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Coaching Teachers To Become Powerful Users of Classroom Tech

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Classrooms across the U.S. have increased access to technology for learning, but that doesn’t mean devices and apps are always being used well. Teachers regularly ask for more professional development on how to use the tools districts are buying, but large skill-based workshops aren’t the most effective way to get teachers integrating technology into their practice in ways that actually shift learning. Even when teachers are excited about something they’ve learning in professional development or at a conference it can be hard for them to put it into practice when confronted with the daily challenges of the classroom.

A new program called the Dynamic Learning Project (DLP) is working to make the case that classroom-based coaching is a better way to help teachers integrate new tools. In its first year, the partnership between Google, Digital Promise and EdTechTeam worked with coaches in 50 schools across the U.S. as they individually coached teachers in their buildings. Now in their second year, the program has expanded to 101 schools. The program is device-agnostic; schools using any devices or tools are welcome.

“The approach we really stand by is setting up individualized development plans for each teacher,” said Kelli Coons, a technology coach at Inman Intermediate in South Carolina. Coons works with 10 teachers at a time in an eight-week coaching cycle. Each teacher chooses a problem of practice she’d like to work on and Coons helps develop solutions, think through problems, recommend potential tools, and troubleshoot setbacks. Taking time to reflect on what went well and what could change is a big part of the process.

The DLP works with participating principals to make it very clear that coaches are not part of the administration and they should not be asked to report on teachers. A trusting relationship between teacher and coach is imperative for teachers to feel comfortable enough to try new things and fail along the way.

“In any coaching position, and any teaching position really, it’s building those relationships so they’re welcoming to have you in their classroom on a daily basis,” Coons said. For her, that means taking time to get to know things about the teacher’s life outside of school, bringing snacks to meetings, and delivering on promised support. It also helps to show teachers data on how much time they’ve saved or how much better students learned a topic to make the case for why new approaches are worth the effort.

Results from pilot year surveys of teachers at DLP schools. (Courtesy Digital Promise/DLP Coaching Infographic)

Coons said she has teachers working on very different focus areas in their classrooms. Some are just dipping their toe into using technology to give students a choice in how they express their learning, while others know far more about technology than Coons. In fact, she found working with those “high flyer” teachers one of the most challenging parts of coaching because she didn’t feel she had much to offer. Feeling insecure, she turned to her DLP mentor, Heather Dowd, for advice.

“Heather explained that in our position, we’re not always the experts on everything, sometimes we’re a sounding board or just someone to have a conversation with to feel better,” Coons said. She has learned coaching is much more than being ready with a resource or tool; really good coaches actively listen, ask probing questions, and help teachers arrive at ideas independently so they have ownership over their growth. In that way it’s a lot like great classroom teaching.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD COACH?

Digital Promise and EdTechTeam partnered to design the DLP program based on research about coaching and the experiences of veteran coaches who’ve learned how to be effective by doing it. There’s a gap in the research about coaching for technology integration that Digital Promise is hoping to fill.

“We need to get much more explicit and clear about how we talk about the power of technology in learning,” said Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise. She’s frustrated that studies that look at aggregated test scores are used as proof of whether teachers and students should be using technology to learn. In her mind, it’s an incontrovertible fact that access to knowledge on the internet and to powerful tech-tools have changed everything about what school can and should be. Now, leaders need to do more to make sure teachers can use those assets effectively.

Digital Promise researchers regularly surveyed principals, teachers, coaches, mentors, and students involved in the first year of the project. From their responses they identified five qualities of effective coaches.

  • A coach is good at building relationships. “For a teacher to welcome a coach into their classroom there has to be trust,” Cator said.
  • Great coaches are often insiders. This is related to building relationships because someone who comes from inside the school knows its culture, their colleagues, and the students more intimately than someone coming from the outside. They can gain trust faster and make an impact on teaching and learning more quickly.
  • Coaches must be strong communicators. “This is all about communication, so you have to have someone who can give feedback to the teachers in helpful ways,” Cator said. But communication doesn’t stop there. The coach also needs to be able to communicate effectively with the principal, parents, and district folks. The coach is a connector between these stakeholders.
  • A coach believes in the power of technology. “The person didn’t have to be technically awesome, but they needed to believe in the power of technology for transforming teaching and learning,” Cator said.
  • A coach is an experienced teacher. When the coach has enough classroom experience to give advice and personal experience about a variety of classroom situations, they are much more effective. Someone who is in their first few years of teaching doesn’t yet have the credibility with other colleagues to be the most effective coach, no matter how eager they are about technology and learning.

