Teacher Coaching: Q+A With Erica Winston

Does 1:1 teacher coaching "work"? Hard to know. It hasn't really been studied very rigorously. I can think of one measured win. Bob Pianta and his team at UVa has a success under its belt. And I believe folks like Lee Canter have methods that work. On the other hand, at scale, some district and charter friends have described to me internal unpublished data of expensive coaching programs with no measurable effect.

We're lucky. We got the chance to work with New Schools For New Orleans to tackle this puzzle. In 2011, my colleague Erica Winston left our Match Teacher Residency team in Boston. She moved to New Orleans and launched what is now a 3-woman team there (hello Michelle and Ashlei) that comprises "Match Teacher Coaching" (MTC). Here's a short interview with one of her first customers, David.

The basic idea of MTC:

1. Recruit teachers, usually in their 2nd or 3rd year of teaching, who want our coaching. Teachers in control, not PD imposed on them.

2. An outside evaluator randomly picks half of these teachers to actually get the coaching. He's presenting his findings abou our first cohort of teachers later this week.

3. Those teachers then get 4 days of July group training, followed typically by three weeks spread during the school year of coaching.

MTC is current recruiting our third cohort of teachers for coaching, which starts July 2013.

I thought it'd be a good time to ask Erica some questions about MTC.

Q: Why does MTC insist teachers control the choice of whether to get our particular type of PD, rather than allowing principals to assign it?

A: Because if teachers don't want it, our coaching doesn't work. That simple. It is too intense to go through if your heart isn't in it. It takes a lot for a teacher to open up their classrooms, students, mindsets, and practices to a coach who is a stranger in most respects. It takes a lot of guts and trust to be vulnerable in order to get better. If a teacher doesn't have the choice and control of who is providing the PD, how can there be trust?

Q: How does recruiting work?

A: We spread the word with teachers and principals. FAQ documents, short videos, a 20-minute presentation during a school's regular teacher meetings, etc. During that presentation, we conduct a short interview with a teacher who has gotten Match coaching.

Q: Why is Duke so much better than Northwestern?

A: FALSE.

Q: Do teachers like MTC?

A: Most teachers LOVE MTC. We get emails and cards from teachers in Cohort 1 expressing how much they still use our books, methods, and coaching. Some of our most reluctant teachers -- that may have been defensive at first -- are often our biggest supporters now. One thing we do is try to surface honest dialogue about each coaching session. The teachers rate us, the coaches, each time on a 1 to 10 scale.

Q: Matt Kraft has a scholarly paper that measured the effect of the Match teacher coaching. It's being presented Friday at SREE, a quant conference.

What's your own view on whether teachers actually improved?

A: For some teachers, we've seen their classrooms transform right before our eyes! For other teachers, it was a slow process and wasn't as dramatic. Finally, some teachers really didn't make the big changes until the following school year, when they could "put it all together" with a clear start in August.

I am looking forward to getting better at all of this, and us all working harder to get better results. I just pray for the opportunity to see excellence in this.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Harvey, LA. City right next to NOLA. The Westbank of NOLA. It's literally 5-7 minutes from downtown New Orleans. I like to call it the Bestbank.

Pretty much the same demographics of NOLA, just on the other side of the river. You have to pay a toll to get to NOLA every time you cross the river from Harvey into the city. It's only $.40 for locals, though. $1 and sometimes a TON of traffic if you do not have a toll pass. Other than that, it's awesome! Yep!

Q: What do you think of the touchy subject of ed-reform carpetbaggers in NOLA?

A: Bottom line: In terms of education, if you come to NOLA to help, please help. With that said:

1. Please have a concrete way of knowing that you are, in fact, helping. If you come to NOLA and you start low performing schools and under-performing organizations, you are adding to the problem.

2. Understand that it's the people of the city who help the people of the city, and they don't do too well with outsiders posing as crusaders. If you want to do well in NOLA, you will need New Orleaneans to help you. The least helpful transplants are the ones who look at the city and say, "I gotta clean this mess up." You should be asking, "How can I help NOLA save NOLA?"

Q: What did you learn in coaching Cohort 1 teachers that you're applying to Cohort 2?

A: First, some teachers shy away from behavior management as a critical area of improvement, but there's no avoiding it. The positive frame: If you can give clear and concise directions, narrate the positive quickly, and give consequences for students who aren't complying, that sets the table for all the "real teaching" you want to do.

Second, our four days of July large group training sets up the 1:1 coaching during the year. We need that common language and to get teachers to hit the ground running.

Third, I learned from a Boston visit that Lee Canter made to Match that you need to really directly push a teacher who has given you permission to push. No coaching will work unless a teacher is persistent and does the hard work when no one's looking.

Fourth, it should be entirely expected that a few teachers will sign up in good faith and, after a few coaching sessions, decide they don't want it. We embrace that. We absolutely believe the only professional way to treat a teacher is to give them a chance to shake hands and say "Thank you but no thanks, I'd rather stop." That's a healthy exit! The teacher gets to choose. And we -- my colleagues Michelle and Ashlei -- get to invest our limited time with another teacher.

Fifth, we changed how we give action plans to teachers. Old way: 9-12 specific, concrete action steps, then "See you in 9 weeks." New way: we write out which step to work on in each specific week, and limit the number of "new" action steps to 2-4.

Q: You are in 20 or so charter schools. What do teachers tell you about whole school PD?

A: Today, one of my teachers told me just that: he walked out of a recent PD feeling he'd learned a lot, but wasn't clear on next steps. I think that's common in whole school PD, not just in NOLA. "I do, You do" PD. That is, the PD person explains a concept, shows you an example of what the end result looks like, and then sends you off to do it in your classroom. Teachers aren't usually clear on what it will take logistically to attain the result the principal/DCI is looking for.

What usually happens is half the school tries it, 1/3 may get it. The rest just don't try and the administration becomes frustrated. My thought is to teach teachers new concepts like you teach students new concepts. They need a step-by-step process for things they've never tried to do before.

Q: What is NSNO like to work with?

A: Great. They are so supportive in connecting MTC with all of the principals, leaders, and teachers who are looking for what we offer. They are also great at giving me advice on specific NOLA-related issues since they've been here for a while and I only returned in 2011. I am not sure how our start up phase in 2011 would have gone without Candice, Neerav, Michael S, Jenny, and Maggie there to answer all of my questions and connect me to the right people. Not to mention, they have brilliant and amazing people working on their team, rowing in the same direction as an organization.

Q: Did you just say that cuz Neerav sometimes reads my blog?

A: You know me better than that.

Q: What does your grandmother think about me? Honestly.

A: She definitely wants Daph and Nash to come visit. LOL. She loves her some Michael Goldstein. Her face lights up when I talk about you. :) She also prays daily for you and your family. (That last piece was directly from her. Always gotta throw God in the mix... sheesh!)

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If you'd like to know more, here's a video where teachers describe their experience.