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Collaborating to Transform Teacher Leader Coaching

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    Katie Park

Three years ago, middle school teacher, Christian Carr at Oliver Middle School in Brockport, New York was struck by the negative attitudes his students had about math. They brought negative messages from home and previous experiences that compounded a genuine struggle to engage in math class especially at the beginning of the year.  How could he turn these negative perceptions around?

The Brockport Central School District sought solutions to the challenges of teaching math through a collaborative partnership with EL Education. The collaboration between Brockport and EL Education resulted in the implementation of  an innovative teacher professional development program. The work was made possible through a New York State Strengthening Teacher Leadership Effectiveness(STLE) Grant with support from the Teacher Practice Network Initiative led by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

EL Education coaches worked with district math teachers and their instructional coaches to implement research-based practices for student engagement and the Workshop 2.0 lesson structure. Teachers learned to teach math differently so that students begin the lesson by grappling with challenging math concepts and then revisit the concept throughout the lesson through protocol-driven discussion, collaborative problem-solving, and real-world application. See the Workshop 2.0 model in action in this video: 

After implementing the research-based practices and the Workshop 2.0 model with support from his instructional coach Lisa Montanaro, Carr has seen tremendous growth in students. The practices he has learned helped him and his co-teacher, Caitlin O’Neal break the mold of what an inclusive classroom looks like. Carr recounted that students who were previously lower-level and struggling learners now ask to return to the grapple problem in the middle of the lesson because they understand and are eager to solve it.  

“People who come in to observe are fascinated that kids are talking math the whole time,” Carr said. He added that using the research-based practices and the Workshop 2.0 model changed attitudes more quickly than traditional math instruction. Students in his classroom know that grappling is for everyone and there is no such thing as “not a math person.”

How did the Brockport Central School District help Carr and other teachers achieve these results?

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The Challenge and Solution

In 2013, Susan Hasenauer-Curtis, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Instruction, decided to use Brockport Central School District’s STLE Grant to improve teacher and leader practice as well as student outcomes. The district’s goal was to empower teachers, provide opportunities for collaboration, and focus on developing curriculum and use of strong research-based instructional practices within the class. To accomplish this they opened demonstration classrooms for “job-embedded professional development” during the school day. Job-embedded PD enables teachers to see their colleagues in action with their students in real time. Brockport Central School District collaborated with EL Education create job descriptions and identify protocols for teachers who were interested in leadership opportunities and willing to take a risk.

With support from the grant and from the Teacher Practice Network Initiative, 10 demonstration classroom teachers and 10 teacher leaders received coaching from EL Education.  EL Education coach Kerry Meehan-Richardson worked with teachers around increasing student engagement. She shared best practices in research and helped them implement the Workshop 2.0 model.  Ten teachers opened their doors as demonstration classrooms to create job-embedded PD for other teachers in the district, sharing their learning in more informal ways at grade level and department meetings. In addition, learning was not limited to teachers; school-based coaches and leaders also received coaching.

The work is gaining traction across the district. “The teacher leaders really have changed the culture in each building and they are bringing this vision to fruition,” Hasenauer-Curtis said.

“This initiative was a faith walk of teachers who were willing to participate. We’ve learned that this kind of professional development is the most definitive way to increase achievement by enabling teachers to experience coaching in classrooms,”said Dr. Lesli Meyers, Superintendent of the Brockport Central School District.

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The impact of the initiative has been seen across grades.  High School Math demonstration teacher Keri Krull said her new learning has dramatically changed the way she writes lessons and organizes her classroom.  Writing lessons based on learning targets makes her lessons more focused.  She is then able to use speaking and listening protocols throughout her lesson to keep instruction student-focused and students actively engaged.   

“Having students understand what they are learning and keeping them actively engaged during a lesson has reduced behavioral issues,” Krull said. She added that the use of protocols has been particularly positive. “The protocols take time, but the payoffs are exponential when many students over time share concepts with each other instead of one teacher,” Krull said.

Krull was initially conflicted about having an instructional coach come into her classroom. But realizing that instructional coaching is similar to athletic coaching made her realize that veteran teachers, like elite athletes at the top of their game, can benefit from training. “Instructional coaches bring a fresh set of eyes into your classroom to help you improve your craft of teaching,” she said.

Looking forward, the district plans to continue its focus on research-based practices for student engagement and the practice of in-classroom coaching. Hasenauer-Curtis noted that EL Education has been “a huge catalyst” in changing its approach to coaching teacher leaders.