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Saturday / March 24

Student Centered Coaching: An Interview with Diane Sweeney

Diane Sweeney, author of Student Centered Coaching: The Moves, recently hosted a webinar on how to put student learning front-and-center. Diane presents the research as an evidence-based instructional coaching model that shifts the focus from ‘fixing’ teachers to collaborating with them to design instruction that targets student outcomes. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

The following questions were submitted by participants during the live webinar. We are providing the responses from author Diane Sweeney below.

Question: We purchased your book for a book study with our literacy coaches. We wanted to start with the standards, Chapter 2 and possibly end with Chapter 1. Is it necessary to go in order?

Answer: Thank you for using my book with your literacy coaches. I’m guessing you are referring to Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves. I’d leave that up to you, though we did write the chapters in an order of progression that matches the flow of a coaching cycle.

Question: This is TOTALLY making me re-think my job. I am a coach for K-12 (6 schools in my district). It is my second year. I was told to do 4 observations a year. I am thinking that I will do two observations and 2 co-plan and teach lessons. Does that sound reasonable?

Answer: The co-teaching moves that I spoke about are truly the heart and soul of student-centered coaching. While I didn’t mention it in the webinar, much like modeling, we try to steer clear of doing too many observations of teachers. They can feel like an evaluation, and we find that if we focus on collecting evidence and problem-solving together, then we build partnerships that feel less evaluative. To get back to your question, I think that your plan is reasonable and that it is smart to do fewer observations and more co-planning and co-teaching.

Question: How can you urge teachers to set goals if they insist that they plan day-by-day?

Answer: The first conversation in a coaching cycle is a great opportunity to frame coaching around a goal that is standards-based. This will help a teacher think bigger than day-to-day planning. Once you get going, the conversations naturally turn to planning individual lessons. My rule of thumb is to only co-plan the lessons that I will co-teach. In this way, I can ensure that we both have a clear vision and can think together as the instruction plays out.

Question: How do you get teachers around only wanting to work on foundational skills for reading? Most of the assessments are based on reading foundational standards.

Answer: Some districts (and states) stake a lot on assessments that target fluency and other foundational skills. When unpacking the goal for a coaching cycle, we try to honor these skills and also nudge teachers to think about how to ensure that students are using them in the context of real reading. We like to find a balance between surface (or skills) and deep learning (or transfer).

Question: How do you balance your time if you are a coach and a teacher? Have you ever done a coaching cycle on classroom management? Can it be done without being teacher-centered?

Answer: Balancing being a teacher and coach can be challenging for sure. You may choose to only take on one coaching cycle at any given time. I agree that coaching classroom management does often feel more teacher-centered. We only do this if the teacher requests it. Otherwise, you may damage trust because this can be a sensitive subject. We often suggest a shorter, more teacher-centered, cycle in these cases.

Question: Do you recommend creating a summative assessment based on the target so that a class wide assessment can be given?

Answer: When we assess the impact of a coaching cycle, we often use more holistic measures. That said, it would be smart to add in a summative assessment at the end of the coaching cycle. We try to avoid giving the summative at the beginning of the cycle when it is dense with content or in a test-like format, because it doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about what the students truly understand. We prefer using open-ended, formative assessments to measure growth across a coaching cycle.

Question: I imagine this will take care of itself as our school moves toward standards next year, but I’d like to hear what Diane has to say about coaching teachers who are “married” to their content and feel the need to get through a certain chunk of curriculum per grading period.

Answer: It’s great that you are moving towards the standards and that will probably help. That said, this dynamic is persistent, especially in the secondary level. By emphasizing formative assessment, we try to slow teachers down and teach to mastery, rather than just covering content. When you put student work at the table, it’s hard for a teacher to deny when students aren’t there yet. This is a natural way to help teachers think about their students in relation to the content they are teaching.

Question: How might coaching cycles look when the coach is assigned to 2-3 buildings (only in a building 1-2 days per week)?

Answer: I’d suggest trying to do one to two coaching cycles in each school. This should also provide the coach with time for informal support, to participate in professional learning, and possibly even PLCs.

Question: When do you find the time to meet individually with teachers if it’s not built into the contract day?

Answer: Lack of contracted collaboration time can certainly make coaching more challenging. If we provide teachers with choice in how they engage in coaching cycles, then they can also choose when they’d like to co-plan with a coach. The key is to avoid mandating coaching, especially to teachers who are ‘struggling’. This just creates all kinds of bad feelings among teachers.

Question: What is Core Practice #6?

Answer: Core practice #6 is measuring the impact of coaching on teaching and learning. We use the Results-Based Coaching Tool to summarize the impact of coaching cycles. If you’d like to see examples, please check out my books on student-centered coaching.

