Coaching Teachers Around Student Behaviors

I just finished a week working with administrators and coaches conducting observations of student learning throughout a school district K-12. Our focus all week was on identifying if student learning behaviors that we saw were the ones necessary for reaching the desired student learning outcomes.

In many of the debriefings that we had I was asked, “How would you examine with teachers the needed changes in teacher behaviors to get the student behaviors to change?”

My usual approach is to ask questions about the desired student behaviors the teacher had in mind when planning and the teachers’ observations of the actual behaviors that occurred during the learning activity.

In a pre –conference conversation as the teacher describes the learning activity, I pursue a description of “what are the most important student behaviors you need to generate in order to reach the outcome you desire?” Initially, many teachers respond to that question by telling me the outcome behavior they wish to achieve. They say,” I want the students to understand… ” or  “I want them to be able to…”.  I stop the teacher and say, “That is the outcome you want, what do students need to do during the lesson that you believe will produce the understanding or skill level that you want?”

As an example, the teacher might say that she needs students in pairs to analyze the materials she has provided and summarize their findings for a whole group discussion that will produce a generalization about the event they explored. My next question is, “What will I hear if the students are analyzing and summarizing as you wish? What might you hear that suggests they need your support to analyze and summarize? What will happen during the discussion if you are getting the behaviors you want?”

With these student behaviors highlighted, I ask the teachers to identify what they envision as the critical teacher’s behaviors to evoke and support the desired student behaviors.  Teacher actions identified, I generally ask the teacher what they would like me to focus on in the observation and report out on in the post-conference. My experience is that teachers who have done this reflection with me in a pre-conference are quite ready to give me a focus for my observation. Sometimes it’s on particular student behaviors across the class or with certain students. Other times it is on the teacher behavior that is now consciously being implemented. Some teachers want to collect data on what the teacher did and the response from the students.

Such a pre-conference creates a clear role for the coach to take during the observation and sets an easy entry into the post- conference dialogue. With the coaches input the teacher can identify when the desired student behaviors were present and when they were not. It’s natural for conversation to lead to ways to increase the desired student response. This process allows the coach to be less supervisory and the teacher less likely to be defensive.

An instructional coach could have a similar pre-conversation with a PLC that was focused on designing common instructional plans. The teachers on the team could identify the needed student behaviors and establish a plan for the coach to observe across the classrooms and highlight when the highest percentages of students were engaged in the behaviors. The coach’s input would be very valuable when teachers debrief their individual experiences with the instructional plan. Creating opportunities for teachers to observe the student behaviors in each other’s classrooms provides an added teacher learning bonus.

I have found focusing on student behaviors to be especially important when I have observed in a classroom and a pre-conference wasn’t held. Often when these opportunities happen the teacher is anxious to receive some feedback from me. If I begin reporting it is through my lens and therefore evaluative. So when asked, my first response is,” What were the most important things you wanted to see and hear students doing at that time” Then I ask, ”What did you notice?” Now I’m much more comfortable sharing my observation even if what I saw differs from the teacher’s observation. My goal is to do my best to understand what the teacher is thinking before I say what I’m thinking.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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