Student-Centered Coaching as a Pathway to Equity

(part 1 of a 3 part series)
Written by Julie Steele, Consultant with Diane Sweeney Consulting

In the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, a spotlight has illuminated many, formerly less visible, issues around equity. While this blog will address how instructional coaching can mitigate against some of these realities, we do not kid ourselves into thinking that instructional coaching provides all the answers to the myriad of inequalities in our school systems. What we do know is that Student-Centered Coaching provides pathways for coaches and teachers to work together to remove barriers through strategies that include questioning, listening, observing, reflecting, and revising plans for student learning.

Student-Centered Coaching is an evidence-based model for instructional coaching. We believe that instructional coaches are not content or strategy experts. Instead, we partner with teachers to co-plan and co-teach around goals and targets that focus on leading students to achieve mastery. This provides the necessary context to partner with teachers to look at student learning from an asset-based stance and make evidence-based decisions around their needs and readiness, thus working together to remove unnecessary obstacles that our students face. We are called to serve all students through coaching, and if the coaching model doesn’t focus on students, then why do we bother?

Coaching into Standards-Based Goals Through a Student-Centered Lens
Because we believe that every student in our schools is worthy of high-quality instruction, our coaching stance is to partner with teachers to co-create standards-based goals focused on student learning. This attention to rigorous goals and high expectations is an equity practice that requires intentional conversations that focus on creating the highest levels of learning so that every student leaves your institution prepared for the next phase of their life.

One can argue that all schools work to create lessons centered around a rigorous curriculum that is aligned to state standards, and we don’t disagree. The difference is that Student-Centered Coaching provides the necessary discourse for coaches and teachers to gain clarity around the standards in order to unpack them and co-create high-quality learning targets. This equity practice ensures that our instructional lens is hyper-focused on the students and their needs; academic, behavioral, and social-emotional, and prevents us from wavering from the high expectations we established early on.

When implementing Student-Centered Coaching, we work from positive assumptions about teachers and students. We believe that all students can master the learning which leads coaches and teachers to work together to develop strategies that serve each student. When we coach from this stance, conversations are focused on students, their learning, and where they fall in terms of progressing toward the learning targets. Students are not at risk of falling through the cracks because, with this type of partnership and commitment to the work, no student is in danger of being unseen.

Many coaches ask how they can support teachers in setting goals that are standard-based and drive toward equity. The following list provides questions that can get the conversation started.

Coaching Questions to Set Student-Centered Standards-Based Goals:

  • What do you hope the students will learn as a result of our partnership?
  • Let’s look at the standards. How might they help us choose a focus?
  • What do we want to see the students doing as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc.?
  • Is there any student work or data that could inform us as we set a goal?
  • Is there a specific unit in the curriculum that the goal addresses?

How We Define ‘Mastery Learning’
Mastery learning is a term that can be used in many ways, sometimes with negative connotations. In its simplest form, mastery learning suggests that students move to new learning once they have demonstrated mastery of previous learning outlined in the standards, curriculum, or learning targets. This is somewhat contrary to the practice of assigning students to a grade level based solely on their chronological age.

In using the above definition, mastery learning forces educators to design outcomes that are driven by the learning not by the teaching. With the push toward personalized learning, blended learning, and other innovative teaching methods, our instructional systems and practices would be best aligned with the tenets of mastery learning rather than traditional ideas of seat time, pacing guides, and grades based on averages. However, this paradigm shift, along with the recent changes to the educational landscape dictated by the pandemic, forces us to think outside the one-size-fits-all traditional education box we’ve been working in for centuries. Student-Centered Coaching provides the partnership necessary to do this type of thinking and realignment.

To make this concept more visual, consider times in our lives when we are required to demonstrate mastery performance and not an average score based on multiple attempts at a goal. The most basic event adults have experienced would be learning to drive a car and then proceeding to take the “white knuckle mastery learning experience” we call a driver’s test. Would you want someone to be given a driver’s license who barely met the “average” score of a qualified driver after a handful of low-performing attempts, or would you expect someone to keep trying until they have met the high-level standard of safely navigating an automobile? (and parallel parking doesn’t count.)

Just like drivers and passengers on the road, all students deserve the type of education that ensures the necessary practice time to demonstrate mastery learning in order to move forward in their education. We receive many questions about the idea of remaining student-centered by teaching to levels of mastery when some schools and districts subscribe to a pacing guide or packaged instructional resource that dictates instruction down to the day. While we certainly don’t advise that teachers “go rogue” against the details of their teaching contract, we do recommend that teachers stay connected to their goals and learning targets by utilizing current student evidence to drive instructional decisions to move on.

The old adage, “go slow to move fast” applies here. If we don’t slow down to provide students the time they need to achieve the learning they need today, how can we ever expect them to move forward without carrying those struggles with them? We are not suggesting stalling out instruction for all in order to help a handful of students. However, we can provide teachers coaching support that creates a plan for reteaching or intervention with the students who need more time to solidify their learning.

Dialogue around establishing mastery is crucial in the planning phase of teaching so that all parties are clear on the expectations required for learning. Consider using the following questions to guide this phase of the coaching conversation.

Coaching Questions to Establish Mastery:

  • What are the learning targets (success criteria) that will help the students reach the goal?
  • What will we look for to measure mastery? What evidence will students produce to defend their learning?
  • Do the learning targets address a balance of know, understand, and do? Do they go beyond lessons and activities?
  • How will we communicate the success criteria to students?
  • How can we continue to offer additional support for students when evidence shows the need?

Final Thoughts
We are in a time when teachers feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Many are at a loss for how to meet the needs of their students given the changes in how they are learning. Others feel they are being asked to do the work of two or three different instructional delivery models at one time, leaving them wondering if they are making any impact at all. Yet, they still desire to do what’s right for their students. As Almarode and Vandas write (2018), “The gap between our desire to have an impact is determined by our willingness to struggle and persist with these decisions until we identify what works best for each and every learner in our schools and classrooms” ( p. 2). Student-Centered Coaching provides the space for teachers and coaches to lean into the important work of creating clarity around learning, thereby closing the gap for all students.

Read part 2 of this series where we discuss coaching to remove barriers and the necessary skills coaches can leverage in order to better support learning.

Almarode, J. and Vandas, K. (2018). Clarity For Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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

1 thought on “Student-Centered Coaching as a Pathway to Equity”

  1. I appreciate the clarity around mastery learning. It helps us keep our focus on individual student successes and needs.

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