Connecting in ACPS by Darren Ralston


Fostering a culture of public practice is central to the ACPS Instructional Coaching mission and as such, we spent time as a team in the 2017-2018 school year identifying new avenues for sharing our work and connecting teachers to each other across the division. Formative work in the beginning of the year led to increased momentum in the spring as coaches employed a variety of social media platforms. In the course of our work, we published five blog posts and hosted our our first #ACPSConnect Twitter chat. We’re excited for this year and a launch with a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm.


As we look ahead, we want to build on positive experiences from last year and work to accomplish the following goals through our public outreach. Our main goals are to:

Assist teachers in actualizing their goals
Connect teachers in ACPS and create opportunities to share researched-based practices around curriculum, assessment, and instruction.
Highlight avenues and benefits of partnering with an instructional coach

There are many ways to connect in ACPS and we trust that the use of social media tools will add one more outlet for teachers to find collaborative partners, whether they are coaches or other teachers within the district. Ideally, these partnerships will lead to teacher reflection, revision and an actualization of their instructional goals.
By making this work public, we aim to improve the depth and significance of professional learning for ACPS faculty and impact student academic growth.


The Instructional Coaching blog will remain at the heart of our work to foster connections between ACPS educators. We also plan to update the Instructional Coaching website and sponsor additional Twitter chats and collaborative posts, both with coaching team members as well as outside experts and educators. Additional innovations for this year include the possibility of a discussion board and a more deliberate link to the many opportunities ACPS employs to build connections between faculty. We look forward to growing with our audience and welcome your feedback and collaboration.

Differentiated Coaching, Part 1 By Ryan Drago

Change. The life of a teacher is filled with it. Change in curriculum and instructional resources available to teachers. Change in student demographics and the learning needs they bring to the classroom. Change in the colleagues teachers partner and collaborate with from year-to-year.
Perhaps more than any other word, ‘change’ best captures the experience of being a teacher.

A coach can be an invaluable support in the midst of this change, helping teachers navigate the highs and lows of a year filled with newness. Or they can be one more challenge piled on top of the ever-full plate of an educator. It all depends on the coach’s approach.

One approach to helping teachers navigate change is Differentiated Coaching. Based on Jane Kise’s work with Myers-Briggs personality type and coaching, Differentiated Coaching is about understanding what people need during change based on their personality type. You might remember your college advisor talking to you about your Myers-Briggs type, telling you what careers might be a good fit for you based on where you landed on four pairs of components (Introversion-Extroversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving). Understanding yourself in terms of personality type can help you understand how you function most effectively at school or work, what helps you recharge after a long day, even who might be the right person for you to marry.

In other words, your personality type drives decisions you make and shapes the ways your needs are best met. That’s where Differentiated Coaching comes in. Kise advocates for coaches to learn about teachers’ types, to understand what approaches will support those types in times of change, and to target coaching to the specific needs of each teacher as they work through change.
“Times of change” might be a great way to sum up the day-to-day work of teaching. It has been a constant theme for the teachers I have worked with. Changes in learning environment, planning for instruction, assessment practices, team dynamics, parent expectations, and on and on. Differentiated Coaching has been a vital tool in enabling me to be responsive to the needs of teachers during these times of change. Some teachers are looking for a coach to play the role of resource-gatherer, collecting and sharing strategies and ideas that help the teacher envision moving forward. Other teachers want what Kise calls an “encouraging sage” to advise them as they travel down a new path. Still other teachers need a mentor, someone who has been there before and can model the process for them as they work through change.

In the coaching partnerships I have had over the past two years I have found myself playing each of these roles with different teachers of different personality types. Somebody once told me that a coach must be a chameleon. Never does that feel more true than when I think about teachers’ types and the Differentiated Coaching stance that I take on to support teachers’ personalities.

