End-of-Year Reflections by First Year Coaches & Cyndi Wells

A few weeks ago we held our final Year I Coach meeting and it was a celebration of transformation — from novice to experienced coach. I enjoy watching the shift as master teachers become comfortable in their role as coaches. The change from teacher to coach is often a humbling journey because it’s hard to go from being a master teacher to again being a novice. This transition is also not one that can be rushed, so we provide extra support for our Year I Coaches through deliberate just-in-time professional development.CT8WSfiWIAAyTEW

Below are snapshots of the coaching partnerships that our first-year coaches developed over the course of their first year. It was exciting to hear about the variety of projects that coaches and teachers were undertaking — most of which were outside of the content area/grade level from which they were teachers! It is our hope that these brief descriptions share the variety of our work, and that the teacher voices share the ethos of support we strive to provide as a coaching team:

  • Ashley partnered with a teacher who wanted to shift away from paper to digital integration of curriculum. Together they explored a variety of options, team-taught, and co-developed TEI questions to assess student learning. The teacher described this partnership as “…a great learning experience for me, has helped increase my level of comfort with the computer, and I’ve greatly enjoyed working with her!”
  • Carrie Ann partnered with a teacher on a Project-Based Learning (PBL) assignment. The teacher said, “Collaborating with a coach has been instrumental in working through larger tasks by helping me to think aloud through the process with someone who asks me pertinent questions, helping me to pinpoint my main objectives and recognize any potential pitfalls before they could become an actuality. It has increased my confidence, and it has allowed me to feel more comfortable as I stretch myself as an educator.”
  • Dabney partnered with a teacher to bring a new instructional strategy to her students: Philosophical Chairs. After co-planning and co-modeling the structure, the students debating on articles of interest from Newsela. The teacher said, “Dabney and I spent time after debates debriefing and reflecting about the students’ experience in the debate. We picked new articles for the next debates and Dabney posed questions about tweaks that we could make to improve students’ ability to listen actively.”
  • Darren worked with a PLC, and saw first hand that when a PLC’s members value each others’ contributions and allow for safe risk taking within the group, great things happen. One PLC member commented, “As a team we’ve been able to get nationally recognized individuals to come and speak to our students, acquire a national grant, and pilot a successful three pronged program to help students become better writers and thinkers.” Another PLC member said, “This past year, Darren made one of my biggest goals come to fruition. No joke.” Last but not least, the 3rd PLC member shared, “In these meetings, it is easy for teachers to get mired in the day-to-day details of front-line classroom work; Darren helps us pull back to see the wide view that is necessary for implementing broad change…We are so energized around this new project and the meaningful life experience it will give our students. And we could not have gotten here without Darren.”
  • Elaine partnered with a novice teacher on a wide array of topics over the course of the year. This teachers commented that, “Elaine is personally invested in my professional development. She listens well. She is willing to offer her input and professional opinion when consulted, careful not to take “discovery moments” away from me. She is loyal and committed, as well as flexible. Elaine is willing! She takes initiative and makes the most of her connections and resources as a coach. Elaine is mindful of guidelines and can be trusted as a source of accurate information.”
    Fred worked with a teacher on behavior plans for individual students, small groups, and collaborative classrooms. The teacher shared, “What I enjoyed most about [coaching] was its collaborative nature. Fred and I would dive into new materials together, brainstorm strategies, and bounce ideas off of each other. Fred helped to take these sometimes “crazy ideas” and form them into individualized plans that I could try with students in any setting. Sometimes these strategies worked, and sometimes they failed; however, they helped to develop and better my toolbox as a teacher.”
  • Justin worked with a teacher on her implementation of Reading Writing Workshop. The teacher stated, “Justin and I have discussed the length of discussion and what goal I really want out of the conferences. He is really patient and answers all of my questions. Justin offers ideas for me to try to continue my Best Practices. I appreciate all of his hard work and meeting with me for awesome sessions throughout the year.
  • Similar to Elaine, Pattie shared about her work with a novice teacher on many aspects of curriculum from restructuring math block to using Aurasma. The teacher shared, “Overall, Pattie has continued to support and challenge me. She is knowledgeable, dependable, helpful, and a lot of fun to work with. She has been a great role model for me during my first year teaching.”
  • Sara worked with a teacher who celebrated the enormous strides in independence in her class. She stated, “Sara has been extremely helpful in setting a Daily 5 foundation in my room, which was my goal for this year. Throughout the process she helped me reflect on my practice/student learning, came in to observe, and helped me consider ways to adapt lessons within the Daily 5 structure to meet the unique needs of my students.”

