Effective Coaching: Helping Teachers Address Academic Diversity

Fall 2001 Masthead

Catherine M. Brighton
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Teachers possess individual needs, biases, beliefs, and interests, all of which influence their understanding of professional development initiatives. The life of a teacher—the myriad of classroom details, student and parent issues, not to mention their own personal lives—further impact their ability to accept the invitation to adopt new practices. Subsequently, these and other factors determine whether teachers translate the “message” into changed instructional and assessment practices in their classrooms.

In a study for The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) at the University of Virginia, researchers sought to examine teachers’ responses to individual coaching as one part of a larger project investigating academic diversity in the middle school. In 6 middle schools across the country, teachers were challenged to address students’ academic diversity through one of two treatments: differentiated instruction or differentiated performance assessment. Targeted teachers participated in 3 years of professional development coupled with individual coaching sessions. Coaches in the project—university professors, district coordinators, retired teachers, and graduate students—possessed knowledge of differentiation and/or performance assessment and had experience working with teachers. Based on the individual schools, coaches faced unique challenges and various amounts of available resources. In the 3 differentiation sites, coaches worked with teachers to identify areas of their teaching that would be most aligned with differentiated units, lessons, and activities. Coaches and teachers worked to determine clearly focused objectives for specific units and lessons, to identify appropriate pre-assessment strategies or tools, and to determine the most appropriate instructional strategy to meet the wide range of learners’ needs. Coaches and teachers discussed classroom management strategies, and worked diligently to ensure successful implementation. Some teachers were more open to coaching than others; some brought specific issues and requests to meetings, such as reconciling test preparation and differentiation or learning more about curriculum compacting. While specifics varied across settings, several things remained constant: coaches assisted with resources, information, and support, but the teachers themselves created and used the differentiated materials.

In the 3 performance assessment sites, coaches worked with teachers to identify areas in their curriculum that may be suited for a performance assessment task. Coaches probed teachers’ thinking about the units, and brainstormed possible authentic tasks to demonstrate students’ mastery of objectives. Hypothesizing that teachers would increase the use of performance assessments if the materials were created for them, project staff wrote differentiated performance tasks and rubrics—embedding the state standards and guidelines into each task—and presented the finished materials to the teachers for feedback and classroom use. Through the process, some coaches worked with individual teachers to develop their own performance assessments.

Roles Coaches Play: Relationships Between Coaches and Teachers

Coaches assumed multiple roles throughout their tenure at the site, none of which were mutually exclusive. The extent to which coaches assisted teachers in preparation of differentiated materials versus preparing materials to teachers’ specifications varied by treatment site. Other variations in coaching approaches included individual style, philosophy, and beliefs about teaching and learning. Coaches approached the challenge of delivering new information to teachers in various ways and with differing goals in mind. Some coaches sought large numbers of involved teachers; others were less concerned with numbers of participating teachers, but instead sought a high degree of technical accuracy from the teachers who participated. Some coaches valued the personal relationships and positive interactions with the teachers. Other coaches valued teachers’ positive reactions to the message the coach delivered. They believed it was important to be liked and valued by the teachers. A role assumed by some, was that of “savior” or “rescuer.” “Savior” coaches took pride in the offerings they provided: liberating teachers from unpleasant previous circumstances, resourcefully locating needed materials and supplies, artfully negotiating more livable working conditions, or finding excuses to get teachers out of district-level workshops or requirements. “Savior” coaches endeared themselves to their teachers by championing the teachers’ causes.

Gretchen repeatedly heard teachers tell her how much they needed more planning time before they could begin to try these differentiated strategies in their classrooms. When Gretchen arrived at the school this month, she made a beeline for the principal’s office. She explained to the principal how teachers constantly bemoaned the need for additional time to develop and implement differentiated lessons they were hearing about. She persuasively argued the case for additional planning time during school hours for the teachers participating in the study. Before the end of her visit, she made a point to share with her teachers how she secured them this valuable resource. (From Coaches’ field notes)

A role assumed by other coaches was that of “cheerleader.” “Cheerleader” coaches generated enthusiasm for the project as a whole. Participation at any level was encouraged, affirmed, and celebrated. “Cheerleader” coaches spent great amounts of time writing personal notes and cards to the teachers with whom they worked. Each note was personalized to encourage the gradual risks teachers undertook in their classrooms. Additionally, “cheerleader” coaches supplied cheerful tokens and incentives to further bolster teachers’ positive attitudes about their efforts and the project in general. “Cheerleader” coaches sought continued involvement by increasing teachers’ confidence about the unknown, and applauding each step they took in the journey, no matter what the direction.