For more sketchnotes on coaching approaches and other education topics, visit:


Coaching For Equity by Dabney Ferguson, Anita Nixon, and Lars Holmstrom

Coaching for Equity

What does coaching for equity mean to you? (Dabney)

Until recently, my understanding of how to achieve equitable results in schools was incomplete, limited to my own experiences with my students and both productive and casual conversations with other educators. When I started teaching, the phenomenon of 90-90-90 schools dominated conversations about equity. In November, a couple dozen Diversity Resource Teachers, Instructional Coaches, and Administrators attended a professional development session with Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She clarified the end result of equitable practices and this remains the idea I calibrate against. She described an equitable school system as one in which a student’s success cannot be predicted based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identification. The National Equity Project defines Coaching for Equity as “the practice of listening, teaching, provoking, guiding, and supporting people to achieve mutually agreed upon objectives that interrupt historical patterns of inequity.” I struggled to visualize many coaching conversations that both moved a teacher towards actualizing a named goal AND interrupted “historical patterns of inequity”. Equity implicit and equity explicit coaching are the two paths this work can take, clarifying for me how this work fit within the framework of our coaching model. In an equity explicit coaching model, identifying and interrupting practices that create or maintain disparities in student outcomes is always a primary goal. An equity implicit coaching model, like ours, is meant to support teachers to improve learning outcomes for all students, equitable outcomes being an unspoken or secondary objective. All of these definitions provide me with a target and boundaries to refine my practice. In response to a challenge by Zaretta Hammond, I am beginning to recognize and respond to deficit thinking – perceptions that students’ lack of success in school is attributed to deficits in effort, income, culture or capacity to handle a heavy cognitive load. In order to respond with respect and humility, I set my intention to listen with empathy to honor the teachers’ feelings and requests before responding to reframe or refute the unproductive belief. Ultimately, I hold in mind that students are at the center of our work as educators and I have a moral responsibility to advocate for their well-being and growth.

Why do you feel drawn to this work? (Anita)

For me, it is a moral imperative and part of my civic duty to facilitate a process where student voice is celebrated. Students should be able to enter into an educational environment understanding that: 1. My learning experience in school can thrive here. 2. I am appreciated and valued, and 3. That we (teacher/student/classroom community) are partners in a shared learning experience. I entered into this profession to be an agent of change towards that end. As a product of Virginia public school systems that both failed and supported me with respect to educational equity, you start asking questions as an educator about how you can be a partner in helping equitable access be both a practice, and a language that all partners involved can understand. My intuitive understanding of what is involved in that work has been honed by professional development growth as defined in part by the resources cited above and below by my fellow coaching teammates.

In this instructional coaching role, we have the gift of being reflective partners with teachers continuously working towards excellence in teaching practices. Essentially that involves: mastery of content, relationship building, and connecting those elements with and for students towards achievement. How teachers provide access to that content resulting in mastery, should involve the work of equity at its core. Equity is a kinesthetic structural cornerstone to every relationship that we have. The work of equity requires solidity in its shared value, and requires being nimble in understanding when and where it is to be applied. It can be both a vehicle for learning as much as it can be a diagnostic tool at times to discern what measures may be needed to further impact learning.

To me, our recent achievement gap data gives rise to an opportunity, to have reflective conversations about what diagnostic tools need to be in play to address change. The coaching for equity team has identified some of those tools.

Are you seeing an impact with teachers? (Lars)

Yes. I say that very conscious of the fear that we have in coaching, “taking credit” for an impact on teacher practice and student achievement. As a larger issue, I think that we need to face that fear in order to grow our coaching practice. It’s well intentioned humility, and if I had to err on the side of one extreme or the other, I would choose to err on the side of not taking credit. However, lack of conviction about whether or not our specific coaching practices yield positive results is a real detriment to growth.

Last year, I went through ACPS’s Culturally Responsive Teacher certification program, but modified it for my role as an instructional coach. I called it “Coaching for Cultural Responsiveness.” The certification process required that I document the impact of the work that I did. Teachers seeking certification document that specific teaching moves yield more equitable results for students. As a coach, I documented that the coaching partnership teachers and I engaged in together made a significant impact on teachers’ culturally responsive teaching practices, and, when possible, that those practices translated into equitable outcomes for students.

