By Dr. Ken Wallace
Maine 207 Superintendent
At Maine Township High School District 207 we are “ALL IN” on instructional coaching; in fact our class of 2018 seniors was likely the first in American history to have graduated from high schools in which every teacher, every year, had an instructional coaching plan to raise the quality of teaching in each classroom. While our instructional coaching began in 2007 when we discovered that most staff trained in Cooperative Learning hadn’t actually implemented the strategy in their classrooms, we evolved that practice in each building and launched our comprehensive model in the fall of 2014. This video provides a brief overview that includes student and teacher voices.
Our model for the first four “all in” years included instructional coaching plans in 1:1 coaching, peer coaching, instructional rounds, as well as our CLEAR (Collaborative Learning Education Action Research) project in action research. We have five teacher coaches in each school, and each of them, by design, teaches half time and coaches half time so that the coaching case loads are spread equitably across each coach who is also a teacher practitioner. This year we have added a fifth instructional coaching path in partnership with Northwestern University and National Louis University to reimagine student teaching. This path not only provides a vastly improved model to support student teachers, but it also is a path for District 207 to provide something essential to our growth: more avenues for teacher leadership for our teachers. We also think the model is one in which districts who either have opt-in coaching models (the most common) or want to start new models can use the student teaching coaching model to help launch or grow their instructional coaching program.
Here’s how the new student teaching model will work: District 207 teachers who wish to take on student teachers in our new instructional coaching plan, must apply and be accepted into the program. Teachers undergo level 1 training at the Chicago Coaching Center, which we launched in the summer of 2016 to provide practitioner-focused training to those interested in becoming instructional coaches, as well as those interested in improving their practice. Our audience members are mostly instructional coaches from outside our district, but we think “inside out” on our growth and innovations. We saw the Chicago Coaching Center as a way to grow our cadre of teacher leaders, as well to support ventures like improved student teaching models. District 207 teachers also attend an additional day of training that is co-led by National Louis, Northwestern and District 207 Adult Learning Coordinator and Chicago Coaching Center Director Jill Geocaris on the specific practices related to coaching student teachers. These practices focus on coaching in the moment in the classroom rather than traditional “observe then debrief” models that most cooperative teachers use.
Student teachers selected for the program will work first with their supervising teachers in a co-teaching format, but gradually that will shift into a coaching model in which the supervising teacher helps the student teacher by providing coaching feedback throughout the student teaching experience. This allows a trusted master teacher to give feedback to student teachers as the inevitable “new teacher” situations occur. Currently in most student teaching models, events are happening without the eyes of an instructional coach to help provide feedback in real time to help improve the learning for prospective teachers. We think this model will provide a vastly improved level of support to increase new teacher success as they transition into practice, and we also think it will contribute to teacher retention in the long run. Both of those are areas of study that this model will provide. We truly believe that this model is the future of student teaching in America.
We also believe that the benefits of this model go well beyond those received from the student teachers. In District 207, an essential element of our Adult Learning program is that it is teacher led. We frame our work in the William Glasser idea that says we retain and master that which we teach at much higher levels than virtually every other learning method. It’s the concept of metacognition applied to adult learning. For organizations to be truly great, everyone needs to find his or her “best” self, and in doing so, we create conditions for the school system to be its best self, and we have created conditions for the school system to truly be a learning system that is adept at getting better. This new coaching path removes teachers for a time from being coached formally (they will still work with coaches through the student teaching cycle), and provides a leadership opportunity, which is also a learning opportunity.
There is much at stake right now and in the future for growing and retaining teachers, and we think this model can help create conditions not only to support new teachers, but also to help school districts retain and support their own teachers in creating leadership opportunities, one of the essential supports commonly cited by teachers as strategies to increase teaching satisfaction. Finally, this coaching of student teachers can help the district expand their coaching models. In “opt in” models some teachers are fearful of being coached, but that element doesn’t exist in this model; instead the teacher is elevated to leadership status while advancing instructional coaching as a worthwhile practice to improve teaching. The more that this can occur in any school or district, the more chance that we have to evolve teaching from an isolated practice to one that is seen as a learning journey. When classrooms become learning labs where we share and grow together in a trusted environment, schools and districts are on the road to being their very best.
Here are some critical keys:
- Make sure that coaches have support and training before coaching. Being an effective classroom teacher and being an effective peer instructional coach are not necessarily the same thing. That’s why we launched the Chicago Coaching Center after having really invested in training and coaching our coaches to evolve practice.
- Peer coaching has to be non evaluative. For true peer instructional coaching to grow organically in a school or district, trust that coaching is solely for the support of teacher growth is essential. Certainly administrators can help coach teachers as well, but because they also evaluate, administrative coaching is unlikely to produce the type of safe and trusting environment that peer coaching can.
- Treat teaching as a learning journey and don’t be afraid to fail or be less than perfect. One of the biggest mistakes we make in education is that we are preoccupied with eliminating mistakes, perhaps because for so long we have been an answer-driven business in which value is placed on who gets the most “right” answers. For real growth, we have to flip this model and begin valuing questions as much or more than answers. For teachers to be inspired learners they have to be allowed to fail and learn just like any other real learner. This will establish both trust and, just as important, the conditions in which a learning organization can emerge. We are starting with a cohort of nine teachers this year. While we believe that even in year one we will provide one of the best student teaching models available, we also expect to learn many things this year that will help us improve right now and also for next year’s group. We will never be done learning how to do things better. Next year, based on our experience with teacher leadership, we will have two or three times as many teachers coaching student teachers as we do this year. Stay the course, do it right, and organizational capacity will grow.
- Have an explicit and aspirational vision. At District 207, we are trying to be to teaching and learning what learning hospitals are to medicine. We are doing this by creating conditions to achieve what Hattie calls “collective efficacy,” which occurs when a variety of conditions, but most importantly, teacher quality, are at the highest level possible and working in a systems approach to serve students. This vision connects the work to the meaning of improving learning for students. It helps establish the “WHY?” that each person is a part of.