Melanie, in her third year as the coach at a performance assessment site, sat with the seventh grade team of teachers as they sketched out the second semester plans. The teachers debated issues and topics such as field trips, when to schedule the dance, and what collaborative project might make sense to work on. Melanie perked up her ears at the possibility that these teachers might suggest a performance task, without her instigating the idea. After discussing the project for several minutes, one teacher suggested the use of a rubric. Melanie was jubilant. “A rubric! They finally thought about using a rubric!” She realized it was a small step, especially given the amount of time the school worked on assessment, but she was thrilled nonetheless. (Compiled from Coach’s interview)

Another role played by coaches was that of “best buddy.” “Best buddy” coaches entered the lives of teachers, emotionally and socially. These coaches identified themselves as peers, equals in the process, despite the difference in roles. “Best buddy” coaches sought to know and assist the teachers in a holistic sense, instead of limiting contact to the scope project objectives. It was not uncommon for genuine friendships to develop between “best buddy” coaches and the teachers with whom they worked, complete with meeting the teacher’s family members, joining the teacher’s family for dinners when in town, and starting the day “catching up” over a cup of coffee. The personal connection between coach and teacher ensured continued access to the teacher’s classroom to witness the journey towards change. Further, it is likely that the teacher will continue on the journey as a sign of friendship and confidence in the coach. However, it does become a more challenging task for the coach when he/she is required to give critical feedback to the teacher.

Rachel [the coach] turned to catch Lisa’s attention, an eighth grade math teacher, as she walked out of the room after the observation. She pantomimed drinking a coffee cup and signaled with her head that she’d meet her for a cup of java after the day was over. The two women had a great deal in common they realized over the year, and would spend as much time gossiping about other things as talking about school. (Compiled from Coach’s field notes)

For other coaches, personal relationships were not critical to the process of coaching. These coaches believed the message of differentiation or performance assessment was more critical than the messenger. While these coaches did not do anything to hinder a collegial working relationship, they saw no value in cheerleader type enthusiasm, personalized messages of inspiration, or a need to interfere in school-based issues such as planning or materials.

Pat [the coach] made an appointment to work with Ms. Borden, the 7th grade science teacher, at a time when the students were out of the classroom in enrichment classes. Pat listened as Joan vented with anger and frustration about the extensive time requirements of the performance assessment as written. She didn’t take the criticisms personally; the frustration . . . from the teacher was about assessing students in science, not about the teacher or the coach. Pat merely listened to the angry words and then set about to modify the performance assessment so that it better worked with Joan’s teaching timeline. (Compiled from Coach’s field notes)

Expectations of Coaches

Coaches varied in their expectations for their teachers and for themselves, their perception of the initial goal of coaching, and their approach to resistant and struggling teachers. For some coaches, the need to be liked was critical. This need for a sustained positive relationship, and continued invitations into the teachers’ world superceded the need for full actualization and technical accuracy of differentiated lessons or differentiated performance assessment. For other coaches, being liked was of little concern: these coaches strived for excellence in the implementation of the approaches. These dichotomous views are represented in the vignettes of two coaches: Alexandra and Bettina.

Coach Alexandra
Coach Alexandra is highly motivated by the personal relationships she develops with the teachers in her school. She works incredibly hard to schedule her visits so she can observe and coach as many teachers as possible and still have time to attend team meetings and listen to the issues and concerns her teachers raise. During the last visit, she found time to attend a field trip with the 8th grade team, which gave her many new insights into the life of 8th grade teachers and students. She wants teachers to believe in differentiation; therefore she does whatever it takes to find something they can do and feel successful. For Alexandra, all teachers can be successful with differentiation if they just try one baby step—she believes her strengths include working with struggling teachers to help them see that they can do it! When she plans professional development for the teachers, she delivers it in small manageable chunks. If individual teachers need to see the “big picture,” she can provide that individually instead of overwhelming the whole group with that information. Alexandra reveals her beliefs about coaching in the following statements:

  • Teachers need to be sold on the idea and philosophy of differentiated instruction and differentiated performance assessment, entertained in workshops, [and] convinced, and persuaded to change practices.
  • To increase the likelihood that teachers will subscribe to the innovation, I need to affirm them where they are, [and] make them feel good about the journey, even if that means affirming efforts that are somewhat misinterpreted, or low-level. After all, it is better than not doing ANYTHING at all.
  • If teachers like me personally they will be more likely to subscribe to my ideas. Subsequently, time and effort is spent on establishing and nurturing personal relationships with teachers in hopes of increasing teacher subscribers. I . . . appeal to the emotions of teachers.
  • Teachers that continue to make attempts—even surface applications—are successful if they continue to try. For the sake of discussion, effort equals success.
  • I will feel good at the end of the year if we convince a great number of teachers to attempt even a baby step towards implementing differentiated instruction and differentiated performance assessment. We can deal with quality control issues next time around.