I leaned on common readings of research, books, and articles; surveys to build awareness of the ways in which cultural modes impact teaching stance; reflection protocols; specific observation formats; and student data analyses to impact teacher practices in our coaching partnerships. I sought feedback from teachers about the extent to which teachers’ culturally responsive professional growth goals were achieved as a result of our collaboration, and the extent to which our collaboration in pursuit of specific goals that aimed at equitable outcomes for students achieved those ends.

Two coaching practices that feel like good opportunities for both coach and teacher growth are writing goals and identifying success criteria that are specifically designed to achieve those definitions of equity Dabney mentioned earlier, and engaging in shared professional reading about educational equity (along with follow up conversations). In order to disrupt inequity, teachers need to try something different. Engaging in shared professional learning stimulates ideas about what to do differently, and writing equity explicit goals helps keep our eyes on the target.


Literature on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Literature on Coaching for Equity

ACPS’s recently adopted Equity focus: Strategic Plan and Priorities


A Journey of a Thousand Miles- Part II (Darren Ralston, Sara Hankins)


As for our process, this project began with a discussion during our coaching PLC.  One of the Albemarle County tenets for instructional coaches is to “foster a culture of collaborative, reflective, public practice.”  It was almost a reverse momentum, as Sara’s goal was precipitated by a conversation with a teacher who asked about some of the other goals she worked towards with teachers. This led Sara to realize that teachers may only have a limited view of the possibilities of the collaborative work between teachers and coaches. We have discussed in our coaching clusters and PLC meetings across the team that we want the work we do to be visible.  Sara and I felt that a big step toward transparency would be for the teachers to know that we have a public face through the website–and to provide current and supplemental information as well.  This would help lend itself toward moving our PLC into a place that is more visible.

I began my work with podcasting last year, and my impetus was mainly that as coaches we each keep separate schedules independent of each other.  It made trying to schedule book studies within our PLC impossible.  My thought was to embrace asynchronous communication via a podcast, where there could be conversations available around the PD we are working on.  This would allow coaches to catch as catch can the information and conversations they needed to progress in their reading and self-education.  The goal allowed for five podcasts around various goals throughout the coaching PLC to be shared and the coaches, in conversations, often spoke to where they began seeing overlapping concepts and practices.  It was an encouraging outcome.  As for this year’s goal, I have taken the ball and decided to run with it, by seeing if I can now have this type of work branch out and become more visible.  Last year was about production and beta-testing the utility of the design.  This year is about making it more available to all.

Sara and I sat down at the beginning of the year, and as she articulated her desire to open up our coaching work to the ACPS public as well as the general public, I realized that what I was doing would tie into that.  I hadn’t done much blogging, or general troubleshooting/planning around visual and content messaging at that point, so her view was well taken.  We began planning out how to go about this, and make the Instructional Coaching section of the ACPS website relevant and current.  Sara created a protocol that would streamline a process for coaches to develop and submit pieces. She mapped out a yearlong vision for overarching themes of blog posts that would give a balanced view of the varied work that coaches do within PLC and with teachers. The next step was to reach out to coaching teams, individual coaches, and teachers to write pieces that speak openly about the work that we do together. Our hope is to do this in an organic and inspiring way because it truly takes a willingness to be vulnerable when publishing through such a public platform.

On our journey of a thousand miles, we began with one small step. We are eager to continue to gain momentum and make forward progress towards our goal of fostering a collaborative, reflective, and public practice as coaches.


A Journey of a Thousand Miles- Part I (Darren Ralston, Sara Hankins)

As we returned from winter break, fattened up from all the big meals and relaxing with those we love, it can be hard jumping back into the swing of things.  During our time away from work, perhaps there were epiphanies which put everything into perspective–things that would change the outcomes of what we do in the classroom.  But, as the Tao states… “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Sometimes it’s starting out with that first baby step that is daunting.  Think of it as momentum, stamina, whatever you will.  It takes resolution to look that thousand miles down the road, and then begin from the complete opposite side.  Lots of resolutions are made at the beginning of the new year.  Running a marathon, quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier… and so on.  With each of these, there’s often something that has to be done first to get there, and whatever that something is, it has to happen for one of the other important things to follow.

