By Mike Whittlesey

Second in a Series

Last week: In January 2015, the Union Community School District learned their application for a Teacher Leadership and Compensation System (TLC) grant had been accepted by the State Department of Education. The grant would provide funding in the amount of $375,000 over a three year period to implement a professional development program based heavily on collaboration. The district’s Teacher Leadership Team would be led by a trio of Union educators who were leaving their classrooms to assume newly created positions that would allow them to work directly with teachers throughout the district.

The 2015-16 school year was a busy one, indeed, for Teacher Leadership Team members Michelle Keegan, Corindy Stoakes and Dale Wambold. In addition to their duties as the district’s new instructional strategists, Keegan and Stoakes were busy attending classes at the University of Northern Iowa that would earn them certification as instructional coaches. Along with Wambold, the district’s new Technology Integrationist, the group networked extensively with other area educators through professional development opportunities provided by AEA 267 in Cedar Falls.

In a year filled with many learning experiences, the Teacher Leadership Team reached out to their fellow educators to help them understand how the coaching process could benefit their students. It wasn’t long before the three were accepting invitations to venture into classrooms, observing the proceedings and sharing what they observed with the classroom teacher, an important first step toward building the collaborative model the district hoped to achieve.
In the working world, most employees prefer to go about their work without the perception that someone is looking over their shoulder. The same can be said for teachers, where a visit to the classroom from another adult is rare, and receiving feedback from that same adult, even more uncommon. How were Keegan, Stoakes and Wambold able to convince their colleagues that inviting them into their classrooms would be a good thing? The purpose of the classroom visits, Michelle Keegan explained, had to be clearly communicated.

“The observations were a way to gain their trust and for the teachers to realize we were not evaluative in any way, shape or form. We’re there to help them with their needs,” she stated.

“We wanted them to know we were interested in knowing what they were doing.”

Corindy Stoakes noted that providing teachers with specific feedback that was focused on the students made the classroom visits more meaningful for the teachers and reinforced the belief that both educators were working together with the shared goal of helping students succeed.
“Building relationships is the key,” Dale Wambold agreed.

Midway through the second year of their new roles in the district, the Teacher Leadership Team continues to hone the coaching cycle process they are using with all new teachers in the district, one of the five required elements the TLC grant stipulates. Working one-on-one with a classroom teacher, the typical coaching cycle is a rigorous process that can take up to six weeks to complete. Each coaching cycle is uniquely different, based on the grade level and subject matter being taught.

Tracie Grosse, third grade teacher at La Porte City Elementary School, worked with Michelle Keegan to help implement small group math instruction in her classroom and found the coaching cycle process to be very beneficial and enjoyable.
“I could have professional conversations and reflect on my own teaching with the insight of someone else who was also very interactive with what I was doing,” she said.

Prior to meeting with Keegan, Grosse had questions about what small group math instruction would look like in her classroom and how she could manage the process to make it successful for all of her students. Meetings with Keegan included planning sessions where the two looked at upcoming lessons and discussed teaching strategies that could be used.

After working together to put a plan in place, Grosse set about to implement the various strategies she and Keegan discussed. Along the way, Grosse discovered that small group math instruction, while very effective in certain settings, was not the perfect approach for every lesson she would teach.

“It works. I love it. However, there are days when the lesson doesn’t lend itself for small group math. [I appreciate] having the flexibility to know it’s okay to still do whole group instruction on some days,” she explained.

The coaching cycle’s steps of planning, implementing, assessing and reflecting are especially effective when there is a level of trust that exists between coach and teacher. It can empower classroom teachers to try approaches they might not otherwise attempt, knowing they have the assistance of a colleague who is willing to help explore alternatives when things don’t go according to plan.

Reflecting on the experience, Grosse said, “I enjoyed the positiveness of the feedback that was directed back to me. She [Keegan] did a really good job of questioning, to bring reflection back to me. We were working together to do what was best in my classroom.”

“We found that the students absolutely loved it [small group math instruction]. It really required a lot of independence and we had to set them up and teach them how to use that time. So it is something that excited them about learning, which makes me happy and excites me to teach them,” she added.

While Keegan and Stoakes devote much of their time to coaching teachers, Dale Wambold, the district’s Technology Integrationist, is a coach of a different sort. The support he provides for teachers focuses on how their curriculum can be enhanced with the use of technology.

The district’s 1:1 Initiative, which puts a Dell Chromebook in the hands of every middle and high school student, is an excellent example of the Union Community School District’s commitment to integrating technology with the educational process. But having the technology doesn’t automatically insure that it will be used well. Wambold’s challenge is to help staff members find and use the best, most fiscally responsible tool, to meet the needs of their students. It’s a delicate combination of having the technical expertise to master the hardware and software available for student use, along with the educational savvy to understand how technology can help transform the lesson being taught into a more meaningful learning experience.

When Wambold collaborates with staff and students, he often refers to the concept of Digital Citizenship. As the face of instructional technology for the school district, he preaches to staff and students about the importance of being good digital citizens. Good digital citizens, for example, leave a good digital footprint on the Internet. They are responsible with passwords and other security issues related to their work on computers. They show good judgment about the content they post online. And they respect the intellectual property of others by not trying to pass someone else’s work off as their own. The concept of Digital Citizenship involves many multi-faceted, complex issues. At a time when more and more students have instant access to smartphones, tablets and personal computers, Digital Citizenship is a concept many schools are beginning to address.

As the Teacher Leadership Team moves into the last half of their second year working together, the feedback they continue to receive from colleagues is encouraging. Along with the activities they have observed in classrooms, the overall response from teachers continues to affirm that the district’s professional development efforts are making a positive impact on the educational opportunities afforded students. It’s a model the Teacher Leadership Team routinely summarizes in four words:

“We are all learners.”