Boston schools make coaching a team sport

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Coaching teachers is all the rage in professional development these days. In Boston, it has taken a new twist—from personal training to team building. Coaches who once worked only one-on-one with teachers now are working with several at a time as well.

This year, 26 schools recognized for strong instructional practice are piloting “collaborative coaching and learning,” where a group of teachers meets regularly with a coach to learn, practice and refine mutually agreed-on instructional techniques. About a dozen more schools heard good things about the pilot and began collaborative coaching on their own this spring. The district expects all 130 schools to be using collaborative coaching by September 2003.

“You see an immediate impact on consistency of instruction,” says Mary Russo, principal of Murphy Elementary. “It’s the most powerful form of coaching I’ve seen.”

Collaborative coaching was not on the agenda when Boston launched its instruction-focused reform efforts in 1996. Instead, it grew out of those efforts, which included creating school-level instructional leadership teams, having teachers work in groups to analyze student work and requiring schools to choose one of several models for teaching reading.

Boston had been making progress with its initial reforms: Test scores were up, and student work was improving. However, school faculties were not taking the initiative to plot their own continuous improvement, as school leaders had hoped.

“We thought we were still wasting a lot of money and time,” says Ellen Guiney, executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, the city’s public education fund and a “critical friend” of the school district. “After four years, we saw [teachers using] strategies, but we didn’t see school capacity building. We didn’t see teachers owning the course of studies. We didn’t see the reflective practitioner. And the question was, why?”

Gloria Woods, a former Boston principal now with the Boston Plan, had some ideas why. Woods had directed the city’s reform efforts in half its schools. After a few years supervising literacy coaches, she realized that one-on-one coaching wasn’t enough to transform entrenched school cultures and teacher habits.

“We had been in some schools for three or four years, and the coach had not visited one-third of the classrooms,” she recalls. “Teachers were not ready, or they were resistant. Coaches were seeing the same teachers for four years because other teachers wouldn’t open their doors.”

Woods says that the district’s push to get teachers working in groups to examine student work pried open some doors. (See CATALYST, December 1999.) “It started moving teachers out of isolation,” she says. “That was really hard work, really painful work, but I think it paid off in terms of establishing the culture. That sort of set the stage. I can’t imagine going in with collaborative coaching when you have teachers who haven’t been out of the classroom with their practice for 25 years.”

An outside evaluator found that group examination of student work was taking place in only about half of Boston’s schools. Even so, the district moved into collaborative coaching largely to accelerate implementation of a new reading program—Readers’ Workshop and Writers’ Workshop, developed by Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, Columbia University. In the past, schools chose from a menu of literacy models.

How it looks

Collaborative coaching differs from one-on-one coaching because teachers observe both the coach and each another interacting with students. In Calkins’ workshop model, each lesson leaves open a large block of time for the teacher to check students’ individual progress. Teachers participating in collaborative coaching usually switch between holding their own one-on-one conferences with students and watching their colleagues hold them. The coach may follow up such “labs” with individual sessions in teachers’ own classrooms.

Still at issue is the principal’s role. During professional development for Boston principals last fall, Calkins insisted that they participate in collaborative coaching sessions as “chief learner.”

But the Boston Teachers Union fears getting principals involved blurs the line between feedback and performance review. “Some will say this is collegial feedback, not evaluative,” says union president Edward Doherty, but he doubts it works that way in practice, “when you get the teacher, coach and principal together and the coach is saying, ‘Well so and so did poorly.'”

Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant says he’ll talk with the union about its concerns. “We probably should have reached out and had more conversations with [Doherty] about what was coming around the coaching models. It’s been an evolution,” he says.

Mary Russo cautions fellow principals against jumping to the conclusion that a resistant teacher is an uncaring teacher. “The fear, I think, is coming from the teacher’s desire not to fail,” she observes. Earlier in her career, she says, she didn’t fully understand that. If she had it to do over again, she says, “I would have been more of a coach, facilitator, and less of a supervisor.”

Meanwhile, in Year One, collaborative coaching is strictly voluntary. Barbara Neufeld, an evaluator hired by the Boston Plan, says it is going well. “They like taking control of their learning. We’re hearing stories of teachers doing [collaborative coaching] and then raising professional development questions for themselves. The potential is there to make more schools like this.”

Carol Ostiguy, a 5th-grade teacher at Mason Elementary, notes that in addition to having the opportunity to reflect on one’s own teaching and observe peers in action, just having more adults in the room has been a plus. “I have a lot of children who have very short attention spans,” she says. “With seven people in the classroom, every table had at least one person who could help them with questions. For a minute, I just stepped back and thought to myself, ‘This is like a dream.'”

“People may have initially felt that they might be evaluated by their peers,” says Meaghan Concannon, literacy specialist at Quincy Elementary, “but it was quickly learned that everybody was pretty much in the same boat.”

However, Ostiguy cautions that teachers need to be willing to accept criticism or at least to let it roll off their backs. “You can’t take it personally,” she says. “If your colleague says, ‘I can’t believe Isaac didn’t know about nonfiction as genre,’ you can’t take offense. I could have walked away from that saying, ‘I don’t like this coaching.’ I have to keep an open mind.”

Hits several birds

From the administration’s point of view, collaborative coaching has several management advantages. For one, it helps solve the problem of not having enough highly qualified coaches to go around. “They’re like gold,” says Rachel Curtis, the district’s school development director. Boston has been interviewing applicants from San Diego and New York City’s District 2 to find coaches with deep instructional and interpersonal expertise. While Boston’s goal is to supply at least one coach for every school, coaches next year will work in more than one school for limited periods of time.

Secondly, collaborative coaching incorporates another district priority, evaluating student work. Boston requires schools to set aside 90 minutes per week for examining student work; next year, it will allow schools to use that time for collaborative coaching sessions.

The Boston Plan argues that, ultimately, collaborative coaching will result in an improved cost-benefit ratio for the district. The group believes that once instructional leadership is developed in schools’ faculties, coaches can be phased out. “It’s the biggest bang for the instructional buck,” says Woods.