The classic chart that illustrates the roller coaster of the teaching experience throughout the year (see diagram) has January and February at the bottom of the curve.  Which means from this point of the year, the only way to go is up. We want to be at that rejuvenation phase.  And the first step to getting there is to consider is why and how we came up with our goal in the first place, by backtracking and revisiting our thinking.  What were our motivations, what did we know/not know then that we do/don’t now?  Are those motivations still the same?  If not, what begs revision?

In reviewing our progress and reflecting on the work done, the artifacts showing our progress are key indicators.  What can we see and how will it inform our journey?

That’s where Sara and I are right now.  We set out to partner on one of the coaching model’s tenets–the task of “making the work public” and to do so, have been planning out the instructional coaching blog, getting a process nailed down for publishing, and so on. Our hope was to not only work toward transparency in what we do as coaches, but also to provide more lines of information around what it means to be a coach. With our work, we are able to coach for up to five years before we cycle out of the program and back into the classroom.  By having a built-in end date, it’s important that we consider the new coaches coming into the fold.  So, as we looked at our dual purpose, we found that there was a component to the work that was more than just putting some writing online.

Sara started the ball rolling with the instructional coaching blog.  We sat down and began talking through what needed to happen, and ultimately, we just said, well if it’s going to happen, then we need to get access to the site.  There was already a blog there, but it was outdated.  So, as Sara waded into all the old data, she started thinking about what needed updating–and then did it.  She updated the coaching team’s photos, then changed the website to reflect what our coaching PLC is like now.  It was procedural and slightly tedious, but that work opened the door to other work that isn’t.

My role (Darren) is in the mode of support.  I have a podcast I began last year, and have started a blog on my own site, so by having common interests, we started brainstorming together.  The work on my site is less focused than what we’re doing with the instructional coaching blog site.  I have fewer restrictions.  However, this has been an interesting process for me as well, because while I’ve had fun with the podcasting and the blogging, I’m realizing that it’s terribly complicated when it comes to getting an audience.  I’m learning some things here and there as I go, but there’s a learning curve that’s a little more involved than I have time to figure out.  I feel that with the focused purpose and clear audience that Sara’s work has, that we hopefully will be able to find more of a path to readership.

How will we know if the goal is achieved?  Well, for this point in the process, it seems that our one small step is just getting the project off the ground and maintaining that progress is a success–at least for this academic year. Recruiting a diverse group of contributors, that includes both teachers and coaches, to showcase the work that is happening within schools is also a win. Being able to publish multiple blog posts that highlight the collaborative work and network colleagues is also a component of success.  When I started with the podcast project last year, it was all I could do to learn the process of planning, scheduling, editing, and publishing, so when it was all said and done, I was left with five episodes, all of which were fun to record and excruciating to edit.  But out of that process I learned that the privilege of being able to have a deep discussion with someone on one topic for an hour was worth the work involved in producing it into a podcast.  This year, I’m learning about how to get my work heard and read.

Coming soon: A Journey of a Thousand Miles- Part II


Empowering Students Through Student-Led Conferences (Megan Weary)

One teacher.  One idea.

“I want my students to be able to visually track their progress through the year. And I’d like parents to be able to see this progress too.” With these words, a novice kindergarten teacher would soon find herself in a position of leadership, eventually leading to school-wide change.

That statement was all that was needed to launch the power of student-led conferences (SLCs) at one Albemarle County (ACPS) elementary school.  Student-led conferences are a way for parents and family members to come to school, sit beside their child and discuss their child’s academic progress and goals for future learning.

The process of launching SLCs can be overwhelming at first. In this case, that process rang especially true. The idea of implementing SLCs came with only a few months left in the school year and almost zero prior knowledge about the practice among the teachers involved.

Indeed, there are stacks of books and reams of professional articles that can provide guidance about how to roll out SLCs.  Schools and teachers can certainly rely on those resources, but with the constraints of time and a relatively small team (two teachers and one instructional coach at the beginning), that was not the route we took.  With a little bit of research and an evening spent observing student-led conferences in action at another ACPS school, these teacher-leaders were able to craft a plan, recruit other faculty members and host an evening of students and families engaged in purposeful conversations about their learning.

