The best surgeons, athletes, musicians, CEO’s, woodworkers have mentors or coaches to help them refine their craft to become excellent. These coaches do not take over for their apprentice, mentee, the sports player or pianist. Rather they are an outside perspective that trains, challenges, nudges, celebrates, and uncovers blind spots to help increase performance and skill. The impact of a coach in undeniable. Why would we not offer the same to those who are shaping our nation’s future?
Thankfully, the Cotsen Foundation has been doing just this! It is with great honor that I close out as Acacia’s Cotsen Mentor at the end of this school year. We received the highly acclaimed and very rare second round cohort, totaling our numbers of Cotsen Fellows (selected teachers) to thirteen over the past four years. For many parents, it’s easy to get a feel of their child’s learning environment by volunteering in the class or chaperoning a field trip. But to understand the countless hours of planning, reflecting, creating, assessing, and collaborating that occurs after 2:30 is quite a challenge. Here, I will take you behind the scenes to get a sneak peek of what it’s like to serve as an instructional coach to some of the best teachers I know.
In his article about strategies for surface to deep learning, Peter DeWitt notes “to an outsider’s perspective, teaching may look like we all open up a textbook and teach the next concept that comes on the next page as students sit at their desks waiting for us to tell them what that concept may be and how they can use it. Perhaps in some classrooms, that may be how teaching actually is...However, in other classrooms teaching and learning come together fluently. Teachers ask questions but don’t dominate the talk in the classrooms, and students ask questions back to the teacher or in partnership groups with peers. They use different strategies to acquire the learning, which coincides with all of those questions going back and forth around the room.” This seamless convergence of teaching and learning from all participants in a classroom reflects a true art form. This is the focus of the Cotsen Foundation’s partnership with Acacia School’s Mentor and Fellows -- to transform good teachers into great as they become artful in their craft. But this work does not come without the Fellows’ willingness to take risks, reflect, and trust their Mentor in a weekly coaching cycle. I have the honor of serving as the instructional coach and mentor at Acacia for our now final year in Cotsen.
“If it’s done correctly, teaching is both rewarding and complicated,” continues DeWitt. With the continuing search for best teaching practices, high stakes assessments, and ever shifting events in a single day’s classroom, educators alike are turning to external resources to help them deepen their students’ learning to prepare them for the jobs of the future. This is where the Cotsen Foundation got it right: capitalizing on a good teacher’s strongest content area, giving them access to differentiated professional development, and providing them with a full-time coach to help them move into excellent and artful teaching. This trifecta has provided Acacia with both statistical and empirical evidence of the positive impacts the Reflective Coaching Cycle has on student learning.
“Working with a mentor gave me the courage to make a big shift in my teaching. My mentor supported me in research, assessment, and next steps for my students. It was another teacher in the room to bounce ideas off of and to discuss student growth and needs with. Having a mentor allowed me to focus on (my) practice and make changes to support students at their current level.” - Acacia Fellow
So what exactly does this look like at Acacia?
My day typically starts with scheduled classroom observations of Fellows. These lessons are often the result a collaborative effort of studying best instructional practices and their effects on students, both as a whole class and individually. Fellows let me know how I can be of specific support to them through each lesson. This may include collecting data on student responses, co-teaching a lesson, modeling a reading conference, pulling a small group of students to focus on a writing strategy, monitoring the teacher’s pace and clarity of instruction, analyzing how a student solves a math problem or groups their counting collections. The possibilities truly are endless. This 45-60 minute session is a living and breathing organism, changing course as we study the immediate effects our instruction has on students. Sometimes our original goals need to be scaffolded or accelerated or completely changed because students are showing and telling us information we hadn’t yet planned for. This is the beauty of having a non-evaluative coach in the classroom. We can quickly collaborate to make on-the-spot decisions that will provide students with an even better learning opportunity.
This is my favorite part of the day.
One of the joys of my job is getting to talk with students about their thinking, pushing for depth and clarity as they test out how to best communicate their growing ideas. Sometimes we talk about how an author uses a craft move to uncover the complexity of a character. Other times we talk about the impact an opening sentence might have on the reader in a personal narrative piece. Or we talk about how numbers can be decomposed into other numbers and how each has a prominent value. Or why a student decided to group their counting collection uncovering their knowledge of multiplication...as a five year-old! Sometimes the Fellow and I will simply watch a student “in the wild.” This means we stand back and observe a student or group of students working or having a discussion, taking notes so we can analyze how to best support them in their next steps.
Ok, this is the best part of my day.
The day continues with time blocked out for me to reflect on the lesson in relation to the Fellow’s goals. Sometimes this includes preparing certain materials for our next steps. I make adjustments to the type of support I offer, conduct research on behalf of the Fellow, plan our whole group Inquiry book study, and take care of office work. Currently, I am reading a few different books to support my Fellows’ work: Mathematical Mindsets for Ms. Hernandez and Miss Koski, Conferring with Readers for Mrs. DiLuigi, Ms. Knapp, Mrs. Cockerill, and Mrs. Mills, and How’s It Going for Mrs. Thomas. I am also studying different experts in the educational coaching field such as Elena Aguilar and Jim Knight. It is not uncommon to find myself down a rabbit trail of articles with embedded links leading to further research on topics such as avoiding decision fatigue for teachers or the impact of flexible seating. One of the struggles of being a classroom teacher is not having protected time to study experts in our field and analyze best practices in light of our own classes. The Cotsen Foundation sees this as a vital element to our work as mentors and purposefully builds in research/study hours into our schedule.
Well, maybe, this is the best part of my day.
At some point within a day or two of the observed lesson, each Fellow meets with me to debrief their lesson and reflect on their practice overall. We discuss any data I collected, analyze student work, talk about the strengths and challenges of the lesson, troubleshoot and problem solve. We talk through individual students using work samples or anecdotal notes in order to best plan next steps both as the teacher and for the students. Sometimes we plan a micro lesson for the next day or adjust the weekly plans based on our debrief. As the week continues, I check back in on Fellows’ progress and our agreed upon actions from the debrief meeting. Sometimes we redesign a lesson based on new data to ensure students are receiving the best instructional practices. These three elements -- planning, observation, debrief -- make up the Reflective Coaching Cycle. Walking alongside teachers as they process their work and the effects it has on their students is invigorating.
Ok, no, this is the best part of my day.
As I reflect on each day during my commute home, I am regularly astonished at how vulnerable and willing each Fellow has been throughout our two cohorts. Although participation in the Cotsen partnership is voluntary, the Fellows at their core are relentless in their desire to grow as professionals. But they do not pursue professional development in vain. Everything stems from being morally compelled to provide their students, your children, with the absolute best learning environment. This requires constant reflection of what we say and do, how we approach our learning objectives, and what each child brings to the classroom community.
It truly has been an honor and quite a unique experience to walk alongside amazing teachers and watch them actively make changes to their practice, despite having three or twenty years under their belt. What a beautiful testament to our students of what it truly means to be a lifelong learner.
To read more about the Cotsen partnership with Acacia, please visit www.Cotsen.org or Acacia’s website, About Us. Or see what some of the students have said:
-Mrs. Given helps me think more deeply about things. - Lucia
-She helps get the learner out of me that's in the inside of me. - Sarah
-Mrs. Given helps me as a learner by asking me questions of the books I'm reading so I can grow my ideas of a book. – Lorraine
-She always explains things to me when I'm confused or gives me extra help when I need it. - Evette