By MARINA WATERS
When Alice Ann Smith, the instructional coach at Sulphur Springs Elementary School, walks into the building each school day, she might be heading off to assist in a student’s individualized education program meeting. She might be going to give feedback to a third-grade teacher who asked her to observe her lesson the day before. Either way, Smith’s schedule is full but focused on assisting teachers to better educate students.
Smith is one of Washington County’s 11 instructional coaches, whose roles are designed to mentor and provide teachers with resources and strategies to better improve student learning in the classroom.
But what does that really look like?
The Herald & Tribune sat down with local education leaders to learn more about instructional coaches in Washington County following the board of education’s discussion at their latest meeting to potentially remove four of the county system’s instructional coaches.
What does an instructional coach do?
“Sometimes it’s as easy as making copies or observing a lesson and giving feedback,” Smith said, describing the range of her role as an instructional coach. “Last night I got a text saying, ‘I don’t think I’m doing as well in this area. Do you think you could come observe me, give me feedback and see if I could go to another teacher in the district to get some collaboration?’
“It’s just being that person that everyone needs. Every school is different. Every teacher is different, but they know they can come to me and I’m an advocate.”
Though she said Smith’s advocacy is put to work in many different ways on a daily basis, Head Principal at Sulphur Springs Elementary Cathy Humphries said one of the main aspects of an instructional coach is serving teachers without acting as an administrator with an evaluation sheet in hand.
“When she’s working with the teachers, it’s a collaborative thing that is non-evaluative,” Humphries said. “When I go into the classroom — even if I’m not there for a formal observation — it’s like ‘ding, ding, ding the administration is here.’ They connect that with a score and me being critical of what they’re doing. When she goes in, it’s a partnership. They feel comfortable that she’s a mentor and they’re a team. They’re working for the same goal and that is to help the students grow.”
That mentorship can also mean expanding a teacher’s skills in the classroom.
Heather Jeffers, who is a third-grade teachers at Sulphur Springs, said she’s grown as an educator since working with Smith and it’s also helped her transition between student age groups.
“Before coaches, there were questions left unanswered, questions with instruction, resources, ‘Am I doing this correctly?’— just the hesitation there,” Jeffers said. “You kind of researched yourself and who has time to do a whole lot of that?”
“I taught kindergarten previously and now I’m third grade. I swapped grade levels as well. Having someone who knew the grade level, that knew how to pull resources. The unit plans, even. The confidence and reassurance that position has brought to me as a classroom teacher, I truly appreciate it.”
Part of that teacher-coach relationship is built on introducing new state educational standards and constructing curriculum, strategies and plans to put those standards into action in the classroom.
Read To Be Ready, a program designed to increase Tennessee’s third-grade reading proficiency by 75 percent by 2025, is one of the state’s newest initiatives that also involves utilizing literacy coaches to ramp up reading skills through professional development for teachers. Humphries said those kinds of initiatives, along with new and changing learning standards from the state, would not be as successful without instructional coaches.
“Without having that coach here, I don’t think that these initiatives would be carried out, Humphries said. “That’s why the state is pushing for them, so the coaches can help implement the things that we feel are going to help Tennessee move forward. We need to make sure we are giving students engaging instruction.”
However, Smith said her main goal is to focus on individualizing learning for the students at Sulphur Springs.
Smith attends Response To Intervention meetings and studies individual student data to better assist teachers, but she also focuses on catering to the needs of individual students in order to align learning techniques with student learning.
“We have to support that transfer of learning,” Smith said. “We have to know our teachers and know our school to where we can support them as they put this new learning into action. We redeliver professional development, but we have to know the students. Sitting in with IDT (instructional data team) meetings and knowing the classroom data — not just classroom but group and individual data — helps me to say, ‘I know that with this little guy, he struggles with this. How about we just change this just a tad so that we can make this more productive?’”
However, not everyone in the county is satisfied with instructional coaches.
To reduce or restructure?
School board member Mary Beth Dellinger — who said she was in favor of removing some coaches from the system at the latest BOE meeting — said she felt the number of coaches should be reduced and the coaching system in the county school district should be restructured.
“Some of these coaches are excellent and were excellent teachers. But they’re not being utilized the way they could be,” Dellinger said. “(Teachers) have contacted me. All teachers, especially those with crowded classrooms, would rather have lower student numbers to better meet the needs of each student (than have instructional coaches). I just feel passionate about this I guess because I am a retired teacher. I know.”