One teacher.  One idea.

That was the catalyst, but there were a few key components that came together to allow this first year of SLCs to launch successfully:

Keep things simple

Teachers resisted the temptation to create new, glossy samples of student learning.  Instead, students shared what they were already doing in their classrooms.  For example,

  • To show reading growth, students simply shared a book that they could read at the beginning of the year and a book they could read now.
  • For writing, they showed the first page of their journal and the most recent page.
  • For math, students chose a math game that was currently in use in the classroom and played it with their family members.

Connect with other teachers

Since other schools in ACPS had years of experience with hosting student-led conferences and the timing was just right, our team did a little bit of research and then attended an SLC evening at another school.  A connection was forged between teachers across schools providing our teacher-leaders with a network of support among local “experts.”

Build a team within the school

Our teacher-leaders left their evening of observation with a commitment to launch SLCs in their own classrooms by the end of the school year.  As they returned to school with enthusiasm and shared their ideas with their kindergarten and first grade teammates, they found themselves surrounded by a small team that was willing to commit to also hosting SLCs by the end of the school year. Administrators provided feedback about dates and times and family communication.  A small team of instructional coaches served as planning partners for teachers and as extra adults to allow students to practice.

Instructional Coach Perspective

The Instructional Coaching model in ACPS is a truly collaborative one that allows teachers to be connected to every other other teacher in the county via a coach. Specifically, teachers work closely with coaches at their schools and coaches interact with each other on a regular basis. Teacher, coach, coach, teacher.  As a result of this established network, I knew the Student Led Conference work was already happening at one ACPS school.  Even though I had never led my own students through SLCs, when the teacher I was working with expressed her desire to share student growth with parents, I was able to tap into my bank of knowledge about what was happening on the other side of the county.

A second component of coaching that played an important role in stepping into SLCs was the fact that a strong, trusting relationship had been built between the coach and the two pioneering teachers.  Work with these teachers over the year included a spectrum of coaching opportunities; from listening to ideas, lending a hand in the classroom, observing the teachers, modelling lessons, reflecting and brainstorming possible changes to sharing laughter and stories about our families over lunch.   Through all of these experiences, we established respect for each others’ capabilities.  I knew the power of having built this relationship when one of the teachers told me, “I can do this, if you do it with me.”

Another aspect of the ACPS coaching model that contributed to the success is the structure of having multiple coaches working at each individual school.  Because the two teachers had decided to complete the process of planning and hosting Student Led Conferences, while bringing along four other teachers, I knew that we would need to employ an “all hands on deck” approach.  I reached out to my two coaching teammates and they dove right into the work with me.  They were involved in planning, practicing with students, recording the process and reflecting with the team about successes and considerations for the following year. Further, having more than one coach at each school has allowed me to move on to work with new schools this year, while the rest of my team has continued to support those teachers as they move forward with planning SLCs for the current school year.


This first year of SLCs concluded with a resounding, “This was a lot easier than I thought,” from the teachers involved.  In addition to that collective sigh, teachers reflected on what went well and what they would like to change as they move forward.

Positive outcomes

  • Children were able to talk about growth and recognize how much they changed from the beginning of the year to end of the year.
  • Kids and parents appeared to be engaged.
  • Parents were able to see what growth occurred.
  • Teachers learned about each student’s personality as they interacted with families.
  • Faculty saw different aspects of children that they might not normally see in the classroom.
  • Students took ownership of their learning.

Considerations for the next year

  • Start using language of growth from the beginning of the year.
  • Be more intentional when talking with students about growth and what strategies were successful for their growth.
  • Check in with kids on a regular basis to set and review goals.
  • Track student growth in an organized and visible way.

How does all of this lead to student empowerment?

One teacher’s reflections sum this up simply: “In the past we assessed our students. The results seemed to be a ‘secret’ that only the teacher knew about and understood.  Only the teacher could see the growth.  Now we are on the path toward our kids being able to see and understand their own growth and progress.” – ACPS, Kindergarten Teacher