Diane Sweeney is the author of Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals. In this podcast with Heather Rader, she talks about the dangers of focusing too much on teachers’ lessons and not enough on student work when coaching. You can follow Diane’s work at her website, Spark+Innovation.
A full transcript is below the player.
Heather Rader: You say that student work is at the heart of student-centered coaching. Without student work, coaching quickly slips toward being more about teaching practice and less about student learning. So talk to me about that slip toward teaching practice and how to get back on the student learning track.
Diane Sweeney: Well, this statement is based on my own personal journey as a coach, and I think it’s interesting. I think we can agree that the decisions teachers make and the skill that they use as – that they employ best practice and how they teach is an important key for student learning, but several years ago it occurred to me that I was becoming so much about teaching practice that I had lost focus on the students, and I was making the assumption that if teachers were using best practice then we could be assured that student learning would occur.
And my coaching kind of became about fixing teachers more than about the learning kids were doing, and this created all kinds of problems, and the biggest one was that I wasn’t even sure if my coaching was making a difference whatsoever for the students, and so I really needed to know. I needed to know that my coaching conversations were making a difference with kids. So I began to use student work really as my primary tool to accomplish this, and what I found is if some form of student work isn’t at the table then the conversations I have suddenly shift to being really more about what the teacher did during the lesson and less about how the students performed.
And so I think some of this is okay, and I love discussing teaching practice and planning lessons, but I found that by bringing student work into the conversation I can really make sure coaching is benefiting both the students and the teachers. So it’s really probably the most important tool I use as a coach is that use of student work.
Heather Rader: That’s great. That makes so much sense. So in the first chapter of your book you address principals and their important role, and then you have this continuing component of “meanwhile in the principal’s office” section that goes throughout the other chapters, which I think is key, and you write, “Many principals are concerned with a handful of struggling teachers. They know something needs to be done and a common strategy is to create a subtle or not so subtle campaign to fix those teachers.” So tell me more about the skill set principals need and what the coach can do if his or her principal doesn’t have those skills yet.
Diane Sweeney: It’s interesting. In my work with schools and districts I regularly encounter coaches who are not being used to their full potential, and typically these are your go-getter teacher leaders who became coaches and then found that nobody really knew what to do with them, and I wrote the portions of the book that were geared towards leading coaching. As I was writing that I was really thinking about these folks, but I was also thinking about the school leaders who know they have to improve student achievement and they have been given a coach, but they haven’t received a lot of guidance on what to do with a coach, and to me this is an utter waste of resources.
So I’ve been working on – with a lot of teachers – with teacher leaders, with coaches, and with principals on what that skill set really is for principals, and I think there’s really specific leadership skills for principals, specifically those who have coaches in their schools. A principal – first off, I think a principal really has to understand how to create a culture of achievement in a school, and that’s really a leadership quality. They have to define high expectations for both the students and the teachers, and if a principal understands how to make this happen they really set the stage for coaching, but this takes, I think, a lot of skills and confidence on the part of the principal, and it’s not necessarily easy, but it really frames coaching as – in a school that really has a culture of learning established.
So that’s probably the first primary skill I – when I see that in place in schools I find that coaching really fits beautifully, and it also – once those – once there’s some clear expectations for really what kids are doing, what teachers are doing, and there’s a level of accountability around those, the principal and the coach can then design meaningful opportunities for teachers to learn together, and that, I think, is a secondary skill set which is really around how to design professional development and doing so, I think, in a way that’s as student centered as possible, that’s as much about what learning kids are doing and not just about planning meetings necessarily.
Another skill set for principals is making sure teachers are authentically engaged in the coaching. I found that often times there are – some teachers may be participating, others aren’t, and coaches have a hard time navigating that. So in my opinion, we can really present it in terms of if this coaching is student centered then the message there is really that we’re all candidates for coaching because we all have students with needs. So it’s no longer about fixing the broken teachers in a school or saying, “Good teachers don’t have to participate, struggling teachers do.” We actually all participate because we’re all moving our kids learning forward, and so I don’t typically believe that teachers should be allowed to opt out. I think they should be given choices in how they engage, but if it’s a student centered approach we can all participate and we all have reasons to participate. So that’s a kind of a skill I think principals communicating that broadly and holding teachers accountable to participate and to really be invested in the process.
If a principal isn’t sure on how to lead the process yet and if they’re developing themselves in this work I recommend for coaches to really just focus on using core practices for student centered coaching like getting student work at the table, like making sure that they’re designing their schedule in a way where they have ongoing work with teachers so that they can go deep with teachers through coaching cycles, allowing themselves maybe time to build rapport with teachers so that there is trust in the process. There is a lot a coach can do with or without the support from the principal, but I’ve found that for it to affect the school and not be a pocket impact, but to affect the school broadly really that leadership piece is essential.
