While masks are mostly off and in-person learning has widely resumed, the look of “normalcy” in classrooms is a thin shroud for the deep, ongoing challenges that schools face. The negative effects of the pandemic on learning are still being felt by districts, and they will continue to be felt by teachers and students (and their parents) for years to come.
There are many examples of COVID’s negative impact on students, including declining mathematics and reading skills, plummeting NAEP scores, concerns about mental health, increased absenteeism and the teacher shortages in some districts. And, like so many things, many of these effects are disproportionately greater for schools in high-poverty areas, widening the preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps of historically marginalized students.
School leaders are triaging all of these things and more, directing Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds and other relief funding to many areas in an attempt to right the ship. I applaud the many districts that have applied a portion of these funds toward their coaching programs, elevating some of their best teachers to provide training and support for their colleagues through these challenging times. The problem is that many of these funding sources are coming to an end as we turn the corner on the pandemic. But, the need for coaches and well-executed coaching programs is more important than ever if schools are going to address the pandemic’s lasting effects on learning and development.
Below are four ways that leaders can build sustainable coaching infrastructure that successfully supports teachers and students in this “post”-pandemic learning environment.
Realign Your Coaching Vision
Clarity of vision is essential to laying the groundwork for a coaching program. The vision is the “why” behind coaching, and it may have changed for your schools as a result of the pandemic. Revisiting your coaching vision to address the most-pressing challenges will set clear expectations for how coaching should occur and what success should look like.
Through our work with leaders across the country, I’ve seen first-hand that instructional leaders who articulate a vision for their coaching program are able to help build a culture where coaches can support and nurture instructional practices in classrooms that improve student outcomes — especially in today’s classrooms where the pandemic’s impact shows up in different ways for different students.
Create the Goals & Structures to Target Areas of Greatest Need
Once the vision is clearly defined based on your adjusted vision, the structural conditions necessary to build a district-wide coaching program need to be put in place. Goals and standards that are grounded in research and experience at the district level help to avoid disparate approaches and connect school practice to larger initiatives.
You can have the best coaches in the world, but if they don’t have an effective structure on which a culture of coaching can grow, then often the program will flounder or be very challenging to sustain. When a system is aligned and implemented with fidelity, instructional coaching can support and build momentum toward larger goals for teaching and learning. We’ve seen that leaders who align goals to target areas of greatest need see coaching work move the needle in service of students and their families.
For example, the leaders in a large Indiana district (over 16,000 students and over 3,000 staff members) have taken a very intentional, strategic approach to building their coaching program. They recognize that supporting adult learners through strong relationships, steady practice and ongoing reflection is vital to setting up students for success in school and beyond.
Their coaches are central to creating a positive, supportive and accountable learning environment which is why they centralized their coaching program at the district level and put in place the right systems and structures to support it. They have made coaching accessible to all K-12 teachers. They’re seeing the needle move in both literacy and mathematics, and they’re equipped to pinpoint areas impacted by the pandemic.
Select Tools to Support Coaching Work
Many times, in my career, I’ve been tasked with work that has taken exponentially longer because I’ve not had the right tools to support the work. We’ve learned through our own research that 81% of educators do not have the right tools or data to manage and measure the impact of their coaching programs. That number is both jarring and frustrating because I know it makes it incredibly challenging for leaders and coaches to understand what’s working and what’s not.
Without tools, coaches are often left to cobble together their own ways to organize and share their work, resulting in countless additional hours of work. And we’ve also learned that those countless hours of tracking across disparate systems take them away from the most important work: supporting adult learning and building teacher capacity.
Use Data to Learn, Adjust, and Sustain Your Coaching Program
When coaches are able to track and report on how they’re spending their time, they are able to better focus their efforts. Access to data at the classroom, school and district levels allows leaders to make decisions about where to focus coaching activities.
Leaders that measure the right things are able to do the right things—maximizing professional development investments by creating transparency and focus around coaching activity. Further, measuring the actual impact of coaching on teachers and students is vital to sustaining the budget needed to fuel your coaching program going forward.
The more access and understanding leaders have to the efforts in their schools to address pandemic-driven learning loss and other related challenges, the more equipped they are to communicate with concerned families about the specific actions their schools are taking.
This type of communication starts a dialog between school and home that allows for action plans to be set and the effectiveness of these plans to be measured over time, helping to strengthen the school-home connection, which is so vital to student success.
When a Coaching Program Works—The Results Can Seem Miraculous
We’ve seen the incredible impact coaching can have when all the right conditions are in place. In Mississippi, where the state went from having some of the nation’s lowest reading scores to its most improved, coaches were a key part of this transformative work, as was its switch to a science-based method of teaching reading.
Former State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright shared, “It’s the teachers who make the magic happen in the classroom, so we needed to ensure we built up their capacity so they could teach to the best of their ability.”
Their coaching model has been so successful that it’s being replicated across other subject areas. When a coaching program is thoughtfully and flexibly built to adapt to the most pressing challenges, it can produce efficient results at scale — which is vital to unwinding the disruptive impact of the pandemic on student learning and growth.