Learning to become a coach is an ongoing process. As we welcome our newest cadre CT8WSgsWsAEUtHBof coaches to join us in August, the outgoing team of first-year coaches wanted to leave them with these words of wisdom:

  1. It’s okay to be new.
  2. You will have an amazing amount of personal growth over the year.
  3. Be patient with the process.
  4. The value in coaching comes over time.

The Gift of Perspective by Laurel Gillette

For the past five years, I have been honored to work as an instructional coach in Albemarle County. Throughout these years, I have listened, reflected thoughtfully, provided support, and posed questions to build relationships and help teachers achieve their goals. The conversations, the learning – the work – have resulted in amazing professional and personal growth for me. As a result of delving into these rich, rewarding experiences, coaching has given me a valuable gift. The coaching interactions I have experienced and the different (and wonderful) schools in which I have had the honor of working have formed this gift. My dynamic, delightful fellow coaches and teachers have shaped this gift with their wisdom and professionalism. With this gift, I transition from coaching to classroom teaching so much richer and inspired. What is thisLaurelBlog gift? It is perspective.

As an instructional coach, I have been thrilled to see new and engaging tools deployed with skill and enthusiasm. These tools enhance communication and collaboration in powerful ways. Students create a variety of exciting products while reaching a larger, more interactive audience. These tools also help learners create these products by providing access that allows kids choices. And while this shiny array of affordances promises great learning experiences, the gift of perspective helps me focus upon three important questions:

  • What is the purpose for deploying the tool – how does it best advance learning?  
  • How can teachers structure the learning experience to make the best use of these tools?
  • And perhaps, most importantly, how do teachers put the choice of these tools squarely into the hands of the learner? After all, it is their learning, and they should be given the power to make these important choices.

I have worked in six different schools over the course of my coaching experience, and each one possesses a unique personality that is shaped by the people who work there and the community of learners that they serve. The norms and procedures these schools have developed reflect the needs and populations of learners. And of course, the teachers, administrators and staff members who engage in the challenging work that facilitates learning contribute essential facets to the cultures that describe these schools. The perspective that working in all of these buildings has given me confirms that the needs of learners are the highest priority. Some schools might focus upon Responsive Classroom structures, others might emphasize maker spaces, and still others might be developing one of the Seven Pathways: They do this for the learners.

The many teachers with whom I have worked as a coach have strengthened my sense of perspective through their willingness to work hard to get better. They have endeavored to adopt new structures and strategies, and they have reached across grade levels, schools, and even geographical boundaries to make learning happen for their kids. Through the lens of a coach, I have observed how brave and determined teachers are as agents of change on behalf of learners. By frequently demonstrating an openness to new ideas and professional growth, teachers regularly prove to me that they value creating amazing learning experiences for their kids.  When I have choices to make as a classroom teacher next year, I trust that my coaching perspective will support the student-centered, learner-friendly choices that I witness teachers making daily.

Of course, the members of my immediate professional learning community, my twenty-two fellow coaches have contributed significantly to my perspective. They have strengthened my questioning skills, challenged my thinking in positive, expansive ways, and they, without a doubt, have planted thousands of seeds in my perspective “garden”. I will certainly view my future professional interactions with a coach’s perspective: I will always search for and ask the questions that elicit my best practices. I will always value the process of thinking about learning. This perspective confirms for me that the purpose of my coaching, ultimately, is about the learners. With my skills and strategies enhanced with a coach’s perspective, I am truly ready to share the gift of learning with every student in my future classrooms.

Invisibility, Ego, and Goals by Lars Holmstrom

A while back, our instructional leader, Debbie Collins, told a small group of coaches, “If we [instructional coaches] are doing our job well, we should be invisible.”

The statement begs the question, “What is visible that should not be visible?”

