Sunday, December 11, 2011

Coaching Labs

Oftentimes in education, we treat teacher professional development as if it in no way mirrors best practices for students, when in reality what’s good for kids is good for those who teach them. This has become much more obvious to me as our county has begun implementing coaching labs based on the approach used by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Columbia University.

The model is built on a gradual release framework with the idea that teachers should have the chance to learn about a new approach to teaching, see it modeled with live students, co-plan and co-teach students with a colleague using the new approach, and then receive support as they implement it in their classrooms.

I’ve been piloting this approach over the past year and while some labs have gone very well, others have flopped. I’m beginning to find some guidelines that may help ensure labs are successful:

• Make sure teachers know the structure of the lab from the beginning. The time commitment is a big one – usually 90 minutes once a week for a series of weeks. Almost every time teachers begin the lab feeling resentful of the time commitment and not at all convinced it will be useful. Explain the focus of the labs and quickly give them valuable experiences to create buy-in.

• Be sure the lab has a specific focus and revisit that focus at each and every meeting. Too often we address topics that are too large – narrow the focus down. Instead of “guided reading”, make it more about the quality of the prompts during guided reading. Instead of “conferences”, make it about how to find the teaching point for average and above average readers. If something else comes up during the labs, don’t go chasing rabbits. Make a note for a future lab, but keep the focus on your intended teaching point. Otherwise you dilute the potential power of the labs and teachers will ask afterwards, “What was the purpose of what we did?”

• Allow teachers to have a say in the focus of the lab. Have a pre-lab meeting to ask teachers about their instructional needs. Dig deeply in the discussion to find that specific focus you’ll use in the labs.

• Be intentional about the structure of each lab. It should mirror the workshop approach of mini-lesson, work session, and sharing. Begin with information for the teachers specific to their work with children that day (the mini-lesson), have teachers work with or see you work with actual students (work session), and then debrief afterwards (sharing). Don’t allow the debrief session to be left off – this is where some of the most powerful thinking occurs.

• Broaden the debrief session. Too many times, the tendency will be to discuss the particular students the teachers just observed. A part of the debrief should concern these kids, but then the discussion should pretty quickly transfer the key understandings of this lab to the teaching happening in the teachers’ classrooms. Ask open-ended, divergent questions to get people thinking about their own practice.

• Don’t allow too much time between lab sessions. Each lab should build on the previous one, and if too much time elapses before teachers meet again the learning that occurred can be lost. At most, allow 2 weeks between sessions.

• Monitor the transfer to classroom instruction. As the lab sessions progress, teachers should begin to apply more of what they learn to their classroom practice. Coaches need to be there every step of the way, offering to model in teachers’ classrooms or co-teach lessons for added support. Teachers might also benefit from observing each other in their classrooms. Informal walk-throughs can let you know how comfortable teachers are with transferring learning from the lab to their classrooms.

This is at least a starting point towards conducting a successful coaching lab and avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into with less productive labs. Much of the feedback I’ve gotten regarding the labs has been very positive – teachers have enjoyed the hands-on approach and the sense that it met their needs and allowed them to be reflective about their practice.

As one participant said,
“Small group learning with practice on real students (because adult learning is really not that different than what works well with children!) is so much more meaningful than sitting in a big room watching someone click through a PowerPoint.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Coaching Openings

I remember the first time I worked my way into co-teaching in a classroom with a teacher because it happened completely unintentionally. When I began coaching I was na├»ve enough to believe that if people wanted help, they’d come right out and ask. It only took the first few months of aimlessly waiting to realize that I could gather cobwebs and dust before someone might trust me enough to outright ask for help.

Instead, that first opening came as so many since have – in the form of griping. A third grade teacher came to our coach’s office to complain about all the demands being asked of her and the stress of trying to make writing workshop work with “these kids”. I nodded sympathetically, but my colleague – the experienced literacy coach – recognized it for what it was: an opening to coach. “Heather just came out of teaching 3rd grade,” she commented, “she’d be glad to help out during your writing workshop and lend a hand”.

Sure enough, once I was in her room I found I could offer solutions and help her problem-solve the issues her kids were running into. But if my colleague hadn’t helped me see her griping as an invitation, we both still be in our individual rooms, each frustrated with our particular situations.

Most of the time, coaching openings are just as subtle as this one was. I learned my lesson that time, and became much more adept at hearing pleas for help stated in different languages – sometimes it came in the form of tears of frustration, or bursts of anger, or confusion about testing results. Sometimes teachers came at me sideways, asking for one thing when they really wanted help with another. And after quite a while, a few people began to trust me and started asking outright if I’d come assist with particular kids or instructional situations.

No matter how long I’ve been coaching, I’ve always got to be ready to respond to openings. Sometimes the best openings are camouflaged in subtle ways.