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Coaching and professional development at Friends

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Coaching is the art of creating an environment, through conversation and a way of being, that facilitates the process by which a person can move toward desired goals in a fulfilling manner." 
Tim Gallwey

Erin (right) and her teaching assistant, Max 

During the 2016/17 school year, I had been fortunate enough to receive professional development funding from the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF), which enabled me to begin a coaching role that will take me through the end of this school year.

I used the time and opportunity to explore and work with my colleagues as their “coach." This experience has allowed me to strengthen my relationships with my colleagues, getting to know them in and outside of the classroom. I also learned that, even though I may not be able to teach middle school science, I can identify common threads in childhood development and student behavior. Whether it is individual coaching, peer coaching, or mentoring new faculty, I have opened doors and made connections that will only strengthen the greater school community over time.

You might imagine that being surrounded by 22 students and a teaching assistant all day is highly social, sometimes noisy, and never dull. All of this is true, but teaching can also be isolating, particularly when working in a self-contained classroom. I have been drawn to mentoring and coaching at this point in my profession as an aspiration to share experiences and observations collaboratively, but also to stretch my own teaching. What better place to do this than with other dedicated and skillful teachers in their own spaces?

It is abundantly clear now that a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other.

My journey has included working with teachers outside of my classroom at Friends School since the spring of last year, as well as visiting others in the East Bay, where I also supervise and mentor trainee teachers with the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI).

For most teachers, coaching is a valuable feedback tool. It complements nicely the relationship teachers have in place with their direct supervisors. It carves out more informal time, is driven by choice, it allows for reflection, sharing of ideas, and ultimately insight into how to improve the learning experiences of students. Teachers can meet to discuss pedagogy and curriculum, utilize me as a second set of eyes in the classroom, or allow me to be a sounding board.

So far, I have worked with a range of both middle and lower school teachers and also specialists in varying roles. In the first semester, I observed in an eighth grade science classroom for the first time with a little trepidation. What did I know about middle school science? It was extremely reassuring to find the familiar aspects to nearly every classroom, no matter the grade. Whether in first grade or eighth, sometimes transitions are slow, some students are focused and engaged, while others prefer to chat to their table buddy. What is most important, however, is that the teacher being observed is clear about the goal of their observation and feedback. Then it doesn’t matter who or what I am observing, the focus can be directed to where it is most needed.

Along with many other professions, the job of an educator is never done. There isn’t ever a moment where you say to yourself: ‘Well I think I’ve learned everything there is to know now.’ As someone who has been teaching for many years now, that has never been more apparent than when visiting a colleague’s class. Although my role has been as coach and support, I have walked out of each classroom several times thinking, ‘I can’t wait to try that out,' or, 'I think I can adapt that for first grade.’

I noticed that last year, for example, Anil Chopra (former SFFS middle school science teacher), would give immediate feedback to students in the midst of a project. This created an environment where students were more excited about making a revision in the moment. And rather than students focusing on making a mistake, they viewed the feedback more as a piece of the process.

It is abundantly clear now that, indeed, a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other. Many of us want to take advantage of opportunities to see one another teach even more.

Like most busy professions where there is a lot of contact time with others, moments to share and have someone just listen are in short supply. Hence a large part of my work has been to provide that space. Albert Einstein once said that, if he had an hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution. This suggestion resonates for me; it’s a reminder to slow down and and deeply think about the situation before offering a way to remedy it. I also want the colleague I am working with to search and find the solution, with my role guiding and hopefully providing questions that make the path a little clearer.

The Professional Development Committee has met to discuss the way that “peer coaching” support our goals. Our plan for the 2017/18 school year is to continue to incorporate coaching into the professional development experience of Friends’ teachers. Using feedback from teachers who have been involved in coaching this year, and incorporating new ideas, we are working to build a program rich in professional discourse that continues to nourish and sustain teacher’s professional growth.

Here is just some of the feedback from my colleagues involved in this journey. They inspire me to continue lifting up how important this work is for our school:

I believe that new programs need multiple years of commitment. I was rejuvenated, I was encouraged, I was refocused on old, bad habits and newly focused on new deficits that we discovered. There are many teachers who will benefit from having a coach.
~Anil Chopra, former SFFS middle school science teacher

It was nice to have another set of eyes in the classroom and simply a fresh perspective on the day to day...WE NEED THIS. Whether it be in more of a peer coaching format or a roaming person like Erin. Generally, it seems that coaching is missing from our professional development repertoire and it felt really important to my own development as a teacher.
~Jake Ban, SFFS third grade teacher