How to Help Teachers Enhance Their Craft, Even During a Pandemic

It is true that educators have been asked to make monumental changes over this past year in response to the pandemic. I think it’s safe to say that there are teachers that feel burdened, overwhelmed, and underqualified. They might even be questioning whether or not they have the stamina to continue on after such a year of adversity. Conversely, there are also teachers that feel empowered and motivated by the challenge in front of them. After all, just as students have individual needs and respond to change differently, so do educators. No matter where teachers fall on this spectrum, one question remains the same: How can we give teachers the support that they deserve during these unprecedented times?

It has been a habit of districts to adopt new programs, resources, and curriculum in response to educational changes, but what many districts often fail to do is offer appropriate support to teachers. Through individualized coaching, teachers are empowered to make the necessary adjustments to keep up with the constant progression of education. One thing that we know for certain is change is something that will never change.

I have 17 years of classroom experience to prove my point. I could make a list a mile long of the initiatives I was expected to implement in the four districts I worked in, and I could add to that list the numerous professional development days I attended. What I couldn’t include on the list is consistent, personalized coaching on how to implement any of the expectations set by the district. Many of those initiatives died within the first one-to-three years, simply because teachers didn’t have the support needed to implement with fidelity. Districts evaluated the cost and implementation data of said programs and decided to cut costs and find something that might work better. Clearly, this process is a faulty one.  

Now, I have the privilege of coaching teachers and Instructional Coaches across the state. It is my duty to help them enhance their craft, no matter their experience. Let’s take a look into the classrooms of a veteran and a rookie teacher to see how coaching has impacted their professional growth despite a pandemic.

The Veteran

Tara Nelson, 4th Grade Teacher, Ortiz Elementary, Abilene ISD

Much like the storybook teacher, Mrs. Nelson appears to be born for this profession. Her classroom walls mirror her expressive and contagious personality. She is fluent in her content area and finds herself in campus and district leadership roles. With 11 years of teaching experience at Title 1 schools, she is driven by empathy and her belief that all kids can learn. Growing her craft as a veteran teacher appeared to be a daunting task.

However, like many teachers this year, she shared that she was feeling “restless.” Between the pandemic crisis and a new math curriculum, she was struggling. Small group instruction and rotating workstations were high priorities for her, but with COVID restrictions to follow those practices seemed an impossible endeavor.  She knew she needed to change things up but had been doing the same thing for so long that she simply didn’t know where to start.  

Getting back to small group instruction was a goal of hers, but she wasn’t sure how to manage everyone else safely while she was facilitating. When she made the transition from workstations to choice boards, she saw that her students could work autonomously. The choice boards allowed students to work at their own pace without having to move through stations dictated by a timer, while also empowering students to keep track of their learning.  

“Student motivation has grown IMMENSELY and engagement is constant, because they are now AUTONOMOUS and can run the classroom without me,” Mrs. Nelson said.

She then shifted her attention to differentiation. Because students missed out on half of a semester of school last spring, the gaps in student learning felt insurmountable and impossible to manage. She realized that she needed a system for assessing students on the standard, but also a way to identify more specifically where they were on the learning spectrum. She implemented a standards-aligned Buerk Rubric to scaffold student learning objectives and identified where students were on the rubric by using a leveled pre-assessment. This approach allowed her to appropriately identify every student’s needs and individualize learning paths.  

Prior to implementing this personalized learning approach, Mrs. Nelson grouped her students into three general categories: struggling, on level, and high students. Her groups were based on general observations, but when she began implementing pre-assessments, she was able to identify their specific strengths and needs within each unit. Using that information, she now targets their learning with exactly what they need: small group instruction and differentiated, standards-aligned resources and activities. Instead of providing one choice board for all students, she is now offering scaffolded choice boards, giving students the opportunity to level up on the rubric when they demonstrate mastery on the standard. This shift enables her to focus more on growth rather than performance. 

“That’s a big change in mindset for the kids who ‘always fail,”’ Mrs. Nelson shared. Now, with her support, students set personal and attainable goals for themselves.

The Rookie

Amy Kotrla, 3rd Grade Teacher, Short Elementary, Arlington ISD

As a second year teacher, Ms. Kotrla has proven herself to be resilient. She spent her first year teaching third-grade math on an Improvement Required, Title 1 campus, a challenging position for even the most experienced teacher. This year, due to COVID, she has facilitated both virtual and hybrid models of learning with all of the same expectations for student growth as the year before. Her growth mindset, digital agility, and desire to learn and do what is best for students makes her a Bright Spot teacher.

When Ms. Kotrla began her career on her Title 1 campus, she wasn’t fully prepared to manage a classroom full of so many students that had already become disengaged in learning. A revolving door of teachers in their early elementary years left this particular group of third graders with an unstable school experience and little respect for their teachers. Ms. Kotrla knew that building relationships and classroom management would be key to the success of her classroom. She quickly noticed that her students were either bored or frustrated with the classroom activities, and had little-to-no interest in whole group instruction. With high campus expectations for student growth, what was she to do?

Through coaching, we began looking at opportunities for her to identify her students’ needs and find ways to make learning fun and engaging. She started by giving her students small choices in their learning. She noticed that when they had choices they were less likely to “act out.”  When her students were ready, she began building in opportunities and tools for them to collaborate and work together in small groups. These small changes led to huge gains in student data.

Fast forward to present day. Now, you’ll find Ms. Kotrla facilitating needs-based small groups while her students work through individualized, standards-aligned learning plans. She is managing their learning through Canvas and is able to give students immediate feedback on exit tickets to let them know when they are ready to level up. 

“Coaching has helped me implement best practices, while also simplifying my life!” Ms. Kotrla said. “It has helped with time management because I have found that I don’t take as long prepping my materials when I make everything in my standards-aligned rubric.”

Ms. Kotrla isn’t just seeing academic growth, but also in her students’ ability to collaborate and work autonomously.

“My kids love having a rubric because they can see what they need to do to master that skill and meet their goals,” she explained. “This has worked hand in hand with classroom management, because when you give students a choice in their learning, they are less likely to get bored and act out.”

This work isn’t for the faint of heart. Teachers are juggling more right now than most can imagine. While they are striving to provide the best possible education for their students, it is our responsibility to provide them with the necessary support that will enhance the craft they are so passionate about. I have seen firsthand how job-embedded coaching on research-based best practices is the one thing that will help both rookie and veteran teachers flourish, pandemic or not. If you are providing consistent and personalized teacher coaching on your campus then kudos to you!  Press on! However, if you aren’t providing campus coaching then visit us to Start Your Partnership and know that you are doing what is right for your teachers.

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