Commentary - UVEI - Upper Valley Educators Institute

  • Schools Need to Grow Their Own Coaches

     

    Commentary published in the Valley News on April 26, 2016:  With the passing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been much discussion about the end of the No Child Left Behind era and the shifting of policy prerogatives back towards state and local decision makers. This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves a fundamental question anew: What might lead to the schools we hope for and want? In many ways, traditional arguments about the right state or national policy levers for improving schools fail to answer this question satisfactorily. State-driven accountability and top-down mandates have not (and are not likely to) lead to better schools for kids. In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that while policies may aid or hinder improvement efforts, they are not the main event at all.

    It turns out that in the complex world of teaching and learning, school improvement is the result of building the capacity, skills, and judgement of teachers through ongoing and deliberate practice at the school level (to many of us working in schools, this is not exactly a shock). Improvement efforts that start with and are steered by the people in the building simultaneously respect the professionalism of teachers, and depend on it. Teachers, and particularly teacher leaders, are the key to success.

    One form of teacher leadership that is particularly promising is coaching. Many people think of coaching in terms of sports, and intuitively understand coaches importance for improvement. Outside of the realm of sports, coaching is usually understood as job-embedded support that aids in deliberate practice; providing suggestions and feedback for improvement. Drawing on his experience in the medical field, author and surgeon Atul Gawande has persuasively argued that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Many local educators agree, and apply this idea to teaching. Jeff Moreno, principal at Hartland Elementary School, views teacher leadership generally, and coaching specifically, as an important strategy for achieving his school’s goals. Following an extensive period of planning based on careful analysis of school data, Hartland Elementary has developed focused goals in the areas of math, literacy and positive student behavior. Jeff indicated that “creating the position and identifying coaches is a critical strategy for all three goals. Coaches are key to fostering the discussion of ‘how can I get better’ or ‘how can I reach more kids?’” Jeff went on to say that having coaches drawn from the ranks of the effective and respected teachers at his school “provides a safe framework for these important reflective conversations to happen.” Carefully selected coaches, particularly coaches who continue to teach, are able to “use what they are learning in their own classes, and that can serve as a lab setting” for testing new approaches and providing examples for other teachers to study. Coaches’ grounding in the real, local work and culture of the school also, as Jeff put it, “provides credibility for the teacher with whom the coach is working.”

    The good news is that many of our schools are already full of coaches or potential coaches (sometimes with that title, and other times in the form of mentors, department chairs, professional development coordinators, grade level leads, subject matter experts, and more). The challenge is that many people in coaching roles have little training or support. Being an effective teacher does not guarantee that someone will be an effective coach. To be good, coaches must match their knowledge of classroom teaching and subject matter with the skills required to be an adult educator. The Hartland effort, in Jeff’s view, requires at least a five year commitment, in part because “coaches need to develop into their role over time.”  Becky Wipfler, a reading specialist and literacy coordinator at Hanover’s Richmond Middle School, whose role includes literacy coaching, echoed this sentiment. “Coaching teachers is a complex undertaking which I hesitated to jump into until I more fully understood the many facets of coaching.” Skills like carefully observing instruction, questioning and listening techniques, and relationship building are particularly important. Coaches need to learn these skills through training, practice, and feedback. In other words, coaches need coaching. Specialized training  in these areas, including opportunities to practice and get feedback, helped Becky feel more comfortable working with colleagues to improve their teaching practice.

    Identifying and developing teacher leaders as coaches is a good investment, positively impacting teachers and their students. Amy Arnold, a second year teacher at Bradford Elementary School who received coaching as part of a district wide literacy initiative, said, “When you first start teaching, it's kind of like feeling your way through a darkened hallway. You bump into things, and you are never quite sure you're actually going in the right direction. Having a coach is like having a flashlight. Coaches come into your room and observe and model, reaffirming or correcting your teaching strategies. Not only does it benefit student learning by making you a more effective educator, it helps you feel more confident in what you are doing. I also think it is great for students to see that teachers are always learning, too. When your coach comes into the room, you take on a dual role: teacher and student- and the kids are fascinated by that. It really sends a message of lifelong learning.”

    The solution to developing our schools lies in investing in the people on whom effective schooling depends. Policy should be directed at supporting and developing teachers as learners and leaders at the local level.

    By R Page Tompkins, EdD

    Page is UVEI's Executive Director.  For more information about Page, see:  http://uvei.edu/about-uvei/staff-and-faculty?id=294

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  • The Art of Taking Risks

    As the Fine Arts Teacher and Drama Director at Fall Mountain Regional High School, Dakota Benedetto has, during her 16-year career in the classroom, sought to create opportunities for her students -- opportunities to explore, to create, to think for themselves and to learn from failure. Dakota believes that real learning requires getting out of our comfort zones, and that schools should strive to create an environment of intellectual risk-taking.  

