Using Mini Cycles to Take Student-Centered Coaching Deeper

Written by: Leanna Harris and Diane Sweeney

“Coaching is exceptionally needed but nobody has the time for it.”
      –    Chris Finch, Assistant Superintendent, La Grange School District

Now that the school year is in full swing, instructional coaches are looking for ways to go deeper in their partnerships with teachers. In years past, we would be launching our first round of coaching cycles around now. While some teachers are ready to jump right in, others are holding back for a variety of reasons. This may include the need for more immediate help focused on delivering virtual or blended instruction. We also can’t ignore the fact that some teachers may be overwhelmed with the demands they are facing right now and can’t fathom spending 4-6 weeks working on a standards-based goal with a coach.

We agree that coaching is exceptionally needed in today’s schools. Instructional coaches aren’t comfortable sitting on the sidelines. They want to be responsive but also understand the urgency around student outcomes. We recommend mini coaching cycles as a key strategy to address these challenges.

What is a Mini Coaching Cycle?
A guiding principle for Student-Centered Coaching is to build partnerships around student learning. Mini coaching cycles are no different. They create rich opportunities for teachers and coaches to work together on a key strategy or instructional practice and monitor how students are doing as the new practice is used.

Mini coaching cycles take place with an individual teacher and have the key elements of a regular coaching cycle. They begin with a goal or learning target and include the collection of student evidence, co-planning, co-teaching, and many opportunities for reflection. The difference is in the scope. Instead of going through the co-planning and co-teaching process several times over 4-6 weeks, in mini cycles we work through this sequence just once or twice. That makes mini cycles shorter in duration, lasting only about one to two weeks. How long depends on the needs of the teacher and the size of the goal or learning target. Knowing a mini cycle is just a week or two long makes it easier for a coach and teacher to decide when each session will occur. The figure below shows the stages in a mini coaching cycle.

stages in mini coaching cycles

What Do Mini Coaching Cycles Look and Sound Like? 
Much like with regular coaching cycles, we recommend using a series of guiding questions to steer the planning and implementation of the work. Together these questions create a focused series of conversations that keep student learning at the forefront. 

Stage 1: What is the goal or target? What intended student learning does it sit under?
Establishing the focus for the work is a key first step. Getting clear on the intended student learning sets us up for success. If the goal is process oriented, we first must identify the learning that it sits within. For example, a 4th grade class is working on equivalence and ordering of fractions. The teacher shares that a lot of students are struggling to stay engaged during the virtual class discussions. So for a mini cycle, they decide to work on the learning target, “I can use the chat feature to share my thinking and respond to others in class discussions.” The learning is still about the math standard, but the mini cycle is focused on a process to keep the students more engaged. If the teacher wanted to focus more directly on the math standard, then the goal might be a  learning target within the broader unit, such as; “I can place fractions in order on a number line.”

Stage 2: What evidence do we have, or need, that will inform us of where the students are?
All good instruction starts with the question, “Where are the students now?” In a full coaching cycle, the teacher and coach partner to design a pre-assessment that provides valuable insights about where the students are at the beginning of the unit. Since mini cycles happen on a much smaller scale, a teacher may already have some student evidence that can be used to plan next steps. If not, the coach and teacher determine what they can collect and analyze to get a sense of where the students are before planning next steps. 

Stage 3: Based on our evidence, what did we learn and what can we try?
Now that we know where the students are as learners, we can better pinpoint the instruction that is needed to move them forward. We also want to be sure to consider how students will demonstrate their understanding so we can use that evidence for future planning. This may mean the teacher and coach discuss a future formative assessment that is open-ended and shows what the students can understand, know, and do. 

Stage 4: How will we co-deliver instruction?
With a hashed out lesson plan in place, it’s time to think about what co-teaching will look like. Whether virtually or in person, it’s important to be explicit and intentional about the roles the teacher and coach will each play in the various parts of the lesson. This can involve virtual and in person co-teaching moves like Noticing and Naming, Teaching in Tandem, and Co-Conferring. For more on virtual and in person co-teaching moves, read our free ebook on coaching virtually. 

Stage 5: How did the students do? What are some next steps for instruction?
When the lesson is done and there is a fresh set of student evidence, it’s time to plan how the teacher will carry the work forward. This may include another round of co-planning and co-teaching, or it may be the end of the mini cycle and the teacher will move forward on their own. Either way this reflection is a key part of the process. 

Sometimes that is the end of the story and the coach moves on to work with other teachers. We’ve also seen many examples of a mini coaching cycle leading to more formal work with a coach. Either way, coaches can wrap up a mini cycle knowing they were responsive to teachers’ needs while having a meaningful impact on student learning as well.

How Do I Document Mini Coaching Cycles?

A Final Thought
In these unprecedented times, it can be hard to know how to support teachers beyond offering resources and assisting with all the new technology involved in teaching during the pandemic. Mini cycles offer a great structure to take the coaching work deeper while still being sensitive to the challenging situation in which teachers currently find themselves.

© Diane Sweeney Consulting

2 thoughts on “Using Mini Cycles to Take Student-Centered Coaching Deeper”

  1. The Four-Square Planner is a great tool for tracking the progress of students and even teachers that we are coaching.

  2. This is a great article-it’s almost as if Diane read my mind and knew EXACTLY what I need! I looked in the resources tab for a template for the Coaching log:Mini Cycle but didn’t find one. Do you have one? Otherwise I will get one together! Thanks again!!!

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