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Student Centered Coaching: Medford

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Written by Joseph Kanke in collaboration with Dawn Brandner-Heier, Carla Brost and Amy Wildberg

Each quarter this newsletter will highlight a success story of one district or school in their implementation of coaching. A variety of regions, district sizes, types of coaching and grade levels will be showcased. A reference to specific programs and models does not denote an endorsement from myself or the state. Rather, by sharing the many methods of coaching, your school or district may be better informed as to what might work best for you.

In any given training, it is almost assured that someone will ask me about Student-Centered Coaching. In short, this is a model of instructional coaching developed by Diane Sweeney (2010)in which educators use a collection of student-centered data (e.g. outcome, observation) to set student outcome goals. I do my best to summarize my understanding of the model, but I feel that I never do it justice since it is not a model I’ve personally practiced to fidelity. During a recent attempt to muddle through the model, a participant asked, “Do you ever worry that putting so much focus on the data takes the human element out of coaching?” This only made me further question my capacity to share a genuine explanation of Diane Sweeney’s vision. So it came to meー as nothing short of a giftー to be invited, by the Medford coaches, to see how they have used and adapted Student-Centered Coaching to meet the needs of their students.

There was a buzz of excitement in the conference room as I entered and the coaches began pulling up data on their computers to share on the tv screen. I had arrived a few minutes early and decided to lead with the big question before I observed their meeting: “So, why Student-Centered Coaching?”

One coach responded, “Our students are ready to handle what we can bring their way, and the data provides the urgency for teachers to provide what each student needs.” Coach Dawn Brandner-Heier (referred to by colleagues as Data Dawn) added, “We feel like we know our whole student body better than ever since we became student data driven.” This invitation suddenly felt very serendipitous.

Digging into Coaching Systems

Although I had many questions, I wanted to follow-up with regards to the coaches’ responses. As the meeting began, I could tell many of them would be answered organically. I had been invited to join a district child study team. These teams came together at the start of the day to discuss the needs of individual students based on either changes in data or at the request of teachers and families. The team consisted of the school psych, principal, teacher, behavioral specialist, instructional coaches, special education/interventionists and family representatives. Others were invited based on individual student needs. The first time a team meets about a child, they create an electronic folder which will follow that child throughout their entire school career. There are ongoing notes documented as well as other pertinent information. As they pulled the data for the team discussion, I began to realize how data can drive human connections as well. Yes, the team did discuss the data you would expect, but they also asked about what was going on with students on a personal level. Before leaving, the team constructed an individualized plan to support the student with individual team members walking away with actionable steps.

At the systems level, it was clear that the child study team was key to connect with each and every student. I was eager to explore what other key systems pieces had been established to support the work of coaches as they built and engaged in a system of coaching centered on student data.

Medford’s team of elementary coaches consists of universal coach Dawn Brandner-Heier, math coach Carla Brost and reading specialist Amy Wildberg. All three would say that their role is data-driven and supported by the leadership team. They use grade-level data trends to determine training opportunities and have the dual roles of coaching/interventionist to provide targeted instruction.

The history of coaching at Medford is similar to many other schools--the journey began with skepticism and a lot of work from leadership and coaches to build trust. The work truly began by convincing the school board that coaching positions added value to the educator support system. After convincing the school board, Principal Miller took the message to his staff in the spring, before coaching would start, with an overview of the position and a vision for coaching support. Returning to school in the fall he recalls there was still some teacher skepticism and some educators voiced, “concerns about being in teacher classrooms. We circled back to the whole school meeting to be transparent about what we were doing and sharing some of the data and the process. It is never a ‘gotcha’, it is a. . . bring everyone into the process.” Principal Miller realized that it would take time and patience to establish a culture of coaching and stated that rather than creating a lot of hoops for teachers and coaches to jump through, he gave the process space to evolve to fit the needs of his staff.

The whole team was in agreement that building trust and failing forward were essential components of coaching. The leadership team had begun planting seeds of change a few years prior to coaching by encouraging teachers to observe their peers. The culture of reflection was beneficial as coaches began to enroll in partnerships. Leadership permission to try new things and learn from mistakes has also been key. Principal Miller stated, “The willingness to ‘let it go where it needs to go’ was important to developing our coaching program.” The coaches echoed this sentiment, stating they like many components of Diane Sweeney’s work, but found the scheduling component to be too rigid to meet the student needs.

Student-Centered, Data-Informed Coaching

Data isn’t new to Medford. Medford Elementary school has been collecting data for years, but in the last two years, there have been more discussions about how to use the data in a meaningful way to affect student outcomes. One focus has been shifting coaching from teacher practice toward a student centered, data-informed approach. According to Dawn, “last year we began looking at the data and asking if it was truly useful or if there were missing data pieces. We began implementing grade-level data discussions.”

We had been talking for nearly an hour and I still had a haunting question of whether so much data discussion took humanity out of the equation. Dawn responded, "Most schools look at student gap trends over a period of time. Our team looks for individual student gaps appearing in current time to be responsive. We're looking at the whole child." At this point, I remember a lot of head nodding on my part before Carla chimed in with a story about a teacher.

