As Math Coach Programs Move to a Division-Wide Model
Susan Birnie, Southern 1 Regional Director
Winter 2009/2010

Is the math coach the answer to our challenge of improving math instruction at the elementary and middle school levels? As many school districts move to having math coaches or specialists as an initiative to build long term, improvement theory for building sustainable teacher and leadership capacity, there are many challenges that arise in the process of developing the program. Most agree that the purpose of the math coach program is to improve student learning and achievement through improving teacher practice. To fully support this initiative, it is vital that the coach, principal, and school district work together to assure that there is a unified plan for implementation.

Many of us in our leadership capacities have had many successes with our math coach programs, but do we have a unified, division-wide focus for these programs with the specific goal of improving student learning and achievement? As we prepare for the transition to a division-wide coaching model framed around teachers' and coaches' strengths, there are several items that need to be defined and clarified.

Rationale for a Division-Wide Model

The Goal-Content coaching is one possible initiative as we build a long-term, systemic, improvement theory for building sustainable teacher and leadership capacity. The essence of content coaching is to improve student learning and achievement through improving teacher practice. The goal of this coaching is to cultivate teachers' academic habits of reasoning and discourse associated with their particular discipline and to help them develop a specific skill set that will enable them to cultivate those habits in their students, habits which will promote student appreciation and understanding of the subject at hand (West, 2009).

Building the groundwork for coaching includes engaging principals, teachers, and district level staff in discussions about the evidence of student understanding beyond test scores; setting the stage for inquiry-based professional discourse; setting clear expectations that everyone at every level of the system will be expected to grow; and that the district will provide a menu of opportunities for professional growth including workshops, seminars, and study groups, for all levels of the staff. The district must make explicit that professional learning is central to school improvement and the district will value and support professional learning in many ways-one of which is coaching.

Coaches as Leaders of Change-To fully support content coaches in their task of improving teacher practice, each school will create a "coaching culture." This begins with the coach and principal meeting to establish a shared understanding and vision of what instructional coaching can accomplish. Through regularly scheduled meetings, the principal and coach plan a network of change for implementing a school-wide plan for interventions and building leadership capacity. The essential question from the coach perspective is, "How well are the students doing and what can I do to improve teacher practice so that learning improves?"

Coaches Support and Professional Development-Coaches are in different places; some are new and emerging in their roles and others are highly experienced. What support, professional development, and networking are being considered?

  • The goal is to have coaches ready and able to provide professional development to teachers in content and pedagogical strategies. Given the results of a coach self-assessment, plans can be made to deliver the differentiated professional development to the coaches to achieve this goal.
  • To continue the support program for coaches, the next step could be to set up a buddy system to promote the coaches' on-going collaboration based around Lesson Studies. What are the Responsibilities of the Coaches?
  • Plan, co-teach, and debrief with teachers with the goal of improving teacher practice.
  • Use a record-keeping form to track their engagement with teachers.
  • Share instructional strategies with teachers that engage students in developing a deep understanding of the content.
  • Use a variety of communication strategies (newsletters, emails, Blackboard, word-of-mouth) to ensure that teachers know about successes when they occur.

What are the Responsibilities of the Teachers? The principal is essential in setting the expectation for teachers working with coaches to improve instruction. All content coaches, whether they are math or literacy coaches, work with principal/coach selected teachers through an agreed on period of time such as a study unit with an emphasis on the planning session with teachers. A specific division-wide goal could be identified to engage students in things such as classroom discourse to deepen the focus on the content.

Principal and Coach-The principal and coach work together to:

  • Observe classes together often, so as to build a common image of good teaching and learning and share both their process and evolving vision with the whole staff.
  • Make an initial plan for where coaches begin, with which teachers, and in what formats, giving thought to how the coach will be introduced to the staff and what ways teachers might be engaged in the work.
  • Meet weekly to compare notes on individual teachers and on instructional improvement efforts in the building.
  • Build leadership capacity at grade levels.
  • Move towards having lab classrooms as model classrooms for on-going teacher/coach visits.
  • Create a buddy system to promote the experienced teacher working with a new or struggling teacher. What is the Principal's Role?
  • Raise the quality of the teaching and learning in every classroom in the school by building a culture of teaching where:
    • teaching is public and there is a focus of study among professionals;
    • planning for instruction is thorough, collaborative, and digs deeply into the content; and
    • planning for improving student learning is on-going, evidence-based, and non-defensive.
  • Build a culture of coaching: This culture is a learning culture. Teachers and leaders are constantly learning more about teaching practice, expanding their capacity, getting better at what they do. The "coach" is not the only person working to make all this come true but making this come true is the primary reason the coach's role is created. The principal specifically supports a culture of coaching by:
    • fostering a community of collegial support;
    • building leadership capacity across the school;
    • improving student achievement through encouraging authentic professional inquiry around instruction and learning; and
    • setting the stage for reciprocal accountability.

What is the Role of the Central Office?

  • Join the principal in evaluation of the coaches.
  • Evaluate principals in terms of supporting a coaching culture by building schedules to allow for coach-teacher planning, creating a plan for building leadership capacity, and setting expectations for on-going professional development.
  • Offer professional development as needed for the coaches and teachers.

The work of coaching is challenging and complex. As coaches work together with teachers to improve teacher practice, they need the support of the principal, the school, and the central office to have the fullest impact. With a division-wide plan in place for coaching, the goal of improving student learning and achievement through improving teacher practice has a true chance of being successful.

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