (not the targets) for struggling students?
  • How can we create tasks that are open-ended and have multiple entry points for students?
  • What are our expectations for engagement? How will we share that with students and how will we check-in when students are not engaging?

Coaching to Remove Barriers Related to Technology
With many classrooms being facilitated through online learning platforms, we can continue to coach from a distance to provide teachers with planning and instructional support. Online tools and techniques are essential if we hope to tackle the issues that virtual learning has presented. We’ve heard from the field that coaches and teachers have found success using screencast tools to co-deliver instruction, and platforms such as FlipGrid, Padlet, Google Forms to collect student evidence to sort and analyze for co-planning sessions. Additionally, coaches and teachers are finding innovative ways to use available technology to connect students with their peers online and provide engaging ways to teach content while being miles apart. All of these practices demonstrate that Student-Centered Coaching has an important role in the equity conversations that are happening in both online and face-to-face settings.

A key barrier to online learning are families that struggle with the technological demands they are facing. While some are privileged and have access to full internet connectivity, private tutors, and neighborhood learning hubs, many others are left to struggle with this on their own. For example, providing internet access to children who must be online at the same time, and downloading and printing materials assigned by teachers may be a financial challenge. Given these barriers, we must consider, among everything else, how we are asking students to learn and engage with the content. Coaching partnerships provide the opportunity for us to examine the practices we are using in face-to-face instruction and find alternative ways to reach kids with online content in a way that doesn’t put unnecessary burdens on families. The following questions can get the discussion started:

Coaching Questions Related to Technology Barriers:

  • How will the students access the instruction and materials for learning?
  • Are there connectivity issues we need to consider upfront? Do all students have access? If not, how will we deliver the content?
  • Are there specific technology tools we could leverage to gather evidence? 

Coaching to Remove Barriers Related to Language and Culture
In her famous TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns us that when we only use a single story to describe a place or a person, there is a strong possibility that what we think we know about the place or person, will be filled with critical misunderstandings. The reality is that many of our curricular materials are created with a single student story in mind. This lack of consideration of the myriad stories that live within each of our classrooms leads to instructional plans, resources, and tasks that don’t allow our students to see themselves in their learning; a realization that the work they’re being asked to do lacks the relevance to their lives that other students never have to question. Many students leave our classrooms asking, “Do they see me?” As coaches, part of our work is to create spaces for teachers to begin asking questions about their instructional plans and materials so that all students find a relevant connection to their learning. 

The stories of our students’ lives include histories rich in languages and cultures, and many school districts and surrounding communities are made up of people whose spoken language at home is not English. Students from these homes may have just recently learned English as their second language or they may have spoken English as a second language from birth. Regardless, for many students, this creates a barrier to their success in school. While many schools have teachers that can help with actual language and translation barriers, our coaching conversations can and should focus on the ways classroom teachers can consider instructional alternatives that will better meet the students’ needs.

Honoring cultural differences in schools is something most districts and schools have been doing for years. Diversity teams encourage acknowledging that the families that comprise their communities hold different cultural values, traditions, and holidays. In fact, in many schools, these things are highlighted with guest speakers and student-of-the-week celebrations. But we have to ask ourselves what more can coaches and teachers do to include these considerations into their instructional planning so that the differences that make our classrooms so much richer are not the things that create a vast learning divide among our students? We believe the answer comes through the use of the following questions for coaches and teachers to ponder together.

Coaching Questions Related to Language and Culture Barriers:

  • Do any students have language barriers we need to consider? What can we do to better support them?
  • When we think about instructional materials, are the students’ stories and cultures represented?
  • Will students see themselves in the reading, discussions, tasks? How can we make these things more relevant?

Final Thoughts
In his book, We Got This, Cornelius Minor explains that every decision a classroom teacher makes is either an opportunity created or denied for their students. Student-Centered Coaching is grounded in the belief that teachers want the best for their students and that all students deserve teachers who show up to create the best learning opportunities available. This work isn’t easy but whoever claims that teaching is easy has never stepped foot in a classroom as an adult. Again, what a powerful reason for coaching. In the final blog of this series, we will discuss coaching for rigorous work and engagement among our students. 

Adichie, C. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. TED Ideas worth spreading. Retrieved 11 30, 2020, from

Minor, C.E. (2019). We Got This. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Julie SteeleJulie Steele is a certified Student-Centered Coaching consulting with Diane Sweeney Consulting.