Debbie made this comment in a discussion about publicizing projects on which coaches had collaborated with teachers. On a surface level, I took this comment to mean that, when such projects are publicized, the coach should thoroughly remove his/her name from the credits so that the teacher and the work of the teacher holds the center stage.

The term “invisible,” though, was striking to me. To celebrate the success of a thing in which you have participated, but to do with such thorough humility that you could describe your influence as “invisible” to an outside audience is, I think, a significantly ego-less act.Articulating Teacher Goals_LarsBlog

The desire to be credited for good work is, perhaps, a coarse manifestation of ego. There are, however, many subtle ways in which ego-driven habits have invaded my own work with teachers. For example, when I desire to share an idea, in part because it makes me sound smart, or when I desire to connect two people, in part because I am proud of my connections, some aspect of my ego becomes a visible – albeit sneaky – aspect of the project. Or on an even more subtle level, if I find myself pushing in a particular direction because what a teacher has said resonates with something I’ve read lately, or because it sounds to me like my work with another teacher, then here again I have fallen victim to coaching through the lens of my own ego.

The tools for disarming the ego and keeping the benefit of others in mind are often startlingly simple. I remember hearing John Hunter, of the World Peace Game phrase the question very deliberately, “Is there anything that anyone would like to share for the good of the group?” Though it may take some consciousness and discipline to answer that question with complete accuracy, this simple question is aimed at filtering out any habit of mind that might be founded in a self-serving attitude.

I find that the discipline of articulating a goal with a teacher is a similarly simple way to filter out the ego. When a teacher and I co-author a statement that begins, “Teacher will (verb phrase),” we’ve taken a simple but thorough step towards writing my self-centered influence out of the project. Every time I return to visit this statement with a teacher, I am reminded to check in: “Is this project developing in a way that is accurate to your vision? Are we honoring that which you hope to accomplish?” The more I adhere to this practice, the more my self-centered habits of mind (and the resultant manifestations of those habits) become “invisible.”

There is something clean and simple and beautiful about working in this way with a teacher. Those same self-centered habits of mind that manifest in one moment seem, in the very next moment, to produce feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and even unnecessary complexity. When these thoughts are absent from an interaction, I experience a pleasant feeling of openness.

Because I desire to work with teachers in such a way that, not only do we actualize the teacher’s goal, but also such that the teacher finds a similar feeling of peace in accomplishing this work, I strive to take the goal articulation a step further: “Teacher will (verb phrase)… so that students (verb phrase).” If a teacher can exercise discipline in returning to the question, “What is the benefit to students?” he/she might find a similar peace, built on this foundation of self-less work for the benefit of others.

Of course, it is not this simple! It’s rare to encounter the type of person, let alone coach, who can snap his or her fingers and send out waves of selflessness. The sharp edges of ego will snag these waves and create little eddies. If I am honest with myself, I think I can see that the first eddies begin closest to home. But when I see the eddies, I can put my attention there, and iron them out a bit. That’s why I love the discipline of the selfless goal: because it forces my attention to those snags in my own character that require ironing out so that the waves can go a little further. If we can purify our own minds enough, those waves might reach through teachers and on to students, and then who knows how far they might go!

“He Said…She Said” by Neeley Reagan and Derek Frazier

IMG_1696You may have heard the old adage, “There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth.” Well, here’s the story of the ongoing coaching relationship between Derek (the teacher) and Neeley (the instructional coach), as told from both perspectives. Then there’s the truth.

Neeley’s side of the story:

“What do you know about digital discussion boards?” I looked up and saw a rather tall Spanish teacher standing in front of me. I knew from my relationships with other teachers in the department that this particular teacher had never reached out to a coach before, but there he was standing in front of me asking me to partner with him. I was intrigued.

I thought carefully–and quickly–about how to respond. Had I used discussion boards before? Yes, but in my role, I’m not supposed to be an expert who teaches teachers. Rather, I’m a generalist who partners with teachers to actualize their goals. How could I steer the discussion toward instruction without focusing solely on technology or pigeonholing myself into a tech support role? After a little discussion back and forth, I asked Derek a question that had suddenly occurred to me but that I had never asked before. “What are you excited about having your kids do in your class this year?”  

