Observation is an important piece of the coaching process. You can’t coach what you don’t see. I like to begin by doing an overall observation in order to get a general feel of the classroom. In this observation my goal is to learn how the teaching team works together, what the daily schedule looks like, teaching style, and to introduce myself to the students. I do not bring in any coaching materials or notebooks at this time. I simply interact with the teachers and students as if I am part of the classroom. This is part of the relationship building process that is critical for collaboration.

Image courtesy of the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center

Focused Observations

Focused observation on the other hand is very specific, and based on the goals set by the teacher or coachee. In this type of observation, I might have a notebook and pen, or a video camera and concentrate specifically on the skill the teacher is practicing, or an area of concern. For example, in a planning session the teacher identifies circle time as an area of concern. She explains that she has been having trouble keeping the students’ attention. The teachers are having to give constant reminders to the students to sit quietly, raise their hands, keep their hands to themselves, and to watch the teacher. My first observation around this issue would be to go into the classroom and simply observe the behaviors of both the teachers and the students to try and identify practices that can be improved. For example, I would be looking to see if the teacher set the expectations of behavior before or at the beginning of circle time. Do the students know what is expected of them? Do the assistant teachers seem to understand what the expectations of the students are during circle time? Are circle time rules clear, and do they include visual reminders? Is the lesson and/or literature choice developmentally appropriate for that age group? Does the teacher have strategies for grabbing the students’ attention such as finger plays, songs, or chants? Do the students seem bored or tired?

Once the problems are identified through reflective conversation, and possible solutions are agreed upon, my next observation would be to watch the teacher using the identified solutions. For the previous scenario the teacher and I have identified that carpet rules were never discussed with the students or the assistant teachers, so we have decided to introduce carpet rules or expectations using visuals. The teacher would then create a visual chart of the expectations for circle time and introduce them to the students at the next opportunity.  I would focus my observation on how the teacher introduces the rules, uses the visual to give reminders throughout circle time, and gives positive descriptive feedback to those that follow the rules. This observation could be accompanied by note-taking or actually videoing the teacher to watch at a later date. Either way, it should be followed up with reflective conversation.

The Payoff

Observations can be time consuming, especially when you are coaching more than one teacher. However, you MUST find the time to observe. Collecting data is an important piece to the puzzle and observations are the easiest and most accurate way to collect data. While it may be uncomfortable for some teachers at the beginning, once you have built the relationship with them and they can see the value and how it actually makes their job easier, they will welcome you with open arms!

Coaching vs Directing

Working with teachers can be a delicate process. Especially when they have been teaching for many, many years. It can be difficult for a teacher to open themselves up to a person who is not in the classroom with them every day. You may find yourself in a position where you have been asked (by a principal, director, etc.) to coach a teacher who does not feel they need any “help”. It is important to remember that you are not there to “fix” their classroom, or their teaching practices. You are there to support and encourage them towards competency and confidence in self-reflection, self-correction, and the ability to generalize new skills.

Coaching is a partnership and a reciprocal process. It cannot be based on the coach’s “power” over the teacher, or a hierarchal relationship where the teacher implements actions from directives, intimidation, or a need to satisfy the coach. Collaboration can only be successful when there is mutual trust and respect. This happens by building a relationship with your teacher before, during, and continually through the process.  

Direct teaching, on the other hand involves a transfer of knowledge from a person with expertise to an individual. Actions are taken based on the observations and directions of the coach. Coaching involves reflective questions in order to build capacity. An example would be a teacher who has identified she needs help with a child who exhibits challenging behavior. The child will run through the classroom knocking children and toys on shelves over in the process. The teacher would like to discuss how to address the problem. With direct teaching, the teacher would be instructed on how to change the classroom environment to eliminate running lanes, how to create class rules, teach a replacement behavior, etc. With coaching, there would be a conversation with many reflective questions that enables the teacher to identify changes that can be made to make the environment more successful.

