When Catherine G. Atria, the principal of P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Florida, observed her teachers at work this year, it was with a new lens.
Watching teachers in action, Atria carefully collected data on everything from how many students asked questions or closely read the text of a book, to the number of closed or open-ended questions a teacher asked. Atria didn’t opine on whether students were engaged or not, or note techniques a teacher could have used, but didn’t.
And when meeting with a teacher afterward, Atria didn’t list a prescription for improvement. Instead, she presented the factual data and asked careful questions about why the teacher took a particular approach. Then she asked the teacher to think about ways to make small improvements to boost existing strengths.
"We focus on the strengths of a teacher, not on what you don’t see or what you think should be happening. This is true coaching."
Catherine G. Atria, principal of P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Florida
It was an approach that differed completely from her years of previous observations, Atria said, and was prompted by training she received from coaches from the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership, through the state of Florida’s Commissioner’s Leadership Academy.
"We focus on the strengths of a teacher, not on what you don’t see or what you think should be happening," Atria said. "This is true coaching."
Working from a shared vision of instruction
In the last two school years, Atria and about 300 other educational leaders across Florida have learned these new techniques and incorporated them into their own school buildings through an initiative created by the Florida Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner’s Leadership Academy is a yearlong program designed to hone the skills of principals, assistant principals and district leaders on a novel teacher-coaching approach.
Designed by CEL, and launched by Brian Dassler, the deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida Department of Education, the program helps leaders develop skills in observing, analyzing and coaching teachers to improve their practice. In its second year, the Leadership Academy also provided a train-the-trainer experience for about 40 leaders, in an effort to create new facilitators to spread the practices on a wider basis.
“We’re trying to enhance principals’ capacity to observe and analyze instruction for the purposes of improving it,” Dassler said, adding that these techniques complement the menu of other skills educational leaders need to be effective. “We want to develop a shared language and a common vision for excellent instruction for all children.”
An intense learning experience for educational leaders
As part of the initiative, school and district education leaders gathered three times a year for institutes led by CEL faculty, in which they were trained to observe and coach teachers in new ways. Participants watched videos, and practiced observations and feedback in a controlled environment. In these sessions they were instructed to look for “noticings,” or evidence in a particular area of focus, and come up with “wonderings,” or questions based on what they saw, and then analyze their evidence based on teachers’ strengths and what strategies they might be on the verge of incorporating into their practice.
"We want to develop a shared language and a common vision for excellent instruction for all children."
Brian Dassler, deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida Department of Education
The idea around this effort is not to focus on what is lacking in a classroom — it’s to pick something the teacher is already good at and raise it to the next level in a collaborative way. Observers collect hard data, avoiding judgements, about what they see to present to teachers and ask them to craft their own approaches, with support and guidance, for improvement.
In addition to the larger institutes, Leadership Academy participants were also grouped into small cohorts of about 15 — organized by region — to do “learning walkthroughs” or classroom visits, to observe teachers in area schools and provide feedback. The yearlong process means educational leaders are out of their school buildings for a total of about 10 days per year — a significant time investment.
A two-way conversation around practice
But the combination of large-group coaching and small-group, embedded experiences was critical, said Mark Mullins, the south area superintendent for the Brevard Public Schools, who completed the first year of the Leadership Academy and then returned this past year to train as a coach himself.
“It was different in a real classroom and a real school,” he said. “We followed the application with the practice and that’s where the real learning happened.”
“It’s an ongoing, two-way conversation around practice and how to improve it. The skills you learn allow you to become a growth partner rather than a problem solver.”
Mark Mullins, south area superintendent for Brevard Public Schools
Because the technique emphasizes the collection of quantitative and qualitative data that is then presented to the teacher without judgement, the teacher is less likely to feel defensive and more likely to feel that the process is collaborative.
"It’s an ongoing, two-way conversation around practice and how to improve it," Mullins said. "The skills you learn allow you to become a growth partner rather than a problem solver."
An important facet is that the process is generally non-evaluative and doesn’t attempt to address a wide range of issues, instead focusing in on a pre-identified instructional technique or target area.
"If you go in and try to fix everything, you won’t do a good job of improving anything," Mullins said.
