We jumped on the phone with Chris O’Brien and Ronald Brownrigg to discuss live coaching for teachers. Chris is the Principal and Ronald 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 specific practices they use to live-coach their teachers.
Thriving Schools: How do you know how much coaching time a teacher needs and how do you go about scheduling that?
Ron: Obviously, 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. On the other hand, with your best teachers, you can ask them what they need the most work on and you can trust 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 development. 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: There are numerous coaching tools at one’s disposal – cue cards, videotaping, taking over a class, etc. Which tools do you tend to gravitate towards and why?
Chris: I like to think about this in 3 levels, basically going from least invasive to most invasive. At the lowest level, you have silent coaching. This is what we prefer to use if possible. This could involve the use of silent signals, cue cards, or even a whiteboard that has notes on it. Let’s say we’re working on a teacher’s “Radar” (a Teach Like a Champion technique that ensures teachers are monitoring for compliance). This is a clear case where I can use non-verbals to indicate to a teacher what tools to use. For example, I can put my hand in the air to indicate to the teacher to use their silent signal.
At the next level, you have whisper coaching. This is where the coach is standing near the teacher and is able to quickly whisper to them what they should do and why. For example, “I need you to aggressively monitor student work around the classroom so that you can determine the most common student misconceptions.” At both of these first two levels (silent and whisper coaching), the coach should indicate to the teacher ahead of time the actions that they’ll be looking for. In other words, the teacher should know why their coach is making the interventions they are.
At the highest, or most invasive level, we’re going to see the use of live modeling. Here, a coach may interrupt a class to ask “Can you remind our class what our expectations are right now?” Or a coach may demonstrate a classroom technique or procedure. In live coaching moments, teachers may or may not know that you’re going to correct something. But you should always debrief the teacher later as to why you did what you did.
Ron: The tools that I use depend on the strategy, frequency of observation, and relationship I have with a teacher. Again, I want to emphasize the importance of knowing your personnel and what they can handle. The last thing you want is a frustrated teacher in front of a class of scholars. I want to know what teachers respond well to class takeovers versus silent cues. I want to make sure my teachers feel respected and empowered as a result of the coaching they’re receiving.
Thriving Schools: Let me ask some questions about your coaching conversations. When do they take place? How long are they? What best practices do you use for transmitting feedback?
Chris: We straight up stole our best practices from Uncommon. The length of a coaching conversation is typically around 20-25 minutes and we shoot to give you that feedback within 24-72 hours. If I see you on a Thursday, I’m meeting with you no later than a Monday. Obviously, the sooner the better. Also, we record all of our observations – we do a ton of video.
We also use the “See It, Name It, Do It” process. We will show teachers an exemplar, show them their own practice, and ask them to identify the difference. What they find then becomes their action step – they’re naming what they have to do. Then we’ll do it – practice, practice, practice. I’ll conclude a coaching conversation with some follow-up steps. I’ll also let a teacher know what silent cues, whispers, or live coaching they might see when I’m in the classroom next.
Ron: The one item that I’ll add here is that I try to emphasize the actual “Do It” portion of a coaching conversation. Again, it’s the importance of practice, practice, practice!
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us a bit more about how you use video in the coaching process?
Chris: Sure thing! When a coach walks into a classroom, the first thing they set up is the camera on the tripod. That way, the 15-20 minutes of class that the coach is there for will be on video. I also have coaches tape the conversations that they have with teachers so that I can watch them and evaluate the coaching. How we actually use the in-class teacher video depends on the individual. A coach may select just a small 90-second or 3-minute snippet of the recording to illuminate a specific practice they’re working on. At the same time, we also have teachers who choose to watch their entire recording.
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