Coach Bettina
Coach Bettina is passionate about the topic of differentiation and performance assessment, and is quite knowledgeable about the theoretical underpinnings of each model. She provided professional development to the teachers at her school, and some seemed to really understand and agree with what she shared, while others seemed put off by the work that was required to do each well. She delivered the whole picture of performance assessment. If individual teachers needed smaller steps, she helped because she did not want to hold the whole group back. For the teachers who were interested, she worked tirelessly to help them plan, create, or implement curriculum or assessment for their classes. For the teachers who were not interested or resisted the message, she simply let them go—figuring it was not worth the trouble to try to force herself on those who did not have the capacity or interest to change. Bettina reveals her beliefs about coaching in the following statements:

  • The message of differentiation and performance assessment is powerful and should be the determining factor in teachers’ decisions to subscribe—not by cajoling and convincing or appealing to the emotions of teachers.
  • The message is more important than the messenger. Subsequently, time and effort are spent on explaining the message, providing examples and applications—not spent on getting the teachers to like me personally.
  • It is not as important to have many teachers subscribe to the initiative as it is to have examples of teachers who fully understand and implement differentiation or performance assessment accurately and at a high level.
  • Teachers who try should be affirmed, but they also need to have feedback about how to improve. There is no benefit in affirming inaccurate understandings about the initiative in the long run.
  • I will feel good at the end of the year if we observe quality efforts relative to differentiated instruction and performance assessment even if it is only with a small number of teachers. Consequently, some students will have much richer instruction and assessment and we can deal with increasing our numbers next time around.
Effective Coaching: Striving for Middle Ground

Effective coaching has attributes of both Alexandra and Bettina, but aspires to a middle ground supportive of the efforts of teachers, and still insists on high quality for their efforts. Before one can embark upon the journey of coaching, it is critical that coaches understand the purpose and vision of the end goal. It is likely (and perhaps even desirable) that the vision and end goal may be modified before the end, but having an end goal throughout the process ensures that progress is measured. Coaching necessitates consideration of (a) the personal style of the coach; (b) a careful analysis of the school culture; (c) an understanding of the needs of individual teachers; and (d) an understanding of how individual teachers fare within the school culture. Coaching should be adjusted according to these factors, but it is important to maintain high expectations across the entire school community. Coaches should:

  1. Establish positive professional relationships with teachers, administrators, and the school community. At various times throughout the journey, effective coaches will be required to compliment and praise, as well as critically analyze teachers’ instruction and provide thoughtful, corrective feedback. Entering into the coaching relationship with expectations of developing personal friendships may prevent coaches from objectively and accurately assessing the progress or regress of teachers.
  2. Strive for a balance between high teacher subscription to the change effort and high quality efforts. At times in the coaching process, the balance may tip towards one end or the other, but overall balance is desirable. For example, when first initiating instructional changes, a savvy coach may try to make the initial steps seem less daunting. As teachers gain experience in the strategies required for change, coaches may analyze efforts more carefully to ensure that teachers fully understand the techniques, and recognize ways to further improve.
  3. Strive for a balance between a focus on the message and on the messenger. Support is valuable to teachers as they embark upon the journey into the unknown; and knowing a coach is expecting to see an innovation in action can serve as an accountability strategy for teachers. While it is important for coaches to be liked and respected, the message is also critical. Coaches who worry about “being liked” sometimes avoid the necessary discomfort often present with changing ideas. Slightly uncomfortable teachers, faced with challenges without ready answers, may not initially appreciate the experience and may even express dislike about the coach and the coaching methods. Yet, it may lead to re-examination of the message and their individual beliefs about teaching and learning. Effective coaches, like effective teachers, are not afraid to present challenging circumstances, perhaps just beyond the learners’ comfort zones, recognizing that a professional relationship can withstand temporary discomfort.
  4. Respond to the individual context surrounding each teacher’s change journey. All teachers—like all students in their classrooms—are not the same, and as unique individuals, benefit from different kinds of learning experiences. Effective coaches pre-assess teachers’ understandings about the innovation in a non-threatening way, and then provide appropriately matched experiences.
  5. Investigate multiple levels of a teacher’s context. Coaches quickly recognize that the context surrounding teachers varies greatly across schools; some schools are rich in resources and support, others are impoverished. Effective coaches further notice the subtleties of context that vary across grade levels and even individual teachers. Beginning teachers have different coaching needs than experienced teachers, and teachers with strong content knowledge are able to leap farther than teachers teaching out of their content specialties—an ever increasing phenomenon in understaffed middle schools. Effective coaches assess macro-context and micro-context and modify support accordingly.
  6. Provide services of value to the school community. The most important thing a coach can do to increase the likelihood of change in response to academic diversity is deliver the goods. Offer only the assistance that is reasonable and feasible to provide; arrive on time and prepared to work; be selfless about personal agendas; and be open to more than one way to accomplish the goal.

These approaches to coaching sound remarkably similar to the challenges issued to teachers in heterogeneous classrooms—and bear many of the same management and implementation challenges. Effective coaches balance teacher-learners’ interests and needs with contextual constraints, recognizing that differentiation of coaching—like teaching—is not a perfect science.


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