Instructional coaches help districts stretch dollars and student achievement
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Tight budgets combined with high demands have sent educators in many directions in recent years, searching for ways to improve student achievement without breaking the bank.
In its recent report, Adequacy for Excellence in Kentucky, the Council for Better Education said research indicates that instructional coaches provide districts with a big bang for their buck, both in terms of student achievement and budgets.
PHOTO: Crittenden County Middle and High schools’ Instructional coach Tiffany Blazina, left, discusses a teaching strategy with seventh-grade teacher Mattea Meadows.
“In the state and in our districts, if we’re going to prioritize and focus our monies and energies, where can we get the biggest return on our investment?” asked Hardin County Schools Superintendent Nanette Johnston, who has helped present the findings in the CBE report. “And the research supports that instructional coaches are one of the highest returns on investment.”
Four instructional coaches have been working in Campbell County Schools for years, and school board Chairwoman Janis Winbigler said even with tight budgets, funding these positions makes financial sense because of their ability to impact teacher instruction and student learning.
“We feel like the instructional coaches can provide professional development in the classroom, work with the teachers right there, thereby saving us some professional development dollars,” she said. “They can really give a hands-on approach with the teachers right there in the classroom.
“The instructional coaches can really help the administration by giving them that extra set of hands and support in terms of doing the instruction and the curriculum in each of the buildings.”
Johnston said in her region, schools have been using an approach called Visible Learning, which posits that when teachers see learning through the eyes of their students it helps them become their own teachers.
Research says “feedback is very helpful for students, but it’s equally helpful for teachers,” she said. “One of the things I’ve learned is that in a classroom, teachers only see probably, according to (Visible Learning researcher) John Hattie, about 20 percent of what happens.
“So if you have an instructional coach, someone who has built that trust and rapport with the teacher, they can help be the eyes and ears, capture the things that are making the biggest impact on student learning, use data to support that, but use observation to support it as well, and give teachers positive, specific individual feedback. It has proven that it will make a positive impact on instruction and therefore will make a positive impact on student learning. So, it’s a win-win, really.”
Dr. Maggie McGatha, a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville who is a researcher, author and trainer in the subject of instructional coaches, said she believes this is one of the most effective forms of professional development for teachers because it is job- embedded and specific to the work of a teacher.
“Many times, teachers are required to go to professional development and they sit through it and they think, ‘This isn’t relevant to me,’” she said. “Coaching is about being in the building, with the teacher, job-embedded, ongoing; it’s sustained. It’s not a one-shot wonder where you go sit for two hours in a workshop and never do anything with it. It’s a very effective form of professional development in terms of supporting teachers.”
There is no one model for instructional coaching, or even one name, or even a typical day. In one district, a coach may still have his or her own daily teaching duties, while in another a coach may spend most of the time observing other teachers and offering feedback. In other cases, they provide resources and help teachers by analyzing student data or just being an extra pair of hands.
Tim Schneider has been an instructional coach with Campbell County Schools for seven years and said the position gets tweaked a little each year.
“I do a lot with data and data-driven decisions, job-embedded professional development, working with the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, curriculum alignment, both vertically and horizontally, lesson plan feedback,” he said. “And my feedback is usually in the form of some questioning just to get them to think a little bit deeper and more intentional about what they are planning.
“I’m not an evaluator, I never want to come across as an evaluator to the teachers that I coach, but I may try to get them to be reflective practitioners through the questioning that I may provide through feedback on their lesson plans.”
Schneider taught science for 20 years before becoming a coach, and his method of teaching provided a smooth transition to his approach to coaching.
“I’m a science teacher by trade and I’m all about inquiry learning,” he said. “I think we remember a lot and it’s more powerful if we discover for ourselves than if we’re told. When I led students in class with conversations about scientific phenomena, it’s more powerful if students discover the phenomena as opposed to me standing there and yakking about it. It’s kind of the same thing with teachers; it’s more powerful if I can lead them to discover those best practices than if I had just come in and said, ‘This is the best practice and you need to be doing it.’”
This year, Crittenden County has three instructional coaches, two at the elementary, and one shared between the middle and high schools.
Tiffany DeBoe, a math teacher now in her first year coaching at Crittenden Elementary, said she and her coaching partner, LaVanda Holloman, a language arts teacher, have daily teaching responsibilities, but they also help their fellow teachers with everything from using CIITS (Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System), to setting up online programs, to evaluating student assessment data and curriculum mapping.
“We’re in the classroom a lot,” DeBoe said. “I was in the Mathematics Content Leadership Network for four years. I think that was one of the things that made me so much better in the classroom, so I’m trying to share that this year with the other teachers to show them the things I learned that helped me get my kids to where they needed to be.
“Unless you are doing it with them, you can’t really see what it’s like unless they can see you doing it.”
They also take some work off teachers’ hands, so they can focus more on their students.
“We do a lot of data for PLCs (professional learning communities), running off reports so teachers can see where their kids are, showing them what skills those students have mastered so that they don’t keep spending time on those skills that those kids have already mastered,” DeBoe said. “I think that was an eye-opening experience for those teachers. Two weeks ago we ran off some reports and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, 100 percent of my first block has mastered that skill.’ They can see that their first block and second block really need to be differentiated. And it’s not that the teachers can’t go and see those reports, but it’s having the time to actually run those reports off and sit down and look at it.”
Third-grade teacher Mandy Perez said with 23 students in her classroom, many working at different levels, it’s good to have the extra help.
“It’s very powerful to have another set of hands in here, to help not only with behavior management, but to help with kids who work on a lower level,” she said. “They meet with us and we go over data, we go over benchmarks that we give the kids, we talk about what are the common questions that most of the kids have missed, the strengths and weaknesses of that question.
It’s very beneficial to have another set of eyes looking at data to help you understand or to see something that you may have missed. They talk about ways to improve instruction or strategies to use with that kid to help in an area.”
Tiffany Blazina said there is no typical day when it comes to working with teachers and students at Crittenden Middle and High schools.
“I still get in the classroom,” the first-year coach said. “That’s important and I think you need to keep that edge so you don’t forget what it’s like in the classroom. You don’t need to lose sight of what’s happening in a classroom, for teachers and students.”
Being that closely removed from the classroom, Blazina said she knows how precious time is to teachers.
“To have someone there who can do that research for you, to find you those resources you wanted to, but you have to prioritize: I want to get this finished and that finished,” she said. “So having a person to be able to do that for you is really beneficial.”
If there is a typical day for her, Blazina said it usually involves her being in a classroom.
“It can be co-teaching, it can be coming in and showing them a great resource that I’ve found,” she said. “I really love it when the teacher calls me and says, ‘I’ve got this really great thing I want you to come see it.’ And that’s happening more and more. This is the first year and it’s going to take a little while, but I think that’s going to become common practice, and it is happening more and more as we get to the end of the year.”