Portrait of a Coaching Team at Work
What does it look like to be a teacher and an instructional coach in the middle of a pandemic? It looks like a student debriefing a math test on a Zoom call from a hunting blind.
It’s experiences like this that led Hannah Worley, teacher-coach at Madison High School, to say, “I think that coaching and teaching keeps me grounded. I always hear that it is easy to forget the other side when you move into a leadership position, but this allows me to keep my feet grounded while experiencing the leadership side.”
Building a Team of Teacher-Coaches
Just north of Asheville lies Madison County, a tight-knit, rural community. Marshall, the county seat, is home to both Madison High School and Madison Early College High School. The two schools share a hillside campus, and a desire to improve student learning through increasing teacher collaboration and developing a team of teacher-coaches.
In 2017, school and district leaders from Madison County Schools approached Constructive Learning Design (CLD) with the goal of building a team of in-house teacher-coaches. Jennifer Caldwell, principal of Madison Early College High School, explains, “I wanted to grow teacher leaders and provide in-house PD to better meet our professional goals. Coaching creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust within our faculty.”
From left to right: Julie Young, Georgina Ray, Marlowe Weingart, Hannah Worley and Leslie Schoof. Madison County coaches attended CoachFest in 2019 to share their journey with other instructional coaches from around the state.
Following these initial conversations, principals at both Madison High School and Madison Early College High School identified a cross-curricular team of teacher leaders, including Hannah Worley (Math), Leslie Schoof (Science), Marlowe Weingart (English), and Julie Young (English), to work with CLD coaches in CLD’s Coach Academy program.
Julie Young said about Coach Academy, “I learned a lot about active listening and clarifying/probing questions, discovered lots of protocols, and used School Reform Initiative protocols as a resource. I remember getting a lot out of the simulations—from the coaching end as well as the teacher’s perspective. I was nervous about ‘playing the part of the coach’ but it became second nature from all the practice in our sessions.”
For Weingart the experience of coaching her peers has had a profound impact on her career. “ I realized that I felt really called to work with teachers to support them in their craft,” she said.
And for Worley, being both a teacher and a coach is crucial. ”I think that coaching and teaching keeps me grounded. I always hear that it is easy to forget the other side when you move into a leadership position, but this allows me to keep my feet grounded while experiencing the leadership side.”
Since those first Coach Academy sessions to today, the Madison County coaches have continued to grow as a team, meeting new challenges like global pandemics, along the way. 2020 marks the first year that all four teacher-coaches have dedicated time in their daily schedules for coaching. All four teach for two class periods, leaving two periods for planning and coaching.
So, What Do Teacher-Coaches Do?
We may have similar notions about what teachers do, but instructional coaches are another story. One of the ongoing challenges for the Madison County team is to help teachers and leaders understand their role and their approach to coaching, and to try to correct any misconceptions that coaching is punitive, evaluative, or hierarchical.
Instructional coaching is a form of ongoing, on-the-job learning that honors teachers as peers and professionals. Coaches work with teachers, 1-on-1, and in small groups to design, co-teach, observe, and discuss the effectiveness of learning experiences. Caldwell adds that coaching allows for “more collaboration and planning together, unpacking the standards and realizing the connections between teachers’ content areas.”
During the pandemic, the Madison County teacher-coaches had to get even more creative about communicating who they are and how they can provide valuable support to teachers.
Scott Whitney, teacher at Madison Early College, said, “The coaches have been more than willing to provide support, both technically and emotionally, through what has been an unprecedented educational experience. There were times…when Julie provided just the right nudge or encouragement to get me refocused and moving in a positive direction again. The coaches even sought out and welcomed help for their own struggles and allowed me to feel like I could contribute beyond my own sphere of influence.”
Julie Young explained, “People appreciate that we are available for on-the-spot guidance as opposed to long trainings and meetings. And the pandemic has made PD an on-the-spot, on-demand coaching necessity.”
Creating Time and Space for Coaching and Collaboration
It’s often challenging for small schools to create a schedule that gives teacher-coaches a class period dedicated to coaching their peers. However, by getting creative with scheduling, Caldwell and Dr. David Robinson, Principal at Madison High School, provided all four of these teacher-coaches with a coaching period, creating the necessary time and space for coaches to work with teachers.
“You build a team in your school that works together, learns together, grows together, and most importantly stays together. We are sharing resources, and have teachers who teach at both schools. We are planning together, and getting more opportunities to share.”—Jennifer Caldwell, Madison Early College High School Principal
Leslie Schoof added, “A team offers different options to teachers: they can have choice in who they decide to work with. A team can also be more flexible than one person allowing more opportunities to meet/talk with teachers. A common coaching period is essential because it gives the coaches time to meet together and plan out how they can be most effective for their school.”
