What happens to peer coaching when ‘life happens’?

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. And that’s exactly how I feel about much of 2020. My simplistic translation for Robert Burns’ poetic apology to a mouse after destroying its nest is: no matter how well you prepare, life happens. Although I thought I had a grand plan for the final community project of 2020 in SPU’s DEL program, life happened. Due to personal health issues beyond my control, I started the project a few weeks late. However, I had planned to work with an awesome colleague who was willing to meet with me outside of regular school hours and on weekends, so catching up should have been easy. Yet again, life happened. We both had to do a quick pivot and address an immediate issue with our regular classes, and as a result our coaching meetings had to be put on hold.

Although I am not a seasoned coach, I believe this experience may not be all that unusual. Life gets in the way of our plans, and so we need to be flexible and gracious when that happens. A valuable lesson I have learnt from my investigations into peer coaching is that flexibility is a key attribute for a coach(Foltos, 2013).

The community project

The focus for the coaching experience was to identify and help a colleague modify a learning activity.

Establishing the coaching relationship

My first step was to reach out and ask Kaley if she would agree to work with me as I practiced my coaching skills. Happily she agreed. Kaley knows that I am in the DEL program and was happy be my learning/coaching partner and to be a part of my learning journey. 

Just to give you some context, I am one of the older members of our faculty and Kaley is the youngest😊. Also, Kaley is an Alum of Bear Creek, so I have had the privilege of teaching Kaley when she was in middle school herself. Under normal circumstances, Kaley is the lower and middle school drama teacher.  However, as a consequence of some restructuring that was required because of Covid restrictions, both Kaley and I have found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, teaching Grade 7 English using the previous teacher’s lesson plans. 

Our first official meeting was Friday, October 23. Meeting with Kaley is always a pleasure.  We have an easy relationship. We usually meet fairly often to discuss our curriculum and how we are moving forward. Our meetings are often on a Friday or Saturday so we do not have anything to rush away to. I bet this sounds like a coaching meeting should be easy, doesn’t it?

Adjusting from a friendly chat to a coaching conversation

I think our established relationship adds some pressure to the coaching relationship. For one thing, it takes what is usually a fairly informal chat session, and creates turns it into something more formal. This is awkward to navigate at first.  For example, setting norms. I think norm setting is essential to set the tone of the meetings, to hold people accountable, and to keep the meeting on track. I was really glad that my first experience of norm setting was with Kaley.  We both laughed because staying on track is difficult for both of us.  We get way too excited about our subject and the kids we teach and often find ourselves down a rabbit trail. When I suggested the idea of setting some norms for our meetings, I used the words intentionality and focus, and Kaley agreed that those would be helpful.  I gave an example of some norms, and we agreed that for our particular meeting experience our norms should be: start and end on time and keep student learning paramount. 

I asked Kaley what skills and understandings she would like her students to gain from their year spent with her. After some of her initial responses seemed stuck on content skills, I reworded my question to include the idea that our students will be graduating in 2025 and into a world of work that might look quite different than it does now. I wondered if that would change her replies, and it did.  It was as if Kaley was reading from my notes on 21st century learning because she was using words such as collaboration, creativity, digital citizenship, and character to describe the skills she would like her students to learn. 

Another resource I used to guide our conversation toward reasons for modifying an already adequate lesson was The Learning Design Matrix found in Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration by Les Foltos.

Learning-Design-Matrix-Reeder

Kaley said that she values student engagement so we looked at the ENGAGEMENT quadrant and decided to focus on student choice and challenge. She also wanted to give her students more choice for presenting their project, so we also looked at the TECHNOLOGY quadrant and decided that we would think about how we could improve the students’ feedback and reflection opportunities. We agreed to revamp the next big project for our students, which is the Encomium. In preparation for our next meeting, I asked Kaley to have a look at the project and ask herself that same question I had asked her: what skills and understandings do you want your students to gain from this project? 

