“When I think about instructional coaching, there are two really important pieces that I think of. The first one is relationships. In my experience as a teacher and a coach, I know that if we didn't have a baseline of trust, we couldn't learn from each other in the most successful ways. And secondly, I think of autonomy. The best coaching is really driven by the classroom teacher, and it's a coach's job to help them reflect and support their own ideas about all the ways that they want to improve.”
Those were the words that 2020 National Teacher of the Year Tabatha Rosproy shared in a recent webinar on high-quality instructional coaching in pre-K.
When done well, instructional coaching can provide teachers the opportunity to take a step back and think about their practice and work with another professional focused on their professional growth. Too often, however, teachers are the passengers in this process instead of the drivers.
That’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Early Learning Solutions program called up SRI International and Substantial. Our charge? Talk to teachers and coaches to define the ideal features of observation tools that centered the relationships and autonomy that Rosproy highlighted.
We asked Todd Grindal, EdD, co-director of the SRI Education Center for Learning & Development and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Sheryl Cababa, chief strategy officer at Substantial to dive into the details of this collaborative effort to rethink the way we are supporting high-quality teaching in the early learning field.
Can you share a bit about your background and current roles?
Todd Grindal: I co-lead the Center for Learning & Development at SRI Education. We study the impact of policies and programs on young children and children with disabilities. Prior to working in research, I spent six years as an elementary and preschool teacher and school administrator. Being a preschool teacher is a really hard job. And it’s not just hard because it can be physically tiring to engage kids and be on your feet all day. It’s a constant mental challenge. No one is born knowing how to do this and like many preschool teachers, I struggled to balance the need to create a joyful yet organized environment, foster intentional and personalized learning opportunities, and quickly decipher what children are communicating through their behavior.
I was fortunate to work with mentor teachers who could observe my classroom practice and provide me with specific feedback and sustained guidance on how to manage the complex task of supporting the daily learning of two dozen young children. Much of my work as a researcher has been focused on how to enable other preschool teachers to receive this kind of support.
Sheryl Cababa: I am the chief strategy officer at Substantial—a design, strategy, and software development firm. Our job is to elevate the voices of end users, who are those who will be impacted by the experiences we're designing, and to act as advocates for their experiences and their outcomes. Human-centered design is an iterative process in which we center users' challenges, come up withideas to solve those challenges, then prototype, and test potential solutions to achieve the best outcomes for users.
Can you describe the current state of classroom observations and instructional coaching in early learning?
Todd: We need to see stronger evidence for how measures of teaching are associated with the skills, habits, and outcomes we want to see in children. A phrase you used to hear in the field is “you know quality when you see it.” There is a growing recognition that we need to be more specific. A lot of tools that are used today were developed based on a non-representative and predominantly white experience. Observation is also expensive, which can be a barrier to ensuring it is done frequently enough to get an accurate sense of the classroom experience and provide enough real-time feedback to teachers.
Tell us more about the process to rethink instructional coaching?
Todd: One of the decisions was to make a distinction between observation tools designed to determine program quality and those designed to help teachers get better at their practice. To change practice, observation tools need to support a coaching process where both teachers and coaches are on the same team, and there is no agenda other than supporting the teacher and boosting student outcomes. This includes giving agency to teachers on the focus of observations and providing frequent and actionable information.
Sheryl: One thing that came up quite a bit at the beginning and throughout the project is that assessments are not centered around the needs or strengths of the most marginalized children. Different cultures sometimes have different learning goals. How do we build tools that assess a wider variety of strengths?
For example, growing up in multi-lingual environments is often framed as a deficit because the child or family does not know English when in reality, it is a strength that aligns with identity and multi-cultural learning goals that many families hold. Families we spoke to were proud of their home language and cultural identities, and some expressed disappointment when their pre-K only focused on English-learning rather than their child’s bilingualism and cultural heritage.
We engaged these voices directly by creating stakeholder groups with families, pre-K teachers and leaders, instructional coaches, and subject matter experts in assessments and multi-lingual learning. In particular, we centered the voices of families and teachers as they are the most directly impacted by instructional coaching and assessment tools and typically have the least control in the process.
Your new resource Reimagining Instructional Coaching is designed to help address many of the challenges and opportunities you’ve identified. Can you start by telling me more about this document?
Sheryl: You can think of this Reimagining Instructional Coaching resource as a north star for an equitable coaching tool. This resource first describes what an ideal instructional coaching experience is, based on the perspectives of teachers, coaches, and pre-K leaders. The document then takes it a step further to say, “how can a tool support this coaching experience?” Our hope is that this resource will be used to inform the development of new solutions or drive the refinement of existing solutions to better address the unmet needs around instructional coaching and classroom observation.
How did the input from teachers, coaches, and pre-K leaders impact the final product?
Sheryl: Stakeholder input helped the team think more intentionally about what are considered strengths in a child and what are considered deficits. We believe that by more accurately understanding and improving the experiences of the most marginalized children in pre-K, we will improve outcomes for all children who possess strengths that are falling under the radar with current classroom observation tools.
Todd: For example, one of the things we heard from teachers is that they want more guidance on how to support dual language learners and children with disabilities in the classroom. Commonly used observation tools don't directly address what effective instruction can look like for these children. But the good news is that approaches that help dual language learners and children with disabilities—things like providing multiple means of engagement and expression—also benefit the other children in the environment.
How can people access and use this resource?
Todd: We would encourage anyone tasked with developing coaching processes to read this resource to consider the content, user experience, and uses of the tool they are wanting to develop. From there, they can design observation and coaching tools to achieve the intended result. This document is a blueprint of that process. We outline data-based goals and criteria for educators and program leaders to reference and use as they design their own programs.