Learning Walks and Study Visits
In addition to coaching teachers one-on-one and in small groups, the Madison teacher-coaches have implemented some activities that bring all teachers together to learn. One of the most powerful and popular learning experiences are learning walks.
Learning walks are a non-evaluative way to engage teachers in conversations around the questions, “What are students learning? And, how do we know?” Learning walks take different forms, but they always involve teachers visiting each other’s classes for short periods of time and discussing what they saw. The goal is to create a mutually beneficial learning experience for the host and visiting teachers.
“During the first couple years of our partnership, CLD designed and facilitated different study visit and learning walk experiences inside and outside of Madison County,” explained Constructive Learning Design co-owner Jay Korreck. “We took the MCS coaches and leaders to Buncombe County Early College during the first year. What’s been really cool, and, it’s at the heart of what we do, is to see the shift from CLD being the primary designers and facilitators to being co-designers and facilitators, and now the Madison County coaches are designing and facilitating their own learning walks and study visits both within their county and also inviting educators from outside the district to visit and learn together.”
Principal Jennifer Caldwell said, “Learning walks and study visits have been instrumental in reflecting on our practices and allowing our staff and students to break down our walls and open our doors for improvement and growth. It is necessary for continued school improvement and student achievement. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to grow.”
Madison Early College teachers from left to right: Julie Young (coach), Scott Whitney (Science teacher), and Erin Long (English teacher). Julie supports the teachers in implementing Challenge Based Learning through the RootEd program. As teachers worked through an online course on CBL, Julie hosted regular meetings to help people in planning and facilitating their projects.
Obviously the trials of the pandemic weigh heavily on educators across the globe. It would be easy to call 2020 (and probably 2021, as well) a wash for students. But the Madison County coaches are working hard to to continue making teaching a collaborative conversation, rather than an isolated practice. “The school culture hasn’t gone down the tubes as a result of the pandemic influences,” Scott Whitney said. “I fear that without some of the positive vibes and supports provided by the coaches there could have been a significant downturn in staff outlook.”
Madison County coaches are working hard to to continue making teaching a collaborative conversation, rather than an isolated practice.
Worley is working with administrators and teachers to co-develop an evaluation system expressly based on teacher input. She says, “Since we are redefining education almost on a daily basis, we realize that the old Teacher Evaluation process may not fit with our current methods.” The teachers used this Jamboard as a way to brainstorm after thinking through the question: What are 5 things you would want to see if you visited any random classroom at Madison High School?
A growing number of teachers in Madison County are also getting involved with the RootEd-WNC program, a partnership between Constructive Learning Design and Appalachian State Universitys’ GEAR UP program to support teachers in implementing Challenge Based Learning (CBL). The RootEd program supports teachers and leaders to connect their students and schools with communities to solve challenges. In the process, students develop creative problem solving skills, and deepening their understanding of academic content.
Leslie Schoof and Julie Young belong to a cohort of RootEd teachers. They not only work on CBL in their own classrooms, but also collaborate with teachers in their schools to grow the program, using their role as instructional coaches to help teachers develop the skillsets and mindsets for implementing CBL. Science teacher Oshen Wallin says, “I have been attempting to have project-based learning in my classroom for years but always felt like there was something lacking in the project. I was unable to figure it out. Also I have been wanting to work with others to implement relevant and meaningful projects. My experience with challenge-based learning and RootEd have given me the formal training and confidence to implement such projects with community members, fellow teachers, and the students.”
We’ve Come So Far
Four years ago, Madison High School and Madison Early College High School didn’t have in-house coaches and there wasn’t a strong culture of collaboration between the high schools. By developing a true team of coaches, Madison County Schools has improved the partnership between the two campuses, and created an atmosphere where coaches are an invaluable part of providing powerful learning experiences for students and teachers.
Julie Young says, “The first couple of years of Constructive Learning Design’s training for coaches in Madison County, I was probably soaking so much in that I didn’t realize how much I was learning until I look back now. I think I have come a long way and so has our school. I can ask clarifying questions now, I can offer some ideas and keep problem solving, I can offer non-evaluative feedback, I have become more confident leading walk throughs, even school-wide ones, and I’ve gotten so much from working with Leslie and the other coaches. Our school has gone from no PLCs to regular ones, no coaching to coaches making school-wide decisions and leading faculty meetings and trainings, from no PBL/CBL to that becoming our hallmark.”