Coaching Plan – it’s a process

My next step was to develop a coaching plan. My previous blog post was all about coaching plans – in theory. Now was the opportunity to develop my own. The thesis of my previous blog post is that a coaching plan saves time. Having a coaching plan helps both coach and learning partner stay on track. A good coaching plan should focus on clear goals which are agreed to by both an administrator and the coaching partner. In my short experience of writing coaching plans, I know know that a coaching plan is also flexible. The goals and focus of content has been reworded and refined at each of our meetings. As Kaley and I are still in process with this coaching plan, I expect it will change again, however this is what it looks like at the moment:

Jan-Whites-Peer-Coaching-Plan

Learning Improvement Plan – there’s always room for improvement

Our second – and as it turns out, the last – official meeting was to confirm the goals as I had set them out in the coaching plan and to co-create a learning improvement plan based off the original lesson plan. We decided that the previous teacher had created a solid lesson plan with clear objectives, however there was little opportunity for student choice or student engagement. Kaley felt that the immediate focus of our attention should be on offering choices for the presentation of the speech as well as providing opportunities for more feedback loops. I pointed out the cumbersome rubric and we decided that if there was time we would take another look at transforming the rubric into a Single Point Rubric. As this was a new concept for Kaley, I encouraged her to read 6 Reasons to Try a Single-Point Rubric, by Dana Hashem, and Meet the Single Point Rubric, by Jennifer Gonzalez. As you look at our plan, you will see we have not yet had an opportunity to work on the rubric. We plan to do that in early January. Also, this learning plan is only a draft document. We have included some feedback and peer-share opportunities in breakout groups, however we know that when we get together again in January we will firm up exactly what those feedback loops look like. We know we also want to include self-assessment forms for students to complete as they move through the scaffolded student activities, but have not included those in the plan as yet.

Encomium-Lesson-Improvement-2020

And then life happened … but flexibility builds resilience

A subsequent meeting we had planned had to be postponed because, as is sure to happen to all of us, life got in the way. Fortunately the lesson plan we have been working on will only be taught in January/February 2021, so we have put all future coaching meetings on hold until the first week of January. I believe that flexibility builds resilience. Even though there have been some obstacles, our meetings have been more fulfilling and our conversations have been deeper and more focussed on pedagogy, student engagement and student 21st century learning.

To be honest, I was not feeling very confident going into this project. Although my coaching journey is far from complete, I can now say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip so far. Two documents really help focus my conversations with Kayley. The first is the Learning Design Matrix. It is a great reference to inspire changes and tweaks to lesson plans. I received the best advice from Les Foltos who suggested focussing on one or two aspects at a time. Small tweaks make a big difference. The second is a web page rather than a document. Reading through the ISTE Student Standards impels one to think about our students as 21st century citizens who will be making their own unique contribution to the world.

And lastly, the following description of our students from Wasabi Learning, especially the last sentence: [Students] have just as high a set of expectations of their educators as their educators have of them, motivates me to continue the coaching journey no matter the obstacle, because thats how life happens.

This is a complex, energetic, and tech-savvy individual. They want to be challenged and inspired in their learning. They want to collaborate and work with their peers. They want to incorporate the technology they love into their classroom experiences as much as they can. In short, they have just as high a set of expectations of their educators as their educators have of them.

References

Burns, R. (n.d.). To a Mouse by Robert Burns. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.

Gonzalez, J. (2020, February 23). Meet the Single Point Rubric. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/single-point-rubric/

Hashem, D. (2017, October 24). 6 Reasons to Try a Single-Point Rubric. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/6-reasons-try-single-point-rubric

ISTE Standards for Students. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students

Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2020, February 03). The Critical 21st Century Skills Every Student Needs and Why. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://wabisabilearning.com/blogs/literacy-numeracy/skills-every-student-needs

One thought on “What happens to peer coaching when ‘life happens’?

  1. Flexibility builds resilience. That should probably be above every coaches desk. And you certainly have lived it. It feels like despite the challenges life through at you and your learning partner in the last few months, that you are well on your way toward a successful coaching experience. You clearly chose the coaching tools that worked for your situation carefully, and got the kind of results you might expect from successful coaches. I am looking forward to seeing the results of your reflection after the students engage in this learning activity.

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