The culture of coaching at Village Prep Woodland Hills

Chris O’Brien is the Principal and Ronald Brownrigg is the Dean of Scholars at Village Prep Woodland Hills, a member of the Breakthrough Schools network (the #1 rated network of public charter schools in Cleveland, Ohio). In this piece we discuss the culture they have in place for their coaching model to work.

Throughout the year, we expect our students to demonstrate growth and master the content we deliver. We use data to track their progress and provide remediation when needed. When it comes to our teachers, however, we rarely discuss the tools that help them get better. As we’ll see, live coaching is one of the best tools around. At Village Prep Woodland Hills, the school team has been working on and refining their live coaching practices over the last several years. And that’s why we decided to talk to Chris O’Brien and Ronald Brownrigg about the culture they’ve built around coaching.

Thriving Schools: Can you help us understand why most schools fall short in the development of their teachers?

Chris: Think of it this way. There are 3 models of development or coaching – least effective, somewhat effective, and most effective.

In the “least effective” model (which most school fall into), there’s a simple lack of coaching. There just aren’t enough people to do it. In a school like this, a teacher might see a supervisor twice a year and receive a detailed report on some classroom observations. But that will be the extent of a teacher’s development.

In the “somewhat effective” model, there’s going to be some coaching that takes place. Here, you might see 15-20 minutes of observation followed by an email or a face-to-face conversation about some action steps that could be taken. But the suggested changes aren’t going to stick because the errors aren’t being caught in the moment and the feedback isn’t taking place in real time.

At the “most effective” level, you have live coaches in place that will catch mistakes as they happen, help teachers remedy them in the moment, and meet with teachers very frequently.

Ron: For me, the problem comes down to too much talking. Coaching needs to be a practice of modeling for and with a teacher to show them what something should look like. Talking isn’t going to suddenly result in the formation of better habits.

Thriving Schools: How do you instill the receptivity and openness to feedback that allows for good coaching to take place?

Ron: Let me start by saying that the feedback you provide is often going to be taken personally. Therefore, the relationship you have with your teachers is very important. How feedback is going to be taken depends on who is saying it and what they say. Another important part is the frequency of feedback. The more and more you do it, the more it becomes normalized and a part of the culture. Finally, you have to emphasize the purpose of the coaching. And that’s going to be that you’re doing what’s best for kids.

Chris: I also think this starts with your hiring process. When you come and interview with us, we have you teach a sample lesson. The very first thing that happens when you finish is you get feedback, because I want to see how you’re going to react to it. If a person isn’t open to feedback, we know right then and there this isn’t going to work.

There’s also a “Duh – no brainer” piece to this. And that is you’ve got to be providing good coaching. People buy into a culture of feedback if they know you’re good at what you’re doing. We are a place where if teachers feel like they’re not getting enough coaching, they feel slighted. They might say “I’m not getting any love because I haven’t seen my coach.”

The final thing I want to say is that the feedback process applies to everybody. Our coaching process isn’t some top-down set of commands. We have teachers coaching teachers. When I sit in a coaching conversation, I’m not even looking at the teachers. I’m looking at the coach because I’m there to help them get better. I have a boss who’s watching me. It’s the idea that everyone here is getting coaching. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Thriving Schools: How do you schedule coaching for your teachers? How do you know how much time each teacher needs?

Ron: It depends on your personnel. You have to know what each teacher is able to take in. Also, information needs to be bite-sized; you don’t want to give teachers more than they can handle. That will only lead them to feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. With your best teachers, you can ask them what they need the most work on and you can trust that they’re going to give you a pretty accurate answer. At the end of the day, you want teachers receiving a level of feedback that they can handle.

Chris: Ron’s exactly right – bite-size depends on mouth size. A first-year teacher might have a smaller mouth and so you can’t give them too much to chew on at one time. And that’s where knowing your teachers is super critical.

Let me add this about how we handle our coaching logistics. At the start of the school year, we make sure every teacher receives live coaching once a week. We have a staff of 40 teachers and a team of 7 that does our coaching – we have 2 deans of scholars that focus on culture and behavioral management, we have 2 directors of content who specialize in planning and content, and we have 3 teachers who split their time evenly between coaching and teaching. My job is to coach the coaches, and so I attend a lot of the coaching meetings too. But you can tell – we have a strong emphasis on coaching. And so we need a lot of coaches!

Ron: Let me just add to that. There is a good amount of collaboration between the deans of scholars and the directors of content. We try to make sure that we’re building a strong rationale for what we’re having a teacher work on, and to help teachers see that culture and academic strategies go hand in hand.

Thriving Schools: What resources would you recommend for becoming a better coach? Or what books would you suggest to a teacher that wants to improve their craft?

Chris and Ron: Here’s our list:

1) Teach Like a Champion – This is the “Bible of teaching techniques” and I give one to every teacher   

2) Leverage Leadership – This one covers coaching, adult culture, and planning. Any coach should read this one!

3) Get Better, Faster – This book only covers coaching and how to best develop teachers.

4) The Art of Coaching – A good soft-skills book on coaching

 5) Good to Great