I recently received a call from a teacher who had been asked to take on a math coaching role next year. She said, “I’m excited to work with the teachers and their students but I’m nervous. I want to support the teachers, but I don't even know where to start!”
I felt the same way when I started coaching. I knew a lot about fostering math learning with students from my years in the classroom, but I didn’t know as much about teacher learning. Since then, I’ve had a variety of coaching roles where I collaborate with different schools and districts. These opportunities helped me refine my coaching practices and develop a set of principles that guide my work with teacher teams.
Here’s what I’ve learned that I wish I knew when I was a new coach:
When I first began coaching, I felt that I needed to be the “expert.” I found myself doing “model lessons” and sharing “best practices.” But what I quickly realized is that when I stepped back and allowed teachers to see me as learning alongside them, it deepened our relationship and allowed us to discover what strategies worked best together. Instead of focusing on modeling a “perfect” lesson, I now focus on modeling what it looks like to take risks and try new things. By being willing to be vulnerable and take risks myself, I allow teachers I work with to feel the same way. I’ve realized that being a coach is more about sitting alongside the team than it is about being in front of them.
One thing that helped me in my coaching work was to think about what I knew about how students learn math and then think about how I might adapt what I knew to my new context—coaching math teachers. For example, I knew that students need opportunities to construct knowledge on their own as opposed to following a model of how to solve a problem. Similarly, teachers need opportunities to construct knowledge on their own as opposed to following a model of how to teach. So, instead of telling teachers why an instructional routine, say Number Talks, was valuable, I allowed them opportunities to rehearse Number Talks and develop their own understanding of how the routine could benefit their students.
When I first started my work as a coach, I focused more on what the teacher was doing than what the students were doing. For example, in a coaching cycle, we might discuss the teacher’s questioning or discussion moves that they made. A big shift occurred for me when I shifted the focus to what the students were doing instead of what the teacher was doing. Foregrounding the students’ thinking still allowed us to think about what teaching moves were made, but the focus was on how students were thinking about math and the different strategies they used. Examining students’ thinking deepened teachers’ curiosity about students’ ideas and then allowed us to brainstorm different ways to elicit and respond to their thinking.
Another big shift in my coaching occurred for me when I started to add collaborative coaching tools to my one-on-one coaching cycles. Just like students benefit from learning one-on-one, in small groups, and through whole class discussions, I found teachers also benefit from these different types of opportunities. Collaborative coaching tools allow teachers to learn alongside each other, engage in risk-taking, and build relationships. For example, I found that lesson study, a process that originated in Japan where teachers work in teams to plan, teach, observe, analyze, and revise lessons, allows for teachers to explore new ideas and practice new skills together. I find using these collaborative tools alongside individual one-on-one coaching cycles helps foster teacher learning in multiple ways.
Coaching can be lonely! When I was teaching, I could run across the hall and ask another teacher about a lesson or task. As a coach, we often don’t have someone to brainstorm or collaborate with across the hall. Try reaching out to other coaches in your district to discuss what is working and to strategize solutions to any challenges you are facing. You may also want to join the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), a national professional organization focused on mathematics education leadership, to find others in your position. Online communities are another helpful way to share our work with one another. Twitter has been a great resource for me, and I’d love to continue to learn alongside you. You can find me at @NicoraPlaca, and I’m hoping we can use the hashtag #6ToolsforMathCoaches to discuss more about our coaching.
About the Author
Nicora Placa loves teaching math in New York City, and supporting students and teachers continues to guide her work. Currently, Nicora is an assistant professor at Hunter College, where she teaches pre-service educators and conducts research on professional development. Nicora continues to work with schools to provide collaborative coaching and professional development support.