Derek responded with one seemingly inconsequential line that would come to shape the course of our coaching relationship and influence my own professional learning as a coach. Enthusiastically, Derek replied, “I’ve discovered that students take more risks in the language when they can discuss with each other electronically.” Voila! I had to dig a bit, but there is was, an overarching instructional purpose, one that he was actually really excited about pursuing, one that did not necessarily have to do with digital discussion boards.

Eight months, fifteen coaching interactions, and countless informal conversations later, Derek high-fived me after we had finished creating a final exam wherein students, in small groups, would collaborate to write their own creative stories in Spanish in a Google doc that they would share with other student groups in order to gather feedback and make revisions. Throughout the year, Derek had discovered that his students had indeed taken risks through discussions and projects that involved digital writing. Derek and I had worked together to actualize the student-centered goal that we had discovered through our initial conversation around the source of his excitement.

I had also developed and actualized my own coaching goal: to uncover the sources of teachers’ excitement and encourage them to take risks around their excitement. Before we started working together, Derek had never had his students use tech tools to collaborate, write, share, and take risks in the language. By the end of the year, Derek had used a plethora of tools and strategies to foster student risk-taking. By collaborating with my coaching team to analyze, evaluate, and modify the strategies I was using with Derek–and other teachers–related to my own coaching goal of fostering excitement, I had become a better coach. Had Derek not responded favorably to my original question–“What are you excited about having your kids do in your class?”–I might never have discovered that asking about excitement can actually lead to excitement and that, armed with the appropriate strategies, I had the power to foster teacher enthusiasm and encourage positive change.

Over the summer, Derek sat on a teacher panel for a professional development session a media specialist and I were facilitating on how to thrive in a 1:1 environment. Derek had become an expert on high-quality instruction using 1:1, and now he was sharing his knowledge and ideas with others. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the dual missions of the instructional coaching model: to foster a culture of collaborative, public, reflective practice and to partner with teachers to actualize their professional goals. There was Derek, publicly sharing his practice with teachers across the county after we had spent the year planning, creating, and reflecting in order to actualize his goals. And there I was, enriched through my experiences collaborating and reflecting with Derek, a stronger educator on an ever-evolving journey of professional growth.  

Derek’s side of the story:

It was my first quarter teaching AP Spanish. I felt that my students needed a different approach to their writing practice. It was clear that they needed more collaborative work because it’s difficult for students to improve their writing style from listening to their teacher explain it in a foreign language. I noticed that students were very reluctant to comment on each other’s work in a classroom discussion. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but knowing that kids are more comfortable online than they are in person, I thought I could create a forum where kids could respond to very dense topics with very elaborate Spanish grammar and feel free to make mistakes without being judged. I just knew that I needed newer methods that would meet all my students’ needs, and I wanted help from a colleague. I remembered that one of my Professional Learning Community (PLC) partners had told me that he had had a valuable experience working with an instructional coach, so I decided to reach out to Neeley and give it a try.

My only expectation for my first meeting with Neeley was to learn how to use a tech tool to create a forum for students to write and discuss various topics. Because Neeley demonstrated herself as a valuable resource during our initial meeting, I was able to trust her with my future lesson planning. My time is my most precious commodity; thus, I would not be interested spending it with an instructional coach unless it were benefiting my lesson planning.

Anybody could have explained how Blackboard and Google docs work, but it was the relationship and interactions with Neeley that changed the look and approach of my teaching style. I observed that students felt free to discuss the material in small groups and take risks with their writing; therefore, Neeley and I came to the conclusion that more assignments should be of a similar structure and began finding newer methods of crafting these assignments

As Neeley and I strategized together, I began to craft my own professional development goal. I wanted to be less of an instructor and more of a facilitator in the classroom. Neeley and I developed strategies to create an environment for the students that was less teacher-centered and more student-centered. We developed lessons and activities that were both authentic and engaging. We looked at the material that needed to be taught and the methods available to us and worked until we came up the the best approach to deliver lessons. For example, we were able to use Google docs in order to come up with a better strategy for peer editing students’ essays. After collaborating in small groups to write an essay using Google docs, student groups would drop links to their essays on another Google doc so that other students could read the essays and provide feedback. The original authors could read the feedback and appreciate the comments without feeling judged, which led them to revise their own work. My role was to facilitate the Spanish because the process we had created had taken care of itself.

