Notes from the Board Table: Coaching elevates teaching quality

When Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith talks about how teaching and learning is changing in the Wilton schools, he notes that we are teaching students how to take greater ownership of their learning. This approach requires teachers to place less emphasis on lectures and memorization of content and more emphasis on “strategy-based” learning methods. Strategy-based learning is where students begin to explore different processes — and make mistakes along the way — before finally arriving at the correct answer. By