Heather Rader: Your line just really stuck with me that just that everyone is a candidate for coaching because we all have students with needs. That’s just so succinct and gets right at what coaching is truly supposed to be about.
Diane Sweeney: Yeah, and it’s kind of a different spin on it, and I think it eliminates some of that resistance to coaching because people feel like they’re being personally attacked or not being treated with respect. I think the more we can make it about the kids the less we have of all those other side effects that we see so often.
Heather Rader: Yeah, and it answers that question, “Why are you working with a coach?” “Because I have students.”
Diane Sweeney: Yeah. We all have that. Every teacher.
Heather Rader: That’s right. Well, many coaches ask about how to best measure their impact. What advice do you have around that?
Diane Sweeney: Yes. My take on measuring impact really relies on formative data. It doesn’t necessarily rely on the data that a district receives in the spring as a result of the state test. I’ve taken this – I – a couple reasons. I’ve taken this approach because I want the impact to be measured in a way that’s relevant, that means something to teachers in a present sense but also allows the teacher flexibility so that they can address things and be more responsive. So the way we do that is I use a tool that – I created a tool to help coaches document just their impact to cross a coaching cycle that would be about six to eight weeks long, and in the tool itself it works – it’s kind of a simple process in it has a natural flow that really matches how a coach works, and it works like this – a coach and a teacher would really begin at the outset of a coaching cycle setting a goal for student learning, and so that is the overall focus for all of their work together.
And the key here is to make sure that it’s a goal for students instead of being a goal for the teacher, and this is – this takes practice ’cause a lot of times teachers bring goals for themselves, like, “I wanna improve at conferring,” or “I wanna be better at minilessons,” and so we try to shift them to think about a goal for their students. “My students will, dot, dot, dot.” What do you want them to learn as a result of our work together? So for documenting impact that’s the huge first piece so that we’re really documenting what our kids learn, and so the second piece is then it’s natural to think, “Okay. Well, together the teacher and coach can create a pre-assessment.”
So we need to measure where they are now with this goal, and so often it could be a rubric. They create it together usually. It could be something that comes directly from curricular materials. It could be a simple checklist, a set of learning targets, some simple assessment that we could capture where the kids are, and then the next piece of it is that they would co-design and co-teach and just really move forward in the instruction. So they’re thinking about – and this again is over a coaching cycle. So they have several weeks to try things and change their approach and measure kids and see how they’re doing in relationship to the goal, and I like co-teaching because it’s such a partnership approach.
So they really are moving kids together, working together to move kids towards the goal, and then at the end of the cycle they’ve been trying these things. They’ve had a very clear vision. They know where kids were when they started. So the last piece is to really reassess and to almost use the same – typically use the same assessment and say – “Hey, where are kids now at the end of the cycle?” and also, “Where’s the teacher?” so that a coach can document the growth that the teacher made as a teacher in terms of instructional practice.
So you can get both points of data, and it’s really fascinating ’cause we’ve been collecting a lot of data on this, and on average I’m finding that students begin a coaching cycle at about 28 percent proficiency, and so it means it’s a good goal ’cause it’s something they don’t know how to do yet. At the end of the coaching cycle they’re reaching an average proficiency of 68 to 70 percent, and that’s a pretty good increase. That’s 40 percent or so at about 6 weeks, but also there’s still room there. There’s room for those kids who aren’t there yet. So what do we do with them, and it presents a great opportunity for the coach and the teacher to continue collaborating around that so we’re not just moving on to the next unit, but they can then say, “All right. We have six kids that we need to figure out what’s going on.” So it really provides a lot of information and my thinking – I’ve – I’m developing a little thinking – new thinking. I’m working on a book for particularly high school, but also middle school coaches –
Heather Rader: Oh, great.
Diane Sweeney: – and I’m just starting that. Yeah. That’s kind of a brand new project, and I’m really trying to think about how this tool needs to be adapted for that level. I’m making adjustments – we need to be thinking about how students are interacting with content like the Civil War – the reasons causes for the Civil War and their knowledge about that, but also their knowledge as how do we interact with the content. So that’s my new thinking and I’m sort of just in the early stages of that.
Heather Rader: That’s great. Wow. I’ve had some really great insights as you’ve been talking. Thank you so much for sharing your learning with us.
Diane Sweeney: Thank you. I appreciate it.