After spending a year crafting assignments with Neeley, she asked me if I would be willing to share student work in a panel she was conducting for summer professional development. I had had a successful year developing new strategies for delivering curriculum to my kids and was very excited to share my strategies and enthusiasm with my colleagues.

Looking back on my experience working with a coach, I realized that I have PLC partners with whom I can share ideas and collaborate, but their primary goal is the same as mine: to focus on their own lesson planning and support their own students. On the other hand, instructional coaches are resources whose primary focus is to aid teachers in their lesson planning and, in doing so, indirectly support their students. Would a PLC partner spend an hour of their planning time every week just to help me craft a lesson? Perhaps, but their focus is on their students whereas a coach is able to put their focus on my students and me.

The truth:

Could Derek have actualized his goals without his coaching partnership with IMG_1673Neeley? Yes, most likely. Would the experience have been as rich? No, probably not. By having teachers and coaches partner together to actualize goals, the coaching model simultaneously enriches the practices of teachers, coaches, and the larger educational community, while at the same time encouraging student growth. As teachers and coaches work together and connect with others, knowledge, ideas, and enthusiasm spread, one partnership at a time. That’s powerful stuff. Just ask Derek and Neeley.

A Team of Tendons (Anthony Smith)


In my previous post, “On Being a Tendon”, I’m afraid that I may have oversimplified instructional coaching in the Albemarle County Public Schools, possibly leaving a reader with the impression that a single tendon (one instructional coach) is all that’s required to help muscles (teachers) move the skeleton (the curriculum).   While a single instructional coach can certainly help teachers move forward, systemic growth requires multiple tendons, a team of them in fact, collaborating purposefully.

Collaboration between instructional coaches starts with open conversations about collaboration itself:  what it looks like; when, how and why it is beneficial; and even when it is not beneficial or practical.  In terms of what it looks like, we’ve landed on things like:  sharing the work equitably, treating each other as full partners, disagreeing respectfully, assuming best intentions, and proactively incorporating others’ ideas.

As a fifth-year coach in my final year of coaching (we make a 3 to 5 year commitment to this work), collaboration is purposeful but relatively unstructured. As the school year progresses, experienced coaches like me help newer coaches to develop relationships with teachers and navigate school dynamics; we bring newer coaches into existing projects as full partners; and we provide feedback and praise as novice coaches learn about their new role.  In short, we work to maintain and grow the instructional coaching model in our schools.

As a team of coaches, though, collaboration is more structured, the sort of structure that doesn’t disappear with the changing of the guard; nothing is left to chance.  Here’s what our collaboration looks like:

  1. We meet weekly to share what we’re working on. We talk about new relationships and projects, share successes and struggles, and brainstorm ideas for moving forward.  We have norms for these meetings, one of which is to “seek opportunities to expand collaboration” (my team has an almost palpable pride in collaborating well).
  2. Because a large number of grade level PLCs have asked us to attend their meetings, we rotate ourselves in and out of the meetings. Coach A might attend the 5th grade PLC at a school one week, for example, Coach B the next week, and Coach C the week after.  We also do this with the 5th grade PLCs at our other schools (we are all at three schools).  Such a schedule forces collaboration and communication for all of us, gives the new coaches an immediate “in” with teachers, and helps teachers learn what instruction and assessment look like in other schools.
  3. We use online calendars to share our schedules and online documents to share our progress with PLCs and on various projects. We take copious notes on goings-on so that we all know what any one of us knows.

Teachers don’t see all of this collaboration, of course, but what they do see is a team that works fluidly, seamlessly, and thoughtfully.  They know that when they are ready to move forward, they are doing so with the full support of a strong team.



On Being a Tendon (Anthony Smith)

As an instructional coach, I see myself as connective tissue, sort of like a tendon. For those of you who aren’t quite sure what a tendon is or does, it’s the flexible but non-elastic cord that connects muscles to bones. If we extend the analogy and adhere strictly to the definition of a tendon, then I suppose the Albemarle County Public Schools are the bones or framework (curricular or instructional expectations) while the teachers doing the hard work within the schools are the muscles. Teachers make the curriculum come alive in much the same way that muscles animate a skeleton. As a tendon, while I’m certainly connected to the bones, my purpose is to help the muscles grow (while hopefully not untethering them from the county or state expectations).

