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Coaches in the classroom

Instructional coaches support school staff and students

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Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012 10:48 am

There are tiny paper squares with crayon drawings in Farallone View Elementary School’s multipurpose room.

Seven-year-old Mixie Nair’s shows a sketch of himself helping his mom clean, sweep and make the bed.

Another second-grader, Nika Durham, has proudly depicted herself caring for her ailing dog.

Stepping back, the disparate squares made by students create a whole patchwork quilt that stretches 18 feet long and 16 feet high.

About 400 students contributed to the project inspired by a storybook called “The Kindness Quilt,” written and illustrated by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace.

Lynn McVey, Farallone’s new instructional coach, guided them through reading, writing and drawing for the activity, while teaching them about how to build a community with kind deeds.

As the school’s instructional coach, McVey said that she can work on projects with the students whenever she wants, but she was also hired to work with staff and teachers to provide professional development.

“Everybody needs a coach, whether you’re an athlete, an actor or a CEO of a company,” said McVey.

Originally hired to boost student literacy more than a decade ago, Cabrillo Unified School District instructional coaches now list modeling new teaching methods, ensuring adherence to state educational standards and more as part of their job description.

“Time and space and power end up influencing how people — teachers, principals and coaches — end up doing their day-to-day work,” said Sarah Woulfin, an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership. “Teachers can’t get outside their classrooms to do what coaches can do … (Coaches) have the flexibility to move between classrooms, do administrative work and managerial duties.”

McVey is new to Farallone, but every elementary school in the district has had a full- or part-time instructional coach since about 2000.

“Research had been showing that the best practice helping teachers learn new strategies was to have a coach in the classroom,” said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Elizabeth Schuck.

For example, in a study presented at the 2009 Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence Conference, in San Francisco, 66 percent of teachers at eight elementary schools in three districts worked with an instructional coach.

All of those who worked with the coaches showed greater understanding of, and more effectively implemented, the recommended teaching techniques.

Teachers also reported that they developed more varied, creative ways to present material to their students and had more time to reflect on their teaching strategies than those who did not have a coach.

Schuck was inspired to adopt instructional coaches about 12 years ago when she visited Teachers College of Columbia University to learn about innovative teaching practices.

“I describe it as Mecca,” said Schuck.

In a New York classroom, she witnessed a person whispering advice into a teacher’s ear in the middle of class. Schuck brought the idea back to the district.

Teachers were encouraged to work side by side with their resident instructional coaches, then known as literacy coaches, in pilot programs.

They came to realize that they wanted to keep the coaches, said Schuck, even though budgets were tightening.

Initial funding for the instructional coaches, provided by the Noyce Foundation’s Every Child a Reader and Writer Initiative, started to dry up around 2008. In 2010, instructional coaches were paid for by a federal grant to preserve teacher quality.

By helping out with tasks such as determining reading levels for books, discerning how to use new technology in the classroom and holding workshops for teachers on his or her findings, the instructional coach gives staff more time to work on things they need to get done.

“You’re always sensitive to what’s going on in the classroom,” said McVey. “It seems like they’re adding more to the teacher’s plate, but they’re not taking anything away. Their days are impacted with the standards they’re teaching and trying to differentiate the curriculum for their kids.”

McVey consequently helps in classrooms like that of Diana Purucker to make sure students are on track.

“Things come up; you don’t plan them,” said Purucker about spontaneously doing activities in class. “I can’t just drop (the standards) when I’m doing them.”

That’s where McVey comes in. She suggests ways that Purucker can intentionally weave state standards into her lessons in ways that complement her organic teaching style.

One day, the class played with a smart board to make a scale model of the classroom and started to incorporate math and design concepts into the lesson.

Purucker was also interested in improving students’ literary knowledge, so McVey coordinated book clubs and literature circles with parents.

Purucker even has time to focus on enrichment projects for her third-graders like bee-keeping this fall and producing a Shakespeare play in the spring.

“She asked us, ‘How can I help?’ And she actually does the things we ask,” said Purucker.

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