Learning Coaches – One Year Later…

-by Erin Couillard, Professional Development and Collaboration Coordinator

We have reached the end of our first year with designated learning coaches within the school. Last fall, two Math/Science learning coaches and two Humanities learning coaches were selected from teachers who applied for the positions through a letter of intent process. For more information on the impetus for learning coaches at the Calgary Science School, read the blog post I wrote at the beginning of this project. Midway through the year, an inclusive practices learning coach was added to the team in a part-time capacity. This coach specifically worked with teachers on ensuring that the learning needs of all students were being met.

For my action research project, I have taken some time to look into the question, “What is the effect of Learning Coaches on teaching practice at the Calgary Science School?” This is an extremely complex question, so I chose to approach it through interviewing teachers and learning coaches to gain their perspective on how the year went, and from their perspective, changes they saw in their own practice.

Teacher feed back from working with learning coaches was very positive. They appreciated having another brain around the table for planning purposes, as well as the help turning big ideas into manageable questions and tasks. For some, it was helpful having someone there who was very familiar with the curriculum to assist them in focusing on the outcomes. This year, learning coaches were primarily used by teachers in the planning stages, but all teachers interviewed acknowledge that it would be most powerful for them to have that mentorship all the way through a project right to the reflecting stage.

Learning coaches had similar feedback as the teachers but added that the opportunity to work as a learning coach this year also helped push their own practice forward. Some of the specific comments were that posing questions to teachers made them more aware of their own practice and places for growth. They became more proficient at taking big ideas and breaking them down into meaningful, workable tasks. They also acknowledged a great awareness of the complexities of teaching and learning, and how learning happens differently at different grade levels. The spoke as well of an increased level of accountability to themselves and their colleagues due to being in a leadership role.

Challenges for both learning coaches and teachers revolved largely around scheduling and timing. As learning coaches are also full time teachers within the school, they were provided release time several times a month to meet with teachers. This made it difficult to work alongside a teacher on a specific project from start to finish as time spent away from their own classroom adds to the workload of the learning coach and is sometimes difficult to schedule due to the number of things happening all at once in a busy middle school.

My recommendations for next year, based on the research and conversations that I have had are as follows:

  • I firmly believe that learning coaches need to move beyond helping teachers plan, to being instructional leaders in the classroom. From the research that I conducted and the reading I have done throughout this year, it is clear that the most effective coaching relationships are collegial in nature and that this is where sustained change in instructional practice occurs (Adams 2012, Knight 2007) ) 
  • In order for coaches to move beyond being a second brain in the planning sessions, administrative support in regards to timetabling should be a priority. Learning coaches require regular and predictable release time from their regular teaching duty in order to be available for teachers throughout the year. 
  • Learning coaches should receive Professional Development support at the beginning of the year so they are well equipped to work with teachers in a coaching capacity. 
  • I see merit in learning coaches working through the examining student work process (as per one of the expectations set out in the initial job description) with the teachers they work with. I was able to go through this process once this year and it provided me with a great deal of insight into the teachers’ planning as well as gave me questions to ask the teacher I was working with to help them through the reflective process. I believe this should be a clear expectation that all learning coaches undertake the process at the beginning and end of a project.