Having grown up and lived in Marion County, South Carolina most of my life, I know this area is brimming with potential. Unfortunately, though, that potential is not always reflected in the Marion County School District’s student achievement data.
As the district’s superintendent, I believe that the number one factor in student achievement is a high quality and effective teacher. As a result, my first step in improving student learning is improving teacher practice. Being in a rural area, however, that’s not as easily done as said. Rural districts face a slew of challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers relative to our suburban and urban counterparts. Our tax base, and thus the salaries we’re able to offer, is lower than in our neighboring counties. Housing can be an issue. Fewer employment prospects for teachers’ spouses may limit our candidate pool, and geographic location and the social isolation that sometimes goes with it can make working in rural districts less appealing.
We may not be able to directly impact those things, but we can create an environment that educators want to be in, where they feel supported and see leadership building capacity and working to create opportunities for growth. And those things matter to teachers — a 2016 study found that effective leadership that promotes professional development was “among the more important factors for teachers remaining in positions.”
With that in mind — and the knowledge that you have to do things differently to achieve different results — we decided to make some changes to our instructional coaching program.
Video as a coach multiplier
We’ve been lucky enough to partner with Insight ADVANCE as recipients of the Empowering Educators to Excel (E3) grant, which is itself funded in part through a Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL) grant from the Department of Education. One of the benefits of that partnership has been access to tools that allow us to use video to improve our instructional coaching.
One of the most obvious benefits of using video so teachers can record themselves in the classroom — rather than having coaches observe them in person — is that it acts as a force multiplier for our coaches. We already had an instructional coach in place at each of our 10 traditional school sites, so getting coaches from one building to another was not an issue, but video has given our coaches so much more opportunity to support their teachers as well as peers in other schools. Rather than showing up in a classroom at a specific time when they may have scheduling conflicts, video allows them to observe their mentee teachers after school, before the day begins, during their free period or whenever else it makes sense for them to fit it in. It gives them the time to better support their teachers, almost as if they’re able to be in two places at once.
Video also helps our coaches provide better, more accurate feedback. Even the most diligent observer is going to miss some details — maybe even quite significant ones, at times — during a live observation. When a coach is observing through recorded video, however, they can go back and double-check if they aren’t sure the teacher is asking appropriate questions, for example.
Using an app on their phones to capture videos of themselves that they easily upload and share on the Insight ADVANCE platform also helps the teachers being observed be a little more receptive to the feedback they receive. We all have unconscious habits, and a teacher may think, “I didn’t do that,” when a coach points something out. With the video there to refer to, however, there’s an authoritative record to help the teacher become more aware of practices or tics they didn’t even realize they were engaging in. As superintendent, I was excited about using a tool that would allow teachers to discover new aspects of the learning environment pertaining to student behavior and teacher practice.
Striving for reflection, not compliance
We’re also looking at coaching from a different perspective. In the past, our instructional leaders would sometimes become compliance coaches. They’d notice that a teacher they were observing didn’t check this box or that one on a list of best practices, and they would default to offering a list of the things their teachers weren’t doing.
Compliance is great and best practices are useful to keep in mind and adhere to, but with coaching, we’re more interested in helping our teachers become more reflective practitioners. We don’t want them looking to a formula and assuming everything’s great because they nailed all the variables. We want them thinking more deeply and critically about why this lesson worked or that classroom activity needs a little more development before they try it again.
Video certainly helps with that by, again, helping teachers become more aware of their habits and practices by watching themselves so they can self-correct. Watching other teachers in the classroom helps them begin examining why they do things one way instead of how the teacher they’re watching does them. But even more important is the shift in focus among coaches from that compliance mindset to a focus on asking teachers questions that encourage self-reflection, which puts them in the habit of asking themselves those kinds of questions even when their coach isn’t around.
Professional learning communities are in some ways where all the things we’re trying to accomplish with instructional coaching come together. We want those PLC meetings to be places where teachers apply those improved self-reflection skills to share with their peers what’s working and get tips for improving what’s not.
In the past, our PLC meetings would often lose focus and become staff meetings or grade-level meetings. We’ve addressed that by adopting the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project framework. STEP uses a teacher-driven model to help educators understand when a change is an improvement, so it can be spread throughout the district.
It just makes sense to put teachers in the driver’s seat, because they know where the bright spots in their classroom are and they know where they need a little more work. By getting them together in a structured environment designed to encourage sharing those ideas and practices, collaboration is really allowed to grow. We’re also looking forward to using Insight ADVANCE’s new ADVANCElive feature in PLCs so that even when our learning communities can’t be together physically, they can still work collaboratively.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time talking to teachers about their practice has heard sentences beginning, “You know what I really need to improve is…” more times than they can count. Harnessing that by helping them learn to methodically and constructively grow as professionals and help their peers do the same is all we can really ask for from instructional coaching. Thankfully, it’s also an incredibly powerful way to inspire job satisfaction and a drive to help students reach their potential.
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