Collaboration, Coaching and Reflection

Professional development is a key component in helping students learn. When teachers are focused on improving student learning, they need support (i.e. professional development) for themselves to continue to learn. Some of the most inspiring colleagues I have worked with are those who, even after a long career, continue to seek out opportunities to improve their craft. Experienced and successful educators acknowledge that there is always something new to learn, a new technique, or new concept that will help kids.

Collaboration, coaching and reflection are not new concepts. What they are, however, are new ways to approach professional development to improve learning in a systematic way. I will use the analogy of my past experience as a band director to draw connections to how teachers have always coached, collaborated and reflected, and compare that to how we can make systemic change.

From the beginning of time, musicians would perform a concert, and then go out to celebrate (or commiserate) afterward on the performance. This is true of concert musicians as well as music teachers after a school concert. What typically happens in the “after-hours” celebration is a lively dialogue among teachers involved in the concert and colleagues who attended the concert. Discussion ensues about what went well, what could go better, and steps to take for next time. It is a dynamic, fluid process of collaboration, coaching and reflection that moves teachers forward. Next steps that might happen is that a particular teacher might go to visit a colleague to see how he/she works with their students to solve a similar challenge. A guest clinician might be brought to school to coach teachers on rehearsal techniques. Teachers may get together after school for a few weeks in a row to teach each other about instrument intricacies. These types of experiences are informal, and occur spontaneously after a performance. How can we formalize this process so it benefits every teacher, every day, but does not water-down the effectiveness?

The same exact scenario above can be played out by any teacher in any discipline immediately following a major benchmark assessment or other summative assessment, such as a state exam. Math teachers, for example, will have a spirited dialogue about an exam as it is being administered, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses they suspect among their students and how they perceive students will perform. This continues as the results are reported and strategies are investigated to help students succeed.

How are more recent professional development models in-line with the collaboration, coaching and reflection needs of staff? With the data team as a fundamental unit now, the model is in place for regular and routine dialogue along these lines. At its core the data team is a formalized way for colleagues to collaborate on how students are performing, and identify strengths and needs for students. During this process they might decide that assistance is needed with a particular instructional strategy or technology so a coach is called upon. In my role as technology facilitator I consider myself the “technology coach” for whomever needs assistance. Throughout the data team process, reflection is built-in as well as teachers think about their students’ performance and their own teaching.

As an aside, with the NYS Race To The Top initiative, one of the key components of the new structures being created is called the school-based inquiry team. NYSED defines the inquiry team as:

School-based Inquiry Teams – comprised of teachers, teacher leaders and administrators – are charged with becoming expert in accessing, understanding and using data to identify a change in instructional practice (e.g. teaching division of fractions) that will accelerate learning for a specific group of underperforming students. Based on what is learned from that experience, teams work with school staff to implement and monitor system-level change to benefit all students. The reflective practice that is used as the basis for the Inquiry Team’s work is intended to support continual, evidence-based improvement of student learning. While each school is to have at least one Inquiry Team, more teams may be put in place should the school find it valuable to do so.

Click here to see NYSED document with this definition.

To me this refers to the data teams we already have in place. While there are many individual teams and no one overriding data team to analyze system-level change for the whole school, the purpose of our data teams is in line with the definition of the inquiry team above. It appears we are well positioned as components of the RTTT initiatives are rolled out in the coming years.

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

While it is not as relaxed as an after-concert celebration, the more formalized process of collaboration, coaching and reflection built into our data teams and the coming RTTT initiatives put us in an excellent position to help our students excel.