The surveys Digital Promise has conducted of participants at all levels (principals, teachers and coaches) show that this model has potential to help school continuously improve. A report on the project’s first year, “Fostering Powerful Uses of Technology through Instructional Coaching,” notes:

“Our data shows that after one year of working with their DLP coach, teachers are using technology more frequently and in more powerful ways. DLP teachers report significant increases in using technology for both teaching content and pedagogy—in other words, teachers are using technology to support what they are teaching, as well as how they are teaching it. At the end of the year, more than 80 percent of DLP teachers agreed that they have the ability to use technology in powerful ways when it comes to student collaboration, creativity, communication, critical thinking, agency, and that students are better at selecting appropriate technology tools.”

ROLE OF MENTORS

A unique aspect of DLP is the support in-school technology coaches receive from mentors. Mentors are former teachers and coaches themselves, who often fumbled their way towards coaching over many years.

“When I first went one-to-one in 2010 with iPads, I was the only teacher in my building who had devices, I had no coach, and I spent the first three months crying,” said Jennie Magiera on a panel about DLP at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. “And my instruction became worse for a little while because I was struggling so much.”

That’s what DLP is trying to avoid for the next generation of coaches and teachers. Schools have already invested in the technology, now they need to invest in coaching for teachers to make this fairly profound shift in practice. But coaching can be a lonely job — that person often has no one else in their building doing similar work. That’s where the mentor comes in. Mentors are a resource for coaches, so they continue their own professional growth too.

“I think the coaches we are working with are coaching at a higher level faster than coaches who don’t have the support,” said Heather Dowd, a DLP mentor working with coaches in South Carolina and Texas.

Dowd describes coaching as a continuum between being what she calls a “consultant” and being a true coach. At the consultant end of the spectrum, the coach is often providing resources, giving tool suggestions, helping teachers implement a lesson using the tool, and reflecting with them on how it went. Many people feel more comfortable in the consultant role, Dowd says, because they feel useful. “The challenge comes in if you never transition to becoming a coach and helping them do some of it for themselves,” Dowd said.

True coaching, like great teaching, is about helping the adult learner see the solution on their own. Dowd says she’s always pushing the coaches she mentors to “pause, paraphrase, and ask questions.” When a teacher brings up a challenge, rather than jumping in with a potential solution or tool, listening and asking probing questions can help the teacher come to a solution on their own.

And since mentors are working with coaches at upwards of thirty schools across a region, they can play a connector role, sharing ideas between coaches in very different contexts. The DLP coaches meet regularly with their mentor online, but also participate in Google Hangouts with other coaches. It’s a community of support and idea sharing that makes the job less lonely and helps everyone improve. Some coaches in a region have even started visiting one another’s schools and meeting up in person.

Reflection is another key piece of this program. Coaches ask teachers to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, tracking progress on coaching dashboard developed specifically for DLP. But coaches also submit weekly reflections to their mentors, who give them feedback and comments.

“They are making bigger changes in their schools, bigger changes in terms of the meaningful use of technology — not just using it — faster than what I saw happen my first couple years as a coach,” Dowd said.

Digital Promise found six characteristics of a successful coaching program. (Courtesy Digital Promise/DLP Coaching Infographic)

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE DYNAMIC LEARNING PROJECT?

“So we have made the case for how and why coaching can be a powerful means for continuous improvement,” Cator said. “Now we want to figure out how to systematize the most important parts of it and scale it up.”

In its second year, DLP is working with 101 schools, up from the initial 50 in the first year. Participating schools have to pay the salaries of their coaches, but DLP pays for the mentor’s time and a summer institute for all coaches — basically a deep dive into coaching technology integration.

While that’s still a relatively small footprint considering the size of the public education system, Digital Promise is packaging materials that could help other coaches and synthesizing the important elements of a strong coaching program so other schools can simulate the model. And, while a coach may only work with 10 teachers at a time in one cycle, they go through four cycles a year. Meanwhile, teachers are sharing their winds in staff meetings and with their departments, creating a culture of experimentation and building momentum for those who are more wary.

“One of the themes that came out from all of the coaches was that some of the teachers from last year who were more on that resistant side came back this year and are doing really fantastic things,” Dowd said. “Our speculation is that it was one year of hearing about it and celebrating about it.”

Coaches say that one of their biggest challenges is finding time to meet with the teachers they coach, but also having enough time to be a full time coach. Often because they aren’t in the classroom, principals will add extra duties to their plate, making it difficult for them to coach well. Mentors often try to advocate for their coaches with principals, showing them how coaches use their time and that there aren’t a lot of extra minutes.