Fortunately for ACPS teachers and instructional coaches, the skeleton itself is flexible. Though research-based instruction is the expectation and the norm, there is no mandate to teach this way or that way. New instructional practices and ideas, both low- and high-tech, are more than welcome, and teachers are encouraged to learn from each other. It is the fostering of this teacher-to-teacher (muscle to muscle) connection that I, as a tendon, find most energizing (technically, I know that a tendon doesn’t connect muscle to muscle, but few analogies are perfect). The beauty of these teacher-to-teacher connections is that all of the teachers grow from the experience; the teachers we observe or borrow ideas from feel valued and validated and the borrowing teachers have new, proven techniques and strategies to implement. And because I work across different schools, grade levels, and content areas, I’m able to connect teachers who otherwise would have no real way of connecting with each other.

What does this look like in real life? In my work over the past year, I connected a Kindergarten teacher with a 2nd grade teacher at another school to see how the latter incorporates learning stations as part of math instruction. I connected Response to Intervention (RTI) and Special Education teachers at four schools to help them embark on a sight-word project in which images help to anchor words in their students’ long-term memories. I connected a 3rd grade team with a 5th grade team at another school who use interactive notebooks and Marzano’s strategies to improve student comprehension of non-fiction texts. I connected an elementary teacher interested in entrepreneurship for her students with a middle school teacher who is piloting a class with 8th graders. The list goes on.

In none of this work was I the focus. I was simply the tendon, listening to what teachers need and what they are good at, inviting myself into their rooms to see them in action, and spreading the word (with their permission) when I see something shareable. Tendons know that it is not about us. At the gym, nobody is going to ooh and ahh over good tendons, no matter how good they are. It’s all about making the muscles look good.

Reflections of an ACPS Instructional Coach (Jennifer Underwood)

“What do Instructional Coaches do anyway?” is a question I am asked frequently, and I often reflect upon that question myself. When looking at current research we find the role of coaches is multi-faceted. Elena Aguilar (2012) concludes, “Coaches can bring teams together in healthy ways, they can support teachers to increase their emotional resiliency, and they can facilitate systems change” (para. 2).
JU_IMG_5299Other roles of the instructional coach include: listener, encourager, and confidante. I find many times until the teacher shares the emotions he or she is feeling that day, we can’t begin the lesson planning, data analysis, or other project. It is important for coaches to understand the fast-pace of the educational life and how emotion can certainly play a part. My job as a coach is to meet people where they are and help them move forward. Change does not happen overnight, but it can begin one “interaction” at a time.

When you ask teachers what their role with coaches looks like you may uncover varying aspects such as: supporter, reflective partner, facilitator, mediator, resource-gatherer, data-researcher, co-teacher, co-planner, and overall sounding board.

Aguilar (2012) says it well, “Coaches often see the parts and the whole at the same time — this is essential” (para. 6). When I review my own personal data, I see trends in my work that include: technology, engineering, maker space, and other current digital integration, as well as collaboration on student engagement, project-based learning, unpacking curriculum, implementing new research-based literacy components, facilitating in professional learning communities, observing classroom instruction to gather data for teachers, and much, much more.

And I find teachers appreciate the opportunity to stretch themselves, to collaborate with a fellow teacher and to better understand the process of lifelong learning. Do you know what the best part of my job is? I am learning, too! I feel so blessed to go to work every day enveloping a true model of collaboration, reflection, and progression.

I believe instructional coacJUhes are able to unite teachers around the core purpose of Albemarle County Public Schools (2015), “to establish a community of learners and learning, through relationships, relevance and rigor”.  I cannot think of a better model for building relationships, instilling a positive learning community and ensuring our students the very best educational system.



Welcome to our ACPS Instructional Coaching Blog! We invite you to check back often to hear stories about instructional coaching. A blog seems like the perfect way for us to model “collaborative, public, and reflective” practices that are the foundation of our model.

We will start with posts by instructional coaches, but hope to expand soon to include posts by teachers and coaches together.

– The Lead Coach Team