There are four types of reflective questions: knowledge and understanding; practice, outcomes; and evaluation. Knowledge and understanding questions help the teacher identify what they currently know about a certain topic. Practice questions help the teacher identify what they are currently doing in a certain situation. Outcome questions are intended for the teacher to think about the intended results. Questions involving evaluation ask the teacher to make judgements or decisions about the usefulness of opportunities in order to recognize what they already know or what they are doing and to recognize new skills they would like to learn.

No matter which type of reflective question you use, remember to use open-ended questions (who, what, where, when, why), rather than closed-ended questions (can be answered with yes or no). You are not instructing them on what to do, but are coaching them through the process of identifying areas for improvement. This approach works well with seasoned teachers as well as brand new teachers because you are involving them in the process. Coaching is not something that is being done “to” the teacher, but rather “with” the teacher.

Do you have a successful coaching story you would like to share? Or maybe a cautionary tale about a coaching mistake you have made in the past? Leave a comment with your story. I would love to hear from you!

Coaches for Preschool Teachers???

The field of Early Childhood Education in the state of Nevada has gone through some significant changes in the last ten years. Governor Sandoval created the Office of Early Learning and Development (OELD) in 2014 in order to improve access and quality of early childhood programs. The OELD created the Nevada Silver State Stars QRIS in order to address the quality aspect of early learning centers. “Quality” is assessed using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) and programs are rated on a 5-star scale, much like hotels.  So far, this is an entirely voluntary program for privately owned centers, but there are incentives in place in order to entice owners and directors to participate. These include grant funds, professional development, and the prestige associated with being a 5-Star center. Programs that do not participate, are automatically given a 1-Star rating. Any program who receives state dollars are required to participate. This program has created a need for coaching teachers, directors, and owners on the importance of developmentally appropriate practices and environments for early learners.

Role of Coaches in Early Childhood Education

Coaching is used to acknowledge and improve existing knowledge and practices, develop new skills, and to promote continuous self-assessment and learning. The ultimate goal is to get the coachee to a place where they have the competence and confidence to engage in self-reflection, self-reflection, and be able to generalize their new skills and strategies to other situations as appropriate. Your job as a coach is to acknowledge and improve their existing skills and practices, help them develop new skills, and lead them on a path to continual development.

Many people thinking of sports when the word “coaching” is mentioned. However, in this type of coaching the focus is related to the learners goals, rather than on what the coach wants you to do. If you, as a coach, were to walk into a classroom, observe the teacher as if she is “trying out” and then work on the skills that you found to be lacking, you would not have any success coaching that teacher. Coaching should be a collaborative effort and be based on the goals of the teacher, not the goals of the coach.

Process of Coaching

The coaching cycle can look very different from one teacher to the next depending on their skill level. However, the process of coaching does not change. The process involves helping the teacher become aware of and analyze their current knowledge and performance. This can be accomplished informally through conversations and observations, or more formally with classroom assessment tools such as ECERS. The process also involves helping the teacher to develop alternative strategies and skills and making a plan for improving knowledge and performance. You will also be helping the teacher conduct a self-evaluation of their own knowledge with your feedback until they have reached competency and beyond.

5 Key Characteristics

There are 5 key characteristics of coaching I want to briefly introduce at this time. We will go more in depth later, but I wanted you to have an idea of what we will be talking about these next few weeks. The first is joint planning, or collaboration. The key to success will be on your ability to build a positive relationship with your teacher or coachee and work with them through the process. The second is observation. This step can be difficult for some coaches because we are often taking on coaching responsibilities in addition to our current responsibilities. I want to stress that you cannot skip this step. Find the time, and be present in the moment when you are conducting observations. The third key is action. Action involves either spontaneous or planned opportunities that provides the teacher to practice the new skill. Next comes reflection. Reflection can be a difficult skill for teachers and it will be up to you to guide them through the process of self-reflection. Feedback is the final characteristic we will discuss. Feedback can be a delicate conversation and takes some skill to be effective.

I look forward to our conversation on coaching and leading early childhood educators to create a high quality learning environment for our youngest students!