The Makings of a Coach: A Passion for Student Learning
This blog is part 3 in a four-part series on EdVision’s coaching model in the Midwest School Transformation Project. Click here to start with part 1.
The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit https://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!
Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota. She retired in 2017.
LESSONS FOR LEARNING: A FOUNDATION FOR COACHING
By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro
In the first post in this series from EdVisions on coaching, we looked at the research around coaching. In the second post, we heard about the way in which the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) seeks to use coaching to harvest lessons about school transformation from charter schools by linking charter school leaders with district schools. In this post, we hear from some of the coaches and people in the districts who’ve signed on to the project.
It is not a surprise that many, though not all, of the coaches EdVisions has chosen for the MSTP come from charters. The rest come from school districts that have demonstrated success in designing and implementing innovative learning programs, proving innovation can occur in and outside of traditional structures. In total, 15 educators have signed on to share their knowledge and expertise.
But these people don’t just think of coaching in terms of sharing what they know. They expect to learn too. I spoke with Peter Weiczorek, the Director at Northwest Passage Charter High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota and Liz Seubert, a founding teacher of Wildlands Science Research School in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, also a charter school. In separate conversations, the two shared similar sentiments about their upcoming role. A set of themes became apparent that describe the kind of coaching we can expect to hear more about over the course of the project.
1. A sense of mission.
Both Liz and Peter spoke about how the MSTP aligns to their own personal mission as an educator, and it is a mission they pursue with passion. As Peter stated, “The neat thing about the way that this project is shaping up is that there are so many experienced people in the room with a number of different perspectives who share a common language and a shared mission.” He sees coaching as creating yet another avenue for those already collaborating around creating learner-centered schools to connect, adding more layers and bringing in more people to what he calls “the ecosystem.”
Liz expressed a similar view. “For a number of years, I’ve been incredibly passionate about advancing student-centered learning.” She is involved with the Teacher Powered Schools network and actively engaged in the Innovative Schools Network, which started in Wisconsin before expanding nationwide. Wildlands was her first job out of college. “Student-centered learning is so ingrained in me. I love helping people discover more about it.”
2. Coaching is part of their professional DNA.
Coaching others is deeply rooted in the way they think, talk, and interact with their peers in and outside of their school. The role comes naturally to them because they practice it every day.
For example, Liz’s coaching philosophy permeates her work at Wildlands. In 2015, she authored a book with her colleague, Paul Tweed (also an MSTP coach) called An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach & Students Learn. “That’s when my coaching journey really started,” she said, when she began talking with teachers in Wisconsin about the book. Using their Seven Essentials, she and Paul helped teachers and principals work together to redesign schools.
Peter also honed his coaching skills at his school, whether working with students, staff, or visitors to Northwest Passage. “I find my energy and passion supporting other people and helping them reach their goals and seeing them flourish. It’s not about me, it’s about helping them be better at what they do, especially when it is serving the greater good for working with young people.”
3. Inquiry: Creating, not replicating, designs for learning.
For these coaches, conversations are driven by a spirit of inquiry that has been at the center of their practice since day one, and over time, they’ve learned how to help others think outside the proverbial box. Both Northwest Passage and Wildlands get a lot of visitors who want to see their innovative programming. But both stress the goal should not be to replicate what visitors see at either school. “You can’t just look at one model and say you’re going to do that,” Peter points out. “What we do at Northwest Passage has worked for us, but it has taken us a long time to get here.” He tells visitors to figure out who they want to be, really think about who their students are, consider their resources, and be honest about their challenges. Then, he tells them to explore and define their opportunities. He plans to do this in his coaching role in the MSTP as well.
Liz echoed the wisdom of this approach. “I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of helping a school discover their dream for their students and helping that come to fruition. It’s like being a catalyst.” But, she cautions, it is up to those whom she will be coaching to figure out what they want to do.
4. The importance of teacher voice.
Inquiry leads to generating ideas, lots of them, but eventually a vision and a mission need to emerge along with a path for moving forward. A goal of the MSTP is to give educators a primary role in determining what that path entails. Liz and Peter have seen firsthand what happens when teachers are truly freed to chart their own course.
Empowering teachers to lead the way creates a different kind of dynamic. As Liz sees it, it’s the difference between “here’s what you get to do instead of what you have to do with students.” That’s a game changer for teachers. Suddenly, they feel a renewed sense of purpose. Liz thrives in providing teachers the opportunity to reimagine their day and their school and give them voice and choice in the process. “I can ask the right questions and help them decide what they want their school to look and be like.” But, she stresses, “I have a lot of questions, not answers. I want to help them find their own answers. That’s very teacher powered in perspective.”
Peter embraces a similar approach. The questions he intends to use to guide the project schools to which he is assigned are straightforward:
- What do you want your school to look like?
- What do your kids need?
- What do you think school should be for them?
He also plans to ask, “What are the parts you really like about what others are doing? Let’s frame that in your context,” he says. He is realistic about the constraints schools face. After he finds out what they want to do, he plans to ask, “How you can do that within your boundaries?”
