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Teaching the teachers

At Mastery Charter, success means creating not just good students, but also good teachers

Last month, when the School Reform Commission voted to transfer operation of the Frederick Douglass School from Young Scholars to Mastery Charter, parents breathed a sigh of relief. Under Young Scholars, the Renaissance School had expanded its population, providing a safe and stable environment for students in the North Philly neighborhood, but it had struggled to raise academic achievement. Mastery, which runs three other city Renaissance Schools with much more success, promised to take over where Young Scholars fell short—and with as little upheaval as possible.

But it’s teachers, as much as students, who are likely to benefit from the Mastery takeover—because at Mastery, teaching teachers is an integral part of teaching children. “I think, as an organization, we pride ourselves on our ability to invest in teachers and teaching,” Mastery CEO Scott Gordon told The Notebook before the SRC meeting. “We have a tremendous amount of training up front and coaching.”

In 2006, when Mastery opened its third school in five years, administrators faced a conundrum: Mastery had a particular curriculum, set within a particular culture, with particular expectations from students and teachers. How could they ensure the same quality of success across an expanded network? The answer: A comprehensive teaching coaching program.

“It seems like because of shrinking resources, particularly in urban districts, coaching is viewed as only a response for a bad teacher. When you set that kind of tone nobody wants to get coached. If the organization’s message is that every teacher could use coaching, then it is viewed as part of professional development.”

During four 8-week cycles each school year, Mastery teachers are engaged in co-creating coaching plans, with the help of the network’s 15 teacher coaches, who then work with teachers one-on-one to improve their skills. This helps to bring new or struggling teachers up to Mastery standard, but also helps experienced teachers hone their craft, so they can continue to grow their careers.

The program has allowed teachers to flourish at Mastery, and also gained the attention of schools and districts outside the area, who have turned to Mastery for help implementing a similar system for their own instructors.

“Coaching is really a part of who we are as an organization,” says LaQuanda Jackson, former Director of Partnerships for Mastery, who has helped spread the coaching program to other organizations. ” For our teachers, coaching is a support tool. Yes, it’s time consuming but as with any craft, if you want to get better it takes additional time.”

Here, Jackson and Courtney Collins-Shapiro, Mastery’s Chief Innovation Officer, expand on the Mastery teacher coaching program.

THE CITIZEN: Why is the teacher coaching program an important part of Mastery schools?

LaQuanda Jackson: Teacher coaching is integrated into all of our schools. Teachers get individual coaches who first do observations in the classroom to gather data and then work with the teacher to develop a plan so that they can improve their teaching. Improved teaching results in improved student outcomes. The coaching plans last approximately 8 weeks and the coaching is done by either centralized coaches or principals/assistant principals in the building.

Courtney Collins-Shapiro: It’s also important as coaching is fully aligned to our instructional model. Coaching is always aligned to what a teacher needs most, be that help with classroom management, student engagement, or delivery of content in their area of expertise. We need to have a variety of types of coaches to implement the model in this way.

THE CITIZEN: How many central coaches are there in the Mastery system?

LJ: We have 15 central coaches who are deployed to different schools. Some coaches stay with the school for an entire year. Some are with different schools for four different 8-week cycles. Most coaches carry between 8 and 10 coaching plans per cycle. This is a coaching ratio of roughly one per school.

CCS: We have a very specific screening process for coaches. We look for people who we believe are master teachers that can provide guidance over a wide variety of areas to other teachers who are really trying to learn. One of the first steps in turning around failing schools is to make sure teachers have one-on-one coaching. Coaching is standard for all new teachers but it is also available for any teacher who wants to become a master teacher and wants to work on some aspect of their teaching. We encourage teachers to take advantage of coaching because we believe coaching is a professional development tool. Note that we typically say getting school culture in a good place and focus on instructional quality are the two most important things in an early turnaround. Clearly, teacher coaching is part of that focus on instructional quality, but school culture is critical.

THE CITIZEN: How long has teacher coaching been a part of Mastery?

CCS: We have been coaching since 2010 and the program has been evolving since then. The way we select coaches and the way we train them in the model has evolved. Every summer we make tweaks to the program based on what we see teachers needing.

For example, in 2014 we shifted our entire instructional model to align with the Common Core. This meant a higher level of rigor expected in all subjects at the same time our model shifted the cognitive load in the classroom to students. Teachers really needed support to figure out how to implement these shifts in the classroom. This meant many more coaches are focused on specific content coaching as opposed to things like classroom management.

THE CITIZEN: Assessing the classroom to see teacher needs—were there other tools out there or did you have to develop them internally?

LJ: The information gathered during the coaching observation cycles is very similar to the type of data we gather already in our organization. We gather information in a way that allows us to build a plan geared towards teachers making improvements in specific outcomes in a short time period.

CCS: We gather data on the teacher’s performance and student achievement from our existing data systems, but the coaching plan is a mutually agreed upon set of goals with the teacher. The teacher is an active participant in how we decide to focus on during a coaching cycle.

THE CITIZEN: Can you tell me more about the program’s “coaching windows?”

LJ: The coaching windows are recommended times of the year when certain groups of teachers get coached. The initial window is for new teachers. The new teachers are the ones who need the most support in the beginning so that they can get off to a strong start.

