Does every teacher need a coach? These Alabama Top Schools Test Teacher Aid

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Every week Gayle Holladay visits a school in Opelika. Its mission: To teach teachers.

On a recent Thursday, more than a dozen educators gathered in a study room to talk about the area and perimeter, a concept students currently struggled with.

While it may seem obvious that teachers need to brush up on their subject matter and think about new ways of approaching subjects, professional development and coaching are not always built into the school day.

Read more: These 43 schools of extreme poverty are the best in Alabama.

Watch: Why the Ed Lab wanted to research top-flight schools.

While it may seem obvious that teachers need to brush up on their subject matter and think about new ways of approaching subjects, professional development and coaching are not always built into the school day.

But in many of the top schools AL.com visited, school and district leaders took time to help teachers improve in their profession, whether that was by helping them understand the data, offering pedagogical support or simply leaving more space during the day to prepare lessons and work with students.

“Teachers have to constantly learn new things,” said Holladay, Opelika math coach.

An analysis from the Alabama Education Lab recently identified 43 schools in Alabama with high performing students, despite high rates of student poverty and low local funding. Among other factors, schools have identified coaching and supporting teachers as a way to leverage local talent and help more students succeed.

Helping teachers continue their professional learning is important for student and school success, and training is most effective when it is school-wide and integrated into the school day, said Jackie Walsh , an independent education consultant who works with the Alabama Best Practices Center.

“The students that teachers teach come from a culture that is changing at an exponential rate,” said Walsh. “So what worked 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily work today because we teach different students in different contexts. “

Cathy Gassenheimer, director of the Alabama Best Practices Center, said teachers need to have protected time to plan lessons and work together to identify ways to help students.

“If we want every student to be successful,” she said, “we’ll need to invest more to give teachers time to work together, hone lessons, review data, adjust strategies. Or we’ll never get there.

This is what is happening at Opelika: Schools have provided ample periods of time during the school day for teachers to learn from each other and instructional coaches on what works best with their students. Research backup the notion of coaching, with a few caveats.

Opelika Superintendent Mark Neighbors, now in his 15th year as District Leader, has scheduled physical education and art activities for students to give classroom teachers 80 minutes of their students each day .

Neighbors compared it to the kind of planning practiced in sports.

“You play a 48-minute game on Friday night,” he said, “but the rest of the time you make a plan and you implement a plan. “

Teachers are expected to use their time planning wisely, creating lessons or collaborating with others about lessons. Once a week, teachers at each grade level spend this block of time being coached by their school’s pedagogical coach on how to improve their art.

Teach teachers

At the Northside Intermediate School in Opelika, where around 60% of students are entitled to free or discounted meals, instructional coaching is part of the regular school day. In recent state tests, 57% of all students achieved a reading fluency, remarkable under all circumstances, but even higher after 18 months of learning interrupted by the pandemic, and 40% of students achieved a mastery of mathematics.

Statewide, 45% of students achieved mastery in ELA and 22% tested math.

Principal Cindy Poteet credits the teachers for the success the Northside students have shown.

“They love these kids,” she said. “They will do whatever it takes to make sure they learn.”

Northside’s educational coaching model is based on the athletic coaching model and emerged as a practice to enhance student learning in the early 1980s. The Alabama Reading Initiative pioneered educational coaching in the late 1980s. 1990s as a form of in-service training for teachers.

Coaching, like planning, should take place during the school day, Walsh said, with coaches modeling ways of teaching, even taking charge of the classroom to help a teacher see a teaching technique in practice. .

“I can understand how some might think it takes time for other activities, but when it is built into the school day, into the actual rhythm of school, a teacher doesn’t need to have time. free to be coached, ”Walsh said. noted. “Because it’s part of their school. “

Gayle Holladay, Mathematics Coach for the Opelika School District (standing, center) helps teachers at Northside Intermediate tackle new methods of teaching area and perimeter concepts. The school district credits its training model for the recent success of Northside, which was named the top school by an analysis from the Alabama Education Lab. Trisha Powell Crain / AL.com

Holladay, the district math coach and a district reading coach spend their days unpacking academic standards – what the state requires of students – and creating quality lessons that teachers can use in their classrooms. class.

Then they work with school-level coaches, who hold weekly sessions with teachers on how to tackle difficult teaching concepts.

“What misconceptions do you have in students’ heads that make this concept difficult? Northside education coach Jenny Lane asked a room of third-grade teachers working on teaching geometry.

The discussion gives teachers time to explore different ways of teaching the topics, with tips from coaches who have a feel for ways that might work better than others and where missteps can occur.

Before coming to teach at Opelika, Abby Fleming, an instructional coach at Morris Avenue Intermediate, taught at a school without a coach.

“Coming to where I had coaching,” she said, “it was really great to have someone to talk to about ideas.”

Fleming stressed the need for teachers to understand that coaches try to help improve student learning and that it is “not personal”.

“We start with [student] data, ”she said. “It’s nothing against [teachers]. This is the group of children they have this year. This is where they are. I think when you’re able to start with what the data shows you, it’s not a personal thing.

Neighbors said he wanted coaches at each of the district’s elementary and middle schools after noticing teachers struggled to find time to improve teaching amid other responsibilities, like talking with parents. upset and fill out paperwork.

“One of the things I wanted to communicate is that what we do is important enough that we have a dedicated full-time person to help manage education at the building level,” he said. declared.

Opelika uses most of its local tax support to fund elective courses in high school. But the district invests a lot of local money in its teachers in the form of a higher salary than that required by the state’s minimum wage schedule – from $ 1,500 to $ 2,500 more depending on the degree and l ‘experience – and also in educational coaches.

Last year, the district spent $ 80,000 more on buses than the state funded.

The state has not systematically funded reading coaches over the past decade, but currently funds $ 50,000 of a reading coach’s salary through the Alabama Reading Initiative.

Offer peer-to-peer collaboration

Coaching isn’t the only way to build teacher support: Sherwood Elementary School in Phenix City has been successful in intentionally building collaborative relationships among teachers.

Last spring, 59% of Sherwood students achieved reading fluency and 53% achieved math fluency. About 60% of the students at the school live in poverty.

Four adults stand in front of Sherwood Elementary School for a portrait.

(Left to right) Phenix Town Superintendent Randy Wilkes, current Sherwood Elementary School Principal Anita McDonald, Program Director Jeremy Suchman and Mayor Eddie Lowe stand in front of Sherwood Elementary School in Phenix City, Alabama. The school has been identified as a top thief by an analysis from the Alabama Education Lab. Trisha Powell Crain / AL.com

Jeremy Suchman, a teacher and administrator who was principal of Sherwood Elementary School until this year, when he moved to central office to run the program, created intentional groups of teachers who work together to create assessments to improve learning in the classroom.

“We have sought to strengthen teacher effectiveness, collective effectiveness,” Suchman said. “It was the most important thing. If they knew what they were trying to do and they knew they could, they could achieve it by working together.

Research has shown that professional learning communities, or CAPs, this good functioning can improve the morale of teachers and ultimately impact student success.

Suchman moved the teachers, who were previously scattered around the building, into grade-level modules, so it was easier to talk to each other.

Teacher morale improved, he said, as evidenced by the fact that there was very little teacher turnover.

“It’s huge,” he said. “Because when you train teachers in a program or a way of thinking or evaluating teaching, to improve the teaching and to have the right mindset – everyone is working in the same direction. – you don’t want to keep changing people. “

And student test scores have increased this first year after the APIs were implemented.

While it may seem obvious that teachers need to refresh their subject matter and think about new ways of approaching subjects, professional development and coaching are not always built into the school day.


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