By Jennifer Donnelly
When I first decided to take the role as a district math coach and moved out of my spacious classroom and into a small office across the parking lot, I was excited yet skeptical.
Teaching is a passion and we work hard at our craft, trying to improve upon our routines and instruction each year so children leave our classroom knowing more than ever before. With that being said, I was ready for the challenge of the coaching role. I chose coaching for the same reasons I decided to go into teaching – to inspire learning and encourage the best in others.
In recent years, many districts have created the role of instructional coach and with good reason. Kentucky’s evaluation system is founded upon professional growth and reflection. What better way to learn and grow than to have continuous individualized support?
The role of instructional coach is not always clearly defined and like many roles in education, an instructional or content coach may wear many hats. I provide content and instructional support to kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers. I am very fortunate to have a superintendent who believes in the impact of coaching and keeping my role as a collaborator and not an evaluator. I believe coaches and teachers are a team and they bring out the best in each other.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in a Kentucky Center for Mathematics (KCM) Content Coaching Cohort in partnership with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and led by Anne Burgunder. It was the first time I had ever experienced the content coaching cycle and from then on, I was hooked.
I continued to participate in KCM’s Coaching Cohorts whenever they were offered. The experience forever changed my teaching! I became much more reflective and reinvigorated to improve my instruction in ways that could truly help kids be mathematicians, allowing them to form deeper understandings and connections.
Now, I don’t mean that I became a different and extraordinary teacher overnight. However, going through the content coaching cycle with a coach and knowing that I could have that continued support and be encouraged to take risks, I was able to learn, grow, reflect, question and evaluate my own teaching practices in ways that I hadn’t before.
I learned over the years that I grow the most when I place myself in situations that are outside of my comfort zone. So this year when the partnership between KCM and KDE allowed for the opportunity to lead a middle school cohort of Kentucky math coaches, I jumped at the chance! I would now serve in the role of facilitator and coach a teacher while planning, co-teaching and debriefing four days of lessons.
This amazing opportunity allowed me to work with math coaches who had varying responsibilities from across the state. While our roles differed, our goals and educational philosophies were the same. We faced similar challenges and primarily worked alone to problem solve within our individual districts. Now as a professional community, we could meet together to collectively share experiences and develop strategies to best provide teachers the professional support they deserved.
As a cohort, we collaborated to support a teacher in his or her planning, instruction and reflection. The best part was that we were able to do the same for ourselves as coaches. Throughout our time we were able to share resources, coaching techniques, useful documentation tools and encourage each other professionally.
One challenge we all face is that of time. So we were able to share ways that we could make the most of our time with teachers, whether during a faculty meeting, a group professional learning community, one-to-one planning, or providing feedback through email or two minutes found in the hallway.
One of the most significant impacts of the Master Coaching Program was to confirm the value of having an instructional/content coach. I say this not just because I am a math coach, but because I was fortunate enough to also work with a coach as a teacher. I believe coaching is one of the most impactful and needed professional development experiences available to educators.
Over time, I have seen teachers become more comfortable with other professionals in their classrooms because they want to improve their craft. Through coaching, teachers are able to hold up a mirror to their professional practices. Speaking from experience, this is no easy task! However, it’s the only way to initiate true change. Not change that is mandated, but change that comes from one’s individual strengths, struggles, desires and needs.
Through intentional questioning and unconditional support, our teachers become truly ready for growth because their fear of failure dissipates. The coach/teacher team allows for exploration and differentiated professional learning experiences.
My participation in the Master Coaching Program will continue to have significant impacts on myself, teachers and student achievement. I hope that the KCM and KDE will continue to partner in programs like Master Coaching, so that more educators will continue to benefit from this type of learning experience. Now that I have an amazing group of coaches to reach out to for support, I believe we have created a systematic approach that will sustain and grow exceptional math teachers.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to lead a group of math coaches toward continuous improvement in math instruction and learning in the state of Kentucky for all kids.
Jennifer Donnelly is a district math coach for Berea Independent Schools