A first-year math teacher, Ms. Harding sometimes plays favorites in the classroom. A group of students she refers to as her “math stars” shout out answers before other students have a chance to respond. When these students make mistakes, Ms. Harding does not question or challenge them. She often ignores the solutions offered by other students.
Without feedback from a more experienced observer, a rookie teacher such as Ms. Harding might never realize that some of her methods are ineffective or discouraging to her students. Fortunately for her, however, she is being observed by a group of math coaches who assist teachers like her in improving how they teach.
Coaches, as on-site staff developers with mathematical expertise, can provide immediate feedback to teachers. “They are colleagues and can follow-up with the teachers,” explains EDC’s Loretta Heuer. “Because of the relationship they have with teachers and administrators in a school or district, coaches build accountability, can see what reforms are put in place, and serve as a resource,” she adds.
But coaches also need training and opportunities to build their skills. To answer that need, Heuer has created The Coaching Cycle, an eight-session online course. The program targets coaches from small and rural districts who might not otherwise have the opportunity to receive professional development. Because the course is online, coaches do not have to travel to participate, and the program has the added advantage of being more economical in terms of both time and money.
Another plus is that coaches deepened their own understanding of K–8 mathematics by working with concepts important to teachers of different grade levels.
The Coaching Cycle uses videos of teachers and coaches, documents from expert coaches, and examples of student work to develop participants’ skills. Coaches can use the course’s online discussion board to share ideas. As facilitator of the course, Heuer posts prompts and resources on the discussion board and offers feedback on the coaches’ written assignments. The mathematics content of the course is focused on topics from kindergarten to eighth grade, including fractions, area versus perimeter, and multiplication.
“The math in the course is grounded in how children think and understand, why they make mistakes, and how educators can decipher their thinking and anticipate their confusion,” explains Heuer.
Coaches and teachers cover four steps during the coaching process: pre-conference, classroom observation and data collection, data analysis, and post-conference. In Ms. Harding’s case, for instance, coaches would first work with her to ensure that her lesson plan aligned with the mathematical concepts being taught, engaged all students, and addressed common misconceptions students have about math. After observing the class, the coaches would analyze what they saw and prepare questions for Ms. Harding to help her reflect on her teaching. In the final step, the coaches would use what they had observed to help Ms. Harding improve her teaching practices and knowledge of math.
“Coaches need good questioning skills; they need to listen to the response and craft follow-up questions to ask on the spot. They also need observation instruments, which is why we provide participants with a portfolio of tools to help them collect classroom data,” says Heuer.
By participating in The Coaching Cycle, coaches also have the chance to build a community of colleagues who can share strategies and discuss issues. “We have coaches from places like Montana and West Virginia who have come together to form a community of practice,” says Heuer. “The course is both high-tech and high-touch—it builds relationships in a way that enables people to trust someone they have never seen.”
The Coaching Cycle is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Originally published on October 26, 2011