Reflection is the essential act for teacher growth, and instructional coaches are essential partners in helping teachers reflect.
With this in mind, we asked four instructional coaches from the Swivl community about the role of reflection in teacher-coach relationships. Their comments have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Why is written reflection important for teachers?
Erica Beals, Instructional Coach at Waukee Schools in Iowa: Written reflection provides a layer of processing. When I meet with a teacher, sometimes the meeting is filled with emotion based on how the days has been. But when they have time to process, it eliminates some of the emotion because they’ve had that release already.
Then my questions will come in: I noticed on your reflection you said there was time wasted. What changes could we make, or what shifts would you like to see to eliminate that wasted time? So I never take an approach of telling teachers it should look like this. My questions are always going to be reflective in nature to allow them that realization of what’s taking away their energy or what their students might need.
I want to take my teachers from where they are to where they want to be with their goals. That requires them to take steps forward without any of my intentions or beliefs pushing through.
How do instructional coaches help teachers set goals for reflection?
Erica: We usually start with a wide net and focus on our universal instruction, our tier one instruction.
We ask, what are we doing to meet all of our students? Within that, we look at academic work or behavior. I have checklists we might work through, asking, for example, How often are you sharing agendas with your students?
As an instructional coaching team in our district, we’ve created a number of tools that help us narrow in on a teacher’s goals. They include questions such as, How often do you provide a multitude of opportunities for students to reflect on their learning? How do you anticipate behavioral challenges? How do you create an emotionally safe space?
By having my teachers utilize these tools, and reviewing their responses together, we’re able to hone in on a goal together. Then, as we’re watching our videos, we’re reflecting through that lens.
How do you help teachers build a reflective mindset?
Debbie Slocum, Instructional Coach at Byron-Bergen Schools in New York: Newer teachers are overwhelmed. Every day they’re putting out fires, and they’re making 8,000 decisions.
I will ask them, On your ride home, what is it that comes to mind? What do you feel in your gut? What is it that’s making you a little bit anxious? I try to help them pinpoint that with questions.
Then, I say, don’t overwhelm yourself with the globalness of a classroom. Just focus on the thing that bothers you. It could be one kiddo that never raises his hand. Or someone who never finishes their work. Then we start to reflect on that.
From there we focus on, What can you do that works for you, but especially works for that child?
Reflection has to be continuous. It has to be a priority because everything’s changing. Our expectations for the kids keep changing. Technologies keep changing, and culture is changing. There’s a need for continuous reflection to keep up with the changes.
What role does autonomy play in encouraging teachers to reflect?
Mandi Olson, Instructional Coach at Alpine School District in Utah: For any coaching process to work, teachers have to be involved in choosing what they want to work on.
At first, teachers may choose something they already feel confident about. If it’s the first time they’re working with me, they deserve the right to develop a spirit of vulnerability and trust with me. If they want to show me that they’re good at something, that’s okay. That’s a start, and it’s a way in for me.
How do instructional coaches use reflection to balance teacher needs and district goals?
Mandi: At our school, we want teachers to be diagnosing, intervening and evaluating their impact every day. Especially for new teachers, that’s a lot.
After we have classroom management and procedures under control at the beginning of the year, we ask, What’s your learning intention? What’s your success criteria? How are you going to know that kids meet it every day? How are you stating that to kids? Can I walk in the room and ask a student what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, and what success looks like? That’s our goal.
We try to direct teachers that way because those are general enough statements that you can direct any lesson there. If there’s something else teachers want to focus on, we can work on that, too. But if we don’t have a clear learning target and clear success criteria every day, then that’s a good place to start with a new teacher.
How does reflection lead to teacher growth?
Brenda Tomanek, Instructional Coach at El Campo ISD in Texas: Reflection leads to us becoming self-aware.
This is a trait that isn’t the easiest for many of us to acquire because it requires us to be vulnerable, humble, and self-critical at times. As an instructional coach, it is my job to make sure the teacher doesn’t become too self-critical. I encourage them to use their reflection and self-awareness to improve their skill set.
I have to let them not look at missteps in the classroom as failures but as stepping stones toward improvement.
Coaches have been trained to ask reflective questions. More than likely, the teacher will come up with what he or she needs to change through reflective questioning. They may not always know how to change it, but they can see what needs to change.
I’m reminded of the quote from Henry Ford, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” Reflection is the key piece that has to be there for a teacher to grow.