    This year, while Dakota completes the Principal Intern Program at UVEI, she is working with a group of educators and local community members to open the LEAF Charter School in the fall of 2017 in Alstead, NH. They envision a small charter high school with an interdisciplinary curriculum, emphasizing flexibility and hands-on experiences. “The opportunity to shape this new learning community has been wonderful - a chance to help ‘change the educational paradigm,’ as Ken Robinson puts it. How cool is that?” Dakota exclaims. 

    If you ever have the good fortune to meet Dakota, you will discover that her interests outside school range from acting to dancing to carpentry. She is proficient in French, is CPR certified, studied architecture at RISD and loves social dancing. Dakota’s inspiration for living a full and varied life comes from words by Albert Einstein:  Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. “I believe that it is the challenge, the putting your hopes and heart on the line, that makes the difference in having successes. After all, how can I ask my students to take chances if I don’t do the same?” Dakota asks.

    Dakota, who is a resident of Marlow, NH, is a graduate of Plymouth State College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Education.  She went on to receive a Master in Education from Harvard University. 

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  • The Learning by Doing Advantage

    Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working with the Upper Valley Educators Institute’s (UVEI) administration, faculty, and students and, as a result, I have learned first-hand the impact of their philosophy: learning by doing. UVEI is a place where the art of teaching and leadership is learned through practice, and its programs heavily engage candidates with colleagues and mentors in real-life situations over extended periods of time.

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  • The UVEI Coach: Your Personal Guide

     

    An internship at UVEI is a lot like the long distance thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both have an exciting, though somewhat apprehensive outset into the unknown, followed by an arduous journey of several months, leading to a clear and lofty goal at the end.  But the novice hiker on the UVEI trek has a priceless asset in the services of a highly experienced, trail-wise personal guide:  the UVEI Faculty Coach.

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  • Trending: Competency-Based Education

    I attended UVTI (before we became UVEI) from 2006 to 2007 as a teacher intern, taught math in Seattle for five years, then returned to the Upper Valley and began working at UVEI in 2014. Quite a bit has changed here in ten years, but one constant has been our commitment to competency-based education.  In my capacity as Registrar, I prepare transcripts -- the documents that describe to employers, licensing bureaus, etc. what our graduates have achieved.  Because our graduates are assessed as to whether they are competent as a beginning teacher, one of my challenges is to find a way to write those descriptions so that they can be understood by a wider audience, including those only familiar with a traditional grading system. I must admit that there are days when I catch myself thinking “if only we gave grades…”

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  • Jim Nourse

    Why I Hired UVEI Graduates

    During my ten years as principal in area schools, the UVEI graduates I hired were all exceptional, and they enjoyed a significant competitive advantage in the application process over other teachers with less than five years of experience.  UVEI graduates stand out because:

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  • Why We Forget and Why It Matters to Teachers

    It’s early in the morning and not many people have managed to get a second cup of much-needed coffee. But that’s not why people’s brains are a little fuzzy. This is the third of the four-part series, Perspectives on Teaching, Learning, and the Brain and Dr. Christian Jernstedt, Professor Emeritus of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, has just asked these aspiring teachers to recall a meaningful portion of the content of his last session. Everyone is clearly struggling. Dr. Jernstedt is looking at one young man in the back row and waiting patiently for an answer.

    “Can I use a lifeline?” Ethan, an aspiring English teacher, asks playfully, and many in the room chuckle.

    Dr. Jernstedt specializes in human learning. And he knows exactly why everyone is struggling and furiously flipping through notebooks, searching for their notes from the last class.

    “It’s disappointing,” he said later, that people can’t remember a very crucial point from the last session. But Dr. Jernstedt knows a teachable moment when one presents itself. He tells the room that the disappointment he feels is a reality that teachers need to grapple with. Teachers can deliver what they think is a good lesson, but students will not necessarily learn or remember.

    The reason we forget, he tells us, is not that the idea or answer has gone from our minds. Interference is why we forget. New information interferes with previously stored information. Our brains are very smart, and crammed with an enormous amount of information. Forgetting happens when we can’t retrieve a memory. And trying to retrieve memories is not analogous to searching in a file cabinet for the information. “It's more like an archeological dig,” says Jernstedt.

    Have you ever tried to remember something, been frustrated at the inability to recall, and then the memory comes to you at another time, such as when you’re in the shower? That’s the amazing power of the brain -- to continue to work in the background to retrieve a memory, even when you think you’re not working on the problem.

    So what does this all mean for teachers? Well, the answer is complicated. Learning often depends on the ability of a student's brain to retrieve information. Research, Dr. Jernstedt says, tells us that when subjects take a nap immediately after learning new information, they can recall more than those who remain awake. Since most of our students won’t be napping after our lessons, we’ll have to try a different approach.

    There are many things teachers can do to minimize interference. Teachers can use structure, elaboration and imagery to maximize meaningfulness. Teachers can chunk information into the small, meaningful bits. And teachers can help students rehearse and remember.

    But at the moment, the fuzzy brains in the room are still working on the problem at hand: What was the important information Dr. Jernstedt said at the last session that we should have remembered?

    Perhaps we all need to sleep in it. Or get that second cup of coffee.

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education and a member of the program faculty. Kristen’s commentary on participation strategies can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIDowney

     

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