CCS: Since our model shift in 2014, there isn’t the same focus on “coaching windows.” We still do focus on new teachers in cycle one, but the other three cycles are much more fluid based on what data we are seeing across classrooms and for specific teachers. Classroom management is still a focus for some teachers, but an entire cycle is no longer focused just on this network wide as we have shifted our focus to really dive into instruction whenever possible. There are four report periods during the year, so there are four coaching cycles and those are the opportunities for coaching for all teachers. Principals work with coaches to determine which teachers need coaching in their classroom and teachers also volunteer to participate in coaching as we still want those advanced teachers to be able to get what they want and need to become master teachers.

THE CITIZEN: Is coaching hard for teachers to get used to?

CCS: Qualitative feedback from our teachers have shown us that teachers really appreciate having this as a resource. They value their time with the coach. Many of the teachers tell us that in their pre-Mastery teaching positions they never got this level of support before. If you are a new teacher you have a coach assigned to you, visiting your classroom a few times a week, taking the time to debrief with you and talk with you about things that you can do to improve that’s really valuable. I think a lot of teachers decide to come here because they know they are going to get that kind of support. Mastery also really values real time feedback in general. So even if you don’t have a coach, you have a principal or assistant principals in your classroom frequently observing lessons, talking with you about what’s working and what needs to improve. It is a part of who we are and teachers know that is part of working at Mastery.

THE CITIZEN: Treating teaching as a craft seems to be a key philosophy.

CCS: If the teaching profession is going to attract the best and brightest, teaching needs to be thought of as a profession where you can hone your craft. Traditionally, teaching skill has been measured by the amount of time you have been in the field but it is really a matter of what you do with that time. If you look at all the data it shows that one of the most important factors for a child’s school success is whether they have great teacher. We don’t believe in magic. Sure there are some people who are naturally great teachers but it’s not like you’re going to be able to staff teaching positions to serve hundreds of thousands of kids in this country if you’re just relying on people with the natural magic. Instead we must find people who want to be there, who want to learn and get better.

LJ: One of the ways we ensure that teaching is treated as a craft is by making coaching not just a program for struggling teachers. All of our teachers get the opportunity to be coached.

CCS: We work with a lot of districts that come to our institutes. It seems like because of shrinking resources, particularly in urban districts, coaching is viewed as only a response for a bad teacher. The view is that the only people getting coached are those that are the worst of the worst, that coaching is the last step before being fired. When you set that kind of tone nobody wants to get coached. If the organization’s message is that every teacher could use coaching then it is viewed as part of professional development.

THE CITIZEN: How do you measure the program’s impact?

LJ: The results of surveying teachers showed us that teachers believe they have improved as instructors because of the program. They feel like they have improved their craft at the end of each coaching cycle. We also do classroom assessment. We bring in an outside person, not the coach who did the coaching but another coach or coach supervisor to do the assessment and we use that data to see if we have improved outcomes.

CCS: Our IT department also takes a look at the data. They looked at data for students in classrooms with first-time teachers and found improved student outcomes in the next testing cycle after coaching. We are talking about interim testing in subjects we teach—so we have a sense of how every child is doing every 9 weeks and we can link that performance to the teacher. We see a jump from cycle to cycle in how the kids are performing after their teacher is coached. We look for that upward trajectory that shows us the improvement is sustained over time. We also look at whether there is a group of teachers where coaching doesn’t have an impact. These results drive us to look for what we can be doing differently to help these teachers improve.

THE CITIZEN: What is the future for teacher coaching?

CCS: Right now we are coaching across and within subject areas. As we have gone forward with implementation of the Common Core Standards, the level of breadth expected for kids in terms of what they are learning has been ramped up. We needed our teachers to be prepared for that so we have shifted more coaching to specific content areas.

We have a very intense one-to-one model. Coaches are not going to coach more than 50 teachers in a year. With fewer financial resources, there is a lot of pressure to find ways to increase that coach to teacher ratio. We are talking internally about ways to use video conferencing, ways to have multiple teachers working together in an internet community. The Gates Foundation is looking at ways to coach more teachers at a lower cost. One of the things we are piloting this year is a coaching group—one teacher coach with a group of teachers in the same content area or grade level. These teachers are from various campuses and get together several times per month and do a conference call each week to focus on how to improve lesson design and delivery. Since we have a common curriculum, this works well and while it’s early stage, it’s an example of a way we are trying to think about maximizing human resources. Unfortunately, with budgets shrinking, at a certain point the program will become unaffordable to do the one-on-one types of teacher training programs. You need to have some sort of level education funding to be able to provide a valuable resource like this to teachers.

THE CITIZEN: Is there anything else about the teacher coaching program that you would like people to know?

LJ: It’s a collaborative process. The teacher does have input into the actual coaching plan, into the process as the plan moves along. It’s not just someone coming in and saying this is what you need to do. It really is a dialogue. Also, centralized coaching helps support principals. Principals are supposed to provide support for their teachers, but it is hard for them to support 80 to 100 teachers as well as carry out their other duties as principal.

CCS: If you look at a lot of coaching models in public systems these days the supervisor is seen as the only one who can provide instructional feedback or support to teachers. That’s a really big burden on the principal. There is just no way, time-wise, you’re going to run your building, do performance reviews twice a year for everyone, and give everyone really great professional development feedback. So having people like coaches to provide support helps the principal focus rather than running around trying to be successful at everything.

This an updated and expanded version of an interview that appeared on Open Education last year.

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