How can coaches provide personalized support to teachers?
Just as students are better supported when learning is personalized, teacher professional development programs are also more productive when personalized. Compared to traditional professional development workshops, coaching by nature can be more relevant to the specific context of each teacher’s background, classroom, goals, and the particular needs of the student population. Our research study on coaching in the Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 shows that the more coaching activities are personalized and consistent with each teacher’s readiness and needs, the more likely that teachers feel satisfied with coaching and adopt new teaching practices at a higher degree of quality. But how can coaches differentiate their support for each teacher? Our research highlights four strategies:
1. Coaches should get to know the context in which they work.
Before coaches start working one-on-one with teachers, they should use all appropriate sources of information to familiarize themselves with the context of their setting(s). This facilitates both relationship building with teachers and the ability of the coach to tailor conversation, feedback, and support to make it relevant for the particular needs and realities of each teacher and their student population.
Tips for success:
- Coaches can start by doing their homework. Meeting with school administrators can help coaches learn more about teachers’ backgrounds and the school and district culture, including programs and practices that have been used in the past that could provide insight into what might be effective in the future. In many DLP schools, the coaches had formerly worked as teachers in their school, so they had an insider’s view into the practice of the teachers they were working with. “She knows the kids, she knows the school, she knows the culture. She knows the principal very well…she’s not an outside observer,” said a DLP sixth grade ELL teacher.
- Coaches can also reach out to teachers to ask about their interests, needs, preferences, and level of experience and comfort with experimentation. For example, during a kick-off event that presents the coaching program to teachers, coaches could run intake surveys among teachers and provide them with a few minutes to share about what they need in their practice.
2. Coaches and teachers should collaboratively identify and set specific goals.
Identifying clear and actionable goals that are directly generated from the specific needs of a teacher and their students helps coaches design and plan the most tractable route to improving teacher practice and make more relevant suggestions to the teacher. Teachers also feel more satisfied and motivated to collaborate with their coach when they see their needs acknowledged and their goals identified.
Tips for success:
- Successful goal setting starts with deep conversations where teachers feel comfortable and guided in thinking about and talking through their needs and goals. Rather than positioning themselves as the expert who is there to explain practices to the teacher, coaches should approach the dialogue with meaningful questions and active listening. This helps teachers feel safe in admitting that they are facing a challenge, gain more self-confidence, and feel more supported in their ability to make sound instructional choices in tackling that challenge and achieving their goal.
3. Coaches should build relationships with students.
Most of the time, helping each teacher navigate the most relevant new instructional practices is grounded in cultivating an acquaintance with the characteristics and needs of their students. By gaining a deeper understanding of students, coaches can better tailor their support to teachers. This shared understanding and relationship with students also strengthens the coach-teacher relationship by grounding the partnership in a shared goal of improving the achievement and well-being of specific students.
Tips for success:
- Frequent classroom visits give coaches the chance to build a solid understanding of the overall climate and context of a teacher’s classroom and become more familiar with their students’ needs.
- When coaches stay active and visible in the school life (e.g., have open office hours for students in addition to teachers, attend school functions such as sporting events), they can build rapport with students and ultimately provide more differentiated support to teachers. Said one DLP principal: “The kids look at [the coach] as a resource….They come to her, they’ll say ‘I gotta go to Mrs. [X] because she’ll help me do this.’”
4. Coaches should ground support in evidence from the classroom.
Gathering evidence on a teacher’s progress is another key strategy for coaches to continuously provide relevant support to each teacher in a way that illuminates their pathway to success.
Tips for success:
- Regular and frequent classroom visits throughout the collaboration is key. It’s easy to sit around a table and talk about the support a teacher wants; however, until they see the teacher in action, coaches can’t really know what shape their support should take.
- Taking constructive notes during classroom visits is crucial for coaches to suggest an individualized support plan from which the teacher can benefit.
- Frequent conversation and reflection (especially before and after classroom visits) is another strategy for coaches to get a deeper sense of teachers’ needs and better link their knowledge to teachers’ practice and address those specific needs.