Question: Would you have suggestions switching mid-year to this approach with teachers who are used to more of the stereotypical coaching (coaches helping teachers grow)?

Answer: I would start by talking through what you want coaching to look like with the principal. There is a continuum on page 6 in Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves that would be a useful guide for this conversation. As soon as you are on the same page, then you can plan how to articulate this new vision and begin coaching cycles with a few teachers who are interested. Be sure to ask them to share how it is impacting teaching and learning in their classrooms. Build from there and take your time.

Question: What percentage of growth for proficiency on the Results-based Coaching tool would be deemed as strong or good (from the beginning to end of the cycle)?

Answer: We often see 75-80% student growth across coaching cycles. This growth is measured in relation to who reached mastery in the learning targets that were crafted at the beginning of the cycle.

Question: What “level” of standards do you use for goal setting?  In Colorado, we have the Grade Level Expectation (GLE) and the Evidence Outcomes (EO).  The GLE’s seem too broad, but the EO’s seem to narrow.

Answer: I agree that the GLEs are too broad for a six-week coaching cycle. This is why I like to think more in relation to a unit of study. The Evidence Outcomes (EOs) might be helpful when determining the learning targets since they are more targeted and specific.

Question: What do you do if you accomplish the goals before the cycle is over? Do you make more goals?

Answer: That would be awesome. It might mean the goal wasn’t rigorous enough, and you may try to go deeper next time. Or it might mean that the students grew faster than you expected. You can definitely create a new goal and keep going in these situations.

Question: Can you talk about coaching for specific populations such as ELLs for SpEd students?

Answer: We use the same process for coaching in ELL and Special Education environments. In fact, we’ve worked with many special education coaches in New York. The learning targets may look and feel a little bit more specific, could include language objectives, or may focus on strategies that are more behaviorally focused. We also like to create partnerships with general education teachers and their ELL or Special Education counterparts. They usually love joining each other in coaching cycles since it takes their work together deeper.

Question: Did the teacher choose these goals?

Answer: I think you are referring to the Results-Based Coaching Tool column where we collect data on the instructional practices that were implemented across the cycle. We always encourage the teacher to choose what they want to work on, rather telling them what they should be doing. That said, the instructional practices that are focused on may also be aligned with the focus of the school. For example, if a school is using Kagan strategies, then you’d see a lot of these practices showing up in the work the coach and teacher are doing together.

Question: Have you found that teachers, after having gone through a couple of cycles with this plan are able to do this independently or lead a grade-level for example?

Answer: We view our role as building teachers’ capacity not only in the instructional practices they are learning to use, but we also hope that they will become more comfortable using formative assessments, doing intentional planning, and understanding how to use learning targets in a student-friendly manner. After engaging in student-centered coaching, we find that teachers are able to advocate for these practices and share them with others.

Question: How can we differentiate the progress made as a result of coaching from the progress that would have been made from the teaching anyway?

Answer: It’s important for a coach to avoid taking credit for the growth of a class of students. And, it’s impossible to really know what led to growth (be it the teaching or the coaching). We focus on celebrating growth among the students and teacher. We set the goal of mastery and work hard to get the students there. If they get there, then that’s amazing!

Question: Are there adjustments/ strategies that work best in a mastery/ competency based classroom that has students working on potentially different skills at the same time?

Answer: Our approach is all about mastery and competency-based instruction. When a teacher and coach sit down to plan a future lesson, they can look at the student evidence to determine how to differentiate in the next lesson. This may include providing students with different learning targets to work on, and even more importantly, how the students will take ownership over that learning.

Question: Which Daniel Pink book did Diane reference? I’m unfamiliar with his work and want to look him up.

Answer: The book is titled Drive. It focuses on how to create authentic engagement.

Question: Would this be relevant for coaching behavioral strategies or strictly instructional relating to academics?

Answer: A teacher may choose to set a goal for student behavior for a coaching cycle. For example, ‘Students will stay engaged through the whole class period.’ Then the learning targets capture what that would look like among students. The challenge is these cycles don’t go very deep. We look at it like the behaviors are certainly important, so why wouldn’t we set a goal that is more academic in nature. We can then work with the teacher to develop strategies for classroom management in each of the weekly co-planning sessions.

To learn more about student centered coaching, join Diane Sweeney at an institute that will highlight a collection of coaching practices that are outcomes-based and student-centered. This is recommended for K-12 instructional coaches in any area of specialization, principals, and district leaders. Click below to register.


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Adela Valcea is the Marketing Specialist for Corwin Professional Development Programs.


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