“What went well in your lesson today?”
I was nervous. It was the first time my coaching supervisor was observing me coach, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going well. I had intentionally chosen for her to watch a coaching debrief I was having with a teacher who was struggling, a teacher I was struggling to know how to support. When I chose a time and place for her to observe me it seemed like a good idea to bring in her expertise to best support this teacher, but once I had her in the room with me, listening to me awkwardly fumble through clarifying questions and practicing a script for new routines and procedures, I was wishing I had chosen to have her observe a debrief that was, well… successful.
Despite my fears of being observed, the truth was that I was fortunate enough to be working in a network in Chicago Public Schools that was completely committed to providing coaching for teachers. My supervisor, Rosemary, observed me in my coaching sessions several times each year. My lead coach, Ginny, met with me to talk through my caseload and co-coach with me weekly. And best of all, I benefited from working with a team of coaches that all followed the same coaching model. Though the way that each of us made that model come alive took on its own life and flare with our individual strengths, our team had a shared language, a shared coaching cadence, and a shared set of coaching principles to fall back on to provide a pathway for our work with each teacher.
Many school districts are investing in coaching, believing correctly that it has the ability to transform teaching and learning, ultimately leading to powerful outcomes for the students in our schools. However, putting a coaching position in the budget is just the beginning of the journey. After being hired, many coaches are left to design their own methods of coaching, learning from trial and error to determine what does and does not work to improve instruction.
I realized just how lucky I was to have so much support when I sat down to have coffee with one of my good friends. Both of us began our coaching journey at about the same time. Both of our school districts had invested the same amount of money in our salaries. However, my district had a coaching model, coaching mentoring, and ongoing coaching collaboration. My friend was doing her best to read about best practices in coaching in her very limited spare time, while also working to meet the needs of all of her teachers and her administrator. I had a community, she was working alone.
When I jokingly told her about my epic fails during my supervisor’s observation my friend said, “I wish someone would observe me. I have no idea what I’m doing.” It sure made my fears of being observed seem small, especially considering that I left the debrief of that observation with tips for how to become a better coach, a lot of positive encouragement, and actionable next steps.
Five years have passed since that conversation, and I am now a mentor with the Dynamic Learning Project (DLP). In my role as a mentor, I support schools in using coaching to implement instructional technology in impactful ways in their communities. When I first became a mentor I knew that I would love this work, because it mirrors what I know makes for a successful coaching program. Just like in my experience, the Dynamic Learning Project has several key components that pave the way for coaches to be the change managers that lead transformation in their school building or school district.
- A shared coaching model: Each coach is trained in the same coaching model. In an intensive summer institute and then in ongoing virtual and in-person training throughout the year, each coach is provided with a map that helps guide their daily, weekly, and monthly coaching cadence. This map gives enough freedom for a coach to make it authentic to their school’s culture, but it provides enough structure for a coach to see positive change in a short period of time, even if they have never coached before.
- Ongoing mentor support: Just like my supervisor observed me, each coach has the chance to have personalized mentoring support that aims to help accelerate their efficacy as a coach, build their confidence, and provide meaningful opportunities to reflect and grow. This mentoring support also gives coaches a non-evaluative colleague to lean on when there are challenges, and a cheerleader to celebrate them when they have successes. In the DLP we say that everyone deserves a coach, and that includes our coaches!
- A collaborative learning community: When I first became a coach, knowing that I had a team to return to when I didn’t have an answer to a question a teacher asked, or after a coaching debrief took an unexpected turn and left me feeling frustrated or like a failure, was a huge comfort. I still reach out to my first coaching team for support. The DLP provides this same community: a network that is ready to respond with resources, suggestions, a listening ear, or an encouraging word. To date, the DLP has over 100 schools that have participated in the program. Each of these coaches have been an agent of change in their schools, and they have the stories and experience to prove it. Sharing those stories with one another, and having a group of peers who work alongside you is invaluable. We call ourselves a family because that’s what we are.
I am thrilled that the Dynamic Learning Project is opening up its program to any school that wants to participate. I know that expanding the work we are doing will help coaches like my friend, the ones who feel isolated or who aren’t sure how to build a coaching program within their school. I know it will also mean that there will be many more schools and districts that will have the opportunity to bring meaningful change to their districts, change that will happen because teachers are bought in and supported throughout the process by a coach that believes in them and journeys with them each step of the way.
I am so grateful for the coaches who have helped me with my practice, even when that involved making myself vulnerable, willing to be observed in my failures. And I am even more grateful that the movement of coaching is growing and becoming available to more and more schools. I know that when implemented with thoughtfulness and support this will result in stronger teaching and learning. And ultimately that will lead to what matters most: students who have access to powerful and innovative learning experiences that will nurture the curiosity, creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills that will engage them in the present and prepare them for the future.
Learn more about the Dynamic Learning Project and how to participate by visiting www.dynamiclearningproject.com!
Rachel Douglas Swanson is a mentor for the Dynamic Learning Project and the Instructional Technology Coordinator for the Lutheran schools in Chicago with the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation. Before becoming a mentor Rachel worked in Chicago Public Schools for over a decade as a teacher and a coach, primarily in elementary and middle school. She is passionate about all things to do with coaching and change management, and can be found most often reading a book. You can follow her @RachelDSwanson and on her blog at www.teacherreadermom.com.