The year prior, they had been looking at the data of an individual student and noticed some shifts in performance. They presented the data to the teacher who was surprised and had thought the student was doing well, but given the established coaching culture, was ready to put support into place for the student. Carla concluded the teacher’s story with, “Sometimes the data paints a different picture than what is observed in the classroom. We are here to share the data and what the data is indicating.” She goes on to conclude, “The data gives everyone the purpose of coaching--it creates urgency for change.”

The final question I had for my coaching cadre was regarding just who, exactly, they engaged in coaching with. I was told that all new teachers engaged in coaching cycles, but by word of mouth, veteran coaches had reached out and asked to also be included. Before I could dig much deeper, the coaches asked if I would prefer to connect with the source.

I first spoke with Carissa Budimlija, a first year kindergarten teacher about her experience with coaching. She stated, “Initially it was very intimidating because I wasn’t sure of what I was doing, so having an expert come in and give you suggestions felt intimidating.” However, after some reflection, she realized “they were just there to support me” and “it was amazing.” She continues without hesitation, “Having extra eyes in the classroom is powerful and I ask for feedback on everything.” And in response to model teaching, Budimlija states, “having a coach model a strategy I was doing I think, Whoa I was not doing that to fidelity-I need to change my practice.”

Thinking back to my first year of teaching and feeling intimidated by accessing data, I asked if she felt supported in her access and use of data. She quickly retorted, “Coaching has made me way more comfortable with data because I felt like it was way over my head. But they break it down into manageable pieces and tell me what was important to Medford and to each individual student.”

I also had the privilege of speaking to veteran third grade teacher, Jacque Grunewald. I asked Jacque how she felt about coaching as a teacher who already had such expertise in the field. Jacque shared, “I know there are some veteran teachers who think it is hard for change, but I welcome it and I need it.”When I asked her for a specific example, she shared that she had always wanted to implement guiding reading, but had never felt successful, “There were just some key elements I couldn’t figure out how to manage and keep up with, but having that opportunity to meet with small groups has been invaluable. Like I said, it was years of my trying to figure it out and then just giving up.” This year Jacque began implementing guiding reading at the start of the year with minimal supports.


By the end of our morning together, I kept thinking back to how many times the expression “each and every student” was woven into the conversation. I feel certain that the next time someone reaches out and asks me about Student Centered Coaching, I will be able to share just how humanizing data can be when looked through an appropriate lens.

Please check out the interview transcript below for more insight into the perspective of a data savvy coach.

Instructional Coach Interview

How do you measure the impact you have as a coach on your client?

Dawn: Our clients are our students. We look at student growth through the data to ensure students are learning. But it's more than that. It's supporting students and teachers in a flexible, responsive manner so students also have the social/emotional connections needed to thrive.

Amy: We work a lot on growth mindset.

Carla: Not only is it academics, it is also mindset. We can see their confidence growing. The change in the kids’ attitude towards school is important too.”

Amy: Also when we see teachers continue to use the same strategies from year to year, that is success too.

Dawn: We want students to be their personal best, and when we see that, that is a measure of the impact we have as coaches.

How do you work with reluctant coachees?

Dawn: The grade level data indicates which students need support in classrooms. The coaching session is presented as an opportunity to support students by working together, which reduces reluctance to participate. We all want to see students succeed.

Carla: In the beginning there was some reluctance, but once they saw what was happening, they asked when we would be in their room. We don’t have a lot of reluctance.

Dawn: Our district’s mission is to ensure all students learn so data is a place to connect with all coachees.

Tell me about a learning moment you experienced as a coach?

Amy: By attending CESA trainings we were able to talk to other coaches. Our system was new and they helped us keep pure to the coaching role by telling us things that coaches should and shouldn’t do. We were on our own before we had the chance to talk with others.”

Dawn: Realizing that I wasn’t going to know everything but that there are always resources to help.

Carla: I had a huge coaching mistake when I first started last year. I was working with two teachers last year and after observing a lesson I gave some direct criticism and in hindsight, I realized it needed to be their self-realization. They know it didn’t work and they didn’t need me to tell them. I went back and apologized. I reflect back on that all the time and still feel terrible. I needed to practice my coaching conversation.

As a coach, how do you see yourself impacting system change at a site?

Dawn: The data drives curriculum changes and staff training sessions. It also provides the where and why our student-centered coaching occurs.

Carla: We provide optional SLO and PPGs for grade-levels to consider and then support their work towards them.

Amy: And these options are aligned to school improvement goals.

What are some things you’ve learned or picked up that have helped you to become a better coach?

Amy: Being able to read people, their feedback and emotions, and respond appropriately while staying focused on the goal.

What is one educational text that you have read recently that resonated with you? Why did you find it relevant to your practice?

Dawn: I read, Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz. This text is based on creating student-centered, student-led classrooms. It provides me with additional strategies to share with teachers and students to promote student responsibility in self-led learning.

Amy: I’ve just started reading Leading Well by Lucy Calkins. I was reflecting on how we have put initiatives in place and how we usually start with our early implementers. I liked digging into the two methods and the theory behind why each of them can work.

Carla: Student-Centered Coaching by Diane Sweeney. I followed it because I felt that her entire philosophy matched what Medford was trying to put into place.

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