Instructional coaches work to nurture great performances

When Western Hills teacher Leslie Welter was looking for a different way to teach math in her first grade classroom, she decided to get a coach.

She wasn’t looking for someone to explain baseball statistics, she wanted an instructional coach.

Luckily for Welter, the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) had just started a pilot project to offer coaching services in her school.

Three instructional coaches are working in three WDMCS elementary school buildings: Clive, Crestview and Western Hills. These schools were chosen for the pilot based on the diversity of their student population and the principals’ interest in the project.

Similar to a vocal coach helping a singer with his technique, instructional coaches help teachers build skills and expertise in instruction. “Research shows that the greatest impact on student learning is the classroom teacher. When we raise the quality of the classroom teacher, we raise the impact on student achievement,” said Annie Orsini, who worked as a classroom teacher in the district before becoming an instructional coach at Crestview. “In the end, this means helping every child in the classroom achieve even more.”

Coaching empowers teachers to enhance their practice. “Teachers know they are not alone,” said Gretchen Fackler, the instructional coach at Western Hills Elementary.

It begins with a partnership. “Collaboration is a huge component of coaching,” Fackler said.  It also involves sharing research, asking questions, analyzing student achievement data with teachers, providing resources, helping plan lessons, supporting district professional development and even modeling lessons for the teacher to observe.

The work keeps the WDMCS coaches busy. Jenni Freeman, who is an instructional coach at Clive, shared data showing that by October the coaches were working with 70 percent of the core teachers in all three buildings. Not only were they frequently interacting with teachers, they were focusing on areas that are important to student achievement.  For example, 120 interactions in October were about instruction and 87 were for content planning.

Fackler said they are pleased with their initial success given that colleagues from other states said it would take up to three years to establish partnerships and get into classrooms.

Welter didn’t waste time asking Fackler about setting up student math groups to provide more personalized instruction for her students. When she was introduced to Fackler in the hallway at the beginning of the school year, she immediately asked for her help. They sat down to discuss how to best structure Welter’s math block so she could provide regular small group instruction.

Now, students not only learn about math but also time management and other social skills to help them work in groups and individually. Fackler spends time in the classroom helping students with these lessons.

Welter and her students see the benefits. “The students that struggle with math are now tuned in and participating,” said Welter.  “That makes me really excited.” The next step is to develop a strategy to continue the math groups as Fackler reduces her time in Welter’s classroom.

Western Hills third grade teacher Mike Beranek acknowledged that initially he was concerned the coaches would also serve as evaluators, providing feedback for a teacher’s formal performance reviews. Fackler emphasized that they are truly coaches, not scoring judges.

Beranek is no longer concerned. “The work these three women are doing far exceeds the expectations I had. They have a true fundamental understanding of their role,” Beranek said. “We are on the right track with our coaching model.”

District administration wants to make sure. They recently agreed that in order for the pilot program to establish a valid set of data that accurately reflects the impact of instructional coaches, additional information over a longer period of time is necessary. Therefore, the one-year pilot will now be a two-year project.

The coaches have little doubt that the stats will show they are not only assisting teachers in refining their practice, but ultimately helping in the work to improve student learning.