5. Trust and collaboration.
Teacher buy-in is a key factor in determining whether coaching will be successful.¹ If teachers aren’t invested, the road ahead will be difficult. It is critical to establish a trusting relationship early in the process so teachers realize nothing will be done to them that they themselves don’t elect to do on their own. Liz intends to address this by creating authentic relationships with her mentees. “I see my [coaching] role much like I see my role in the classroom – a guide on the side. I am there as a mentor and a resource. But I don’t see myself implementing things for them; that will be their responsibility.”
Peter also knows he will need to foster trust. “Trust doesn’t happen overnight,” he admits. He, too, plans to take time to get to know his colleagues and establish open lines of communication. “Trust also comes from this place where both sides can recognize the value that each brings to the conversation. I don’t think of myself as the expert that has the definitive answer,” he said. “I like to spend time asking questions.”
6. Coaching enriches everyone’s practice.
Coaches will gain too. Peter made it clear that while he has things he is eager to share, he hopes to learn from others as well, signaling that coaching is a two-way street. “I’m a junkie on seeing what other schools are doing,” he said. “The best thing is to get out of your environment. You always see how you can do better.”
Both referenced that fact that for the past 10-15 years, the work of many of the other coaches and people in the project schools has overlapped in various ways. Both he and Liz have been collaborating with others formally and informally through projects, picking each other’s brains at conferences, and talking shop at meetings. The fact that both know a lot of the people in the project makes them very excited. As Peter pointed out, “There is such a high-quality set of people who share the same mission, the same drive for helping students.”
7. Creating a sustainable path forward.
Educators like Liz and Peter have been innovating for some time, and both shared their enthusiasm over how the MSTP will pave the way for school transformation across the country. Liz stated she looks forward to helping schools be different. “In this project, it will be amazing to see the different levels of collaboration that will take place. Not just with the schools that are participating, but with all of the coaches that are involved.” She points to a huge store of resources just waiting for more people to leverage towards creating more learner-center schools.
Peter is equally optimistic and hopes the project is the sign of a new era to come. “It’s the way we start to move the arrow back to where students and learning are at the center,” he said. “We are looking at schools through a newer lens, one that some of us have been using; now it’s broadening.”
So what do those who will be on the receiving end of the coaching think? They’re excited too. Just ask Heather Fitzloff, interim Program Director at Bridges Prior-Lake Savage Area School Alternative Learning Center in Prior Lake, Minnesota. Though still learning about what the coaching model will entail, of her staff, she said, “They are super excited about working with their partner school through a transformation, doing more things that give students voice and choice, and understanding project-based learning. It’s going to be a game changer.” She is enthusiastic about the collaboration that is promised and believes the structure is set up to provide just the right kind of support they need. “The coaches,” she said, “have been through it.”
Project-based learning is a growing trend, and without coaches and exposure to other models, she fears any attempt at transformation would take a lot longer, be more difficult, and much more challenging to secure staff support. With expert help, she believes she and her team will be better situated to take on the barriers and challenges that lie ahead.
When asked if her staff was on board, Heather admits there was some hesitation at first. “But now that they know more about the project, they are really excited.” She notes her district is also on board. Visiting some of the other schools in the project has added to her own excitement, and she is ready to get started. One of the things she hopes to take away from the experience is becoming part of the network of people and schools that will continue the work after the grant is over. “It is going to be a really tough shift; we went to and taught in a traditional system. To change from that – the paradigm shift to a different role – will be hard. It’s a big step. That’s why this partnership and the coaching is going to be so important.”
Joe Rice, Executive Director at The Center School in Minneapolis, Minnesota is hopeful as well. When asked what he is looking for in the coaching model, he said, “I hope they are willing to really personalize it. That will be the best way to succeed. Staff need to have someone available in real time.” They, too, have questions about project-based learning. “Some teachers are a little hesitant as to how it will translate into what they teach and how they teach,” he pointed out. The Center School is unique in that it operates as a contract school that serves Native American students using indigenous pedagogy. “Their pedagogy,” he said, “is very old. Experiential learning, problem-based learning, and place-based learning are all approaches that have elements of indigenous practice in them.” But it remains to be seen, he said, how non-Native teachers will work with the Center School’s practices.
Looking ahead, Joe said, “I expect at the start, the coaching will be more intensive,” then went on to say he wants the coaches to develop his and his staff’s confidence then step back a bit. “Let us make mistakes.” He wants his staff to own their work, and coaching, he believes, should be used to help them figure it out their own solutions.
According to Oxton, the whole coaching team will meet with each other once a month to discuss needs at their schools and draw from all the coaches’ experience to find solutions, tools, and practices to support the various needs of school they serve.
After talking with these educators, it’s hard not to imagine the MSTP isn’t poised to make a significant impact on schooling in America. By empowering teachers and applying lessons learned in programs that have grown over time and continue to iterate, our hopes for success can and should be high. In the fourth and final post in this series on coaching, I will talk about the road ahead.
For more information, you may contact any of the following people involved in the MSTP:
1. Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research. Retrieved at https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mkraft/files/kraft_blazar_hogan_2017_teacher_coaching_meta_analysis_wp.pdf