Giving feedback, not just checking a box
That process feels very different from traditional observations, said Atria, who had spent more than a decade providing feedback to teachers. In the past, “I never felt that my ability to really see what was happening in the classroom and talk with my teachers about it was good enough to meet my own expectations,” she said.
Atria said she feels so strongly about the benefits of the strategies she learned from CEL coaches that she took the technique back to her school’s teachers, and trained them on it. She also has begun to use it for evaluations, giving up the 41-target element checklist she used in the past.
"It was just putting a check in a box," she said. "The teachers got feedback about what they did right or wrong, but they didn’t have any voice."
Atria believes teachers are now more empowered to make improvements to their practice and those efforts are having more impact. "The teachers are invested in this, so they’re sustaining the changes," she said. "It’s been transformational for us."
A common language for improvement
But the initiative reaches beyond individual classrooms and teachers. Dassler is aiming for influential educational leaders from every district to apply and share their learning with others. Even in a state as big as Florida – with over 180,000 teachers – this approach is building a shared vision and common language for excellent instruction that defy traditional boundaries.
"CEL is the very best at this kind of work. The partnership we’ve established has really been critical."
Jason Graham, senior educational program director for the Bureau of Educator Recruitment, Development and Retention at the Florida Department of Education
CEL faculty were willing to work closely with Florida officials to make sure that common perspective was one that fit the state’s unique needs, said Jason Graham, the senior educational program director for the Bureau of Educator Recruitment, Development and Retention at the state education department, who is now overseeing the Commissioner’s Leadership Academy.
Graham said CEL faculty were true thought partners with the department in the initiative, with bi-weekly calls, constant reflection on the progress of the program, and a willingness to make alterations as needed.
"CEL is the very best at this kind of work," he said. "The partnership we’ve established has really been critical."
Training the trainers
The ultimate goal is to make the program self-sustaining. That’s why in the second year of its operation — 2015-16 — the program expanded into a train-the-trainer model. Leaders like Mullins and Atria who experienced the first year of the academy, came back for a second round, to learn how to instruct their own staff members in the CEL methods. Mullins, for example, said his experience as a facilitator-in-training, was particularly thorough. He practiced leading various aspects of the trainings followed by facilitated discussions after every session to garner feedback.
But Mullins said he continued to learn throughout the process and his work has caused more than one light-bulb moment for principals he has trained.
"The biggest ‘aha’ is that no-judgment conversation, letting the teacher own their own improvement rather than the principal saying 'Here’s what you have to do,'" he said. Because of the success of the technique, several of his principals have incorporated it into their own professional growth plans, he said.
Some education leaders say the initiative is already altering the conversations taking place on a districtwide basis. Emily Weiskopf, the director of professional development and school improvement and assessment for the Clay County Schools, trained 150 administrators in the past year on the CEL techniques, after learning it herself the previous year. It’s given Clay County education leaders a shared language and rulebook to work from. For teachers, it provides the assurance that they’ll be observed and supported in similar ways across the district, Weiskopf said.
"To know that foundational pieces of instruction go across all levels of schools has been helpful," she said. "Teachers now have a common understanding of what administrators expect from them."
Sharing experience, building community
But the Leadership Academy is not just about disseminating the CEL coaching technique. Allowing school leaders to get to know their peers from other schools and districts, forming professional relationships and building their own personal learning communities is a critical piece of the process. Education leaders visiting other schools and districts during the learning walkthroughs often brought back ideas to their home sites, Mullins said.
"It was of tremendous benefit to visit other districts," he said. "We are better today as a district because of some of the information we brought back from our colleagues down the road."
Dassler agrees. "The job of a principal is a very lonely one," he said. "I see evidence of the cohorts staying in touch with each other. That social-emotional community is really critical in a demanding job."
The underlying approach of the CEL strategy is to start each teacher observation with the assumption that the instructor wants to do well by the students and is trying his or her best with the tools and strategies they currently have, Dassler said.
“As a profession, we’re still learning what good instruction is,” he said. “We make it better by being partners with people from a strength-based perspective.”
Freelance writer Michelle Davis contributed to this article.