By Shveta Miller, published on Shaped: The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Education Blog, July 2018
As an instructional coach using a student-centered coaching model, I’ve seen again and again the impact that a teacher’s honest reflection has on student learning. In face-to-face coaching, I observe teaching and learning live. Then, I partner with the teacher to unpack what works and could work better in a lesson. We collaborate to identify achievable goals for students and brainstorm action steps that will lead them to success.
Rapport is easy to establish when we’re working side by side, looking at student work samples, and recalling oral responses offered by students we both know by name.
In an online coaching session, it can be challenging to develop that same coaching partnership without access to the live classroom. Online sessions were most beneficial when working with teachers who came to the session having already reflected on the lesson and ready to receive feedback. But what happens when this doesn’t occur?
One of My Experiences as a Coach
I recently worked with two teachers online who were missing these essential habits of honest reflection and openness to feedback, and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to have a meaningful impact on student learning. I ultimately discovered, however, that integrating video recordings of their lessons into our sessions was the one key factor that would make the difference.
The two teachers I worked with each taught a small class of long-term English learners. The primary objective of the class was to increase the quality and quantity of students’ academic language. The teachers were so convinced of their students’ competence that they began the coaching process unwilling to articulate any goals. They seemed to believe their students were so successful that there was no need to set goals for further achievement!
After a brief chat about their school and their experiences teaching, I asked what they would like to see their students strive for. They were vague. When provided with a wish list of specific academic learning behaviors we’d all like to see each student develop, they marked off every single behavior as already accomplished. I asked if they would share samples of student work so we could brainstorm goals together based on what students were currently demonstrating. They did not have samples to share online.
Without access to their live classroom or to their students’ work, and with 50 minutes remaining of a one-hour session, I began to sweat a little. How could I turn this session around so that teachers were motivated to reflect on their students’ skills and their own practices?
Despite having worked with nearly 100 teachers across the country, I briefly wondered if these were the two teachers in the universe who had mastered this job. Perhaps they had led all of their students to peak academic performance. I was about to ask for their autographs and call it a day. But if they were achieving such impressive results, wouldn’t they be able to describe them in detail?
I decided to dig into my reserve of coaching questions and give it another try. “I hear you saying that your students are very successful. Can you describe one response in more detail, and explain specifically what was strong about it?”
A pause. Could it be that they were reflecting? I held my breath, almost positive that I was about to change the course of this session.
“Well,” answered one teacher, “I don’t really remember what they specifically said . . . but I know each student used the academic language frame successfully, just like I wanted them to.”
Their lack of specifics suggested overconfidence to me. I followed up with, “It sounds like you have established clear expectations that all students use response frames when speaking in class. Would you say that students are ready to elaborate and provide additional ideas beyond the frame?”
“Well,” she responded, “they do that already.”
And the session continued like this until the hour was up—I peppered them with questions, trying to guide them toward identifying a student learning goal they could work toward, and they deflected each one with a “We’ve got this” retort. It was like trying to rally in a game of tennis with a partner who keeps hitting the ball into the net.
Why were these teachers so resistant to coaching?