Dellinger said she felt the system should utilize six coaches — two instructional coaches in math, two in English and language arts and two in lower elementary, putting three on each side of the county.
“I could see how (six instructional coaches) could be utilized,” Dellinger said. “But the way we have it now, these people would do better in the classroom.”
The school board member, who made a motion back in May to dramatically reduce the number of coaches in the system’s budget, also said she felt the district has too many coaches in comparison to area school systems.
While Washington County currently has 11 instructional coaches, the Johnson City System also has 11 coaches. Kingsport has eight similar positions deemed “instructional design specialists”. Meanwhile, Hawkins County has four, Sullivan County has four and Greene County has three.
Some coaches in area systems are placed according to subjects and/or grade levels rather than entire schools. But Smith and Humphries said they felt understanding the culture and building a relationship with the faculty and staff at a school is vital in the effectiveness of an instructional coach — which would require a coach to be in one school rather than traveling to multiple schools.
“When I have served more than one school, you could not get it done,” Smith said, recalling a time when she served as the instructional coach at both Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch. “You could not be as effective. You could not be in the classrooms enough, you could not give teacher feedback enough. If you leave a school on Friday and you don’t pick up at a school until Tuesday, that’s a lot of time right there for disconnect.
“Honestly it’s just knowing your school and being a part of that school culture. I do bus duty with these teachers. They see me as a part of this school and someone to support them and work with them. I make sure they know I’m here to do what every they need. I’m not an evaluator. I’m a supporter.”
The board discussed removing some instructional coaches from the system to offset what it considered to be overcrowded classrooms by adding teaching positions back into the school system. Dellinger also said the school system’s budget and class sizes are two of the biggest reasons the discussion concerning instructional coaches arose.
“We have a choice,” Dellinger said. “We can choose to fund academic coaches, which assist principals, or we can use that money to lower student-teacher ratios and alleviate our overcrowded classrooms. We are compliant with the state (on classroom sizes). However, the numbers are not ideal for effective teaching and learning. I will always choose to fund the classrooms over more supervisors.
“Since we’re in a budget crunch, I think it’s time we start focusing more on what people want. And they want lower classroom sizes.”
When asked if instructional coaches have an impact on those larger class sizes, Jeffers drew from her own experience — going from teaching a smaller class without an instructional coach to teaching a larger class with an instructional coach — to illustrate the positive effect she feels instructional coaches have on a classroom. Part of that difference, she said, has been Smith’s use of student data to better individualize a student’s learning.
“(Coaches) are helping us take a deeper look at those kids too for those smaller groups in the classroom,” Jeffers said. “I’ve gone from 12 students at my previous school to 18 to 22 here. I’m provided with a much deeper look now with an instructional coach because of the resources provided with, ‘Okay, this group of kids, they struggle in this area.’ Whereas I had less before, but that resource wasn’t there for that closer look for the management of that group.
“Just the overall look at my students as a group and individually now is much different than even with that class size.”
“The value of that instructional coach to every teacher who impacts every student in this building is so important,” Humphries said. “We can manage (class sizes) But we can’t manage to not have an instructional coach to help the teachers in the building to be more effective in their craft in order to help our students grow. It’s not as easy to teach 30 students as it is 25, but it can be managed.
“Being in the school and being an administrator, I can see the value in it that I feel people outside do not see. Class sizes are not the bottom line.”
Dellinger said some board members want to consider any changes to instructional coaching in the county during the next budget season. As for Dellinger herself, she’d rather see something implemented sooner rather than later.
“There are some board members that want to just wait for the next budget year and then address this, but this is a whole year of a kid’s life in a crowded classroom,” Dellinger said. “I just don’t see it.”
Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary declined to comment on the topic of instructional coaches, but said he was “excited the board has put a focus on it.”He also said he anticipates some new policy language from the board to better reflect its wishes in regards to classroom sizes.
As for instructional coaches, no current school board agendas include that topic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t in the backs of minds and subject to be discussed at the board’s discretion.
However, Humphries said she hopes others see how teaching has changed throughout the years and how instructional coaches can help with those adjustments.
“Things are bigger in education than they were back 20 or 30 years ago,” Humphries said. “But what was good then is not good today. The world is changing, jobs are changing so we have to prepare kids for the future. That’s why things are coming down to do that for students. We need to do everything we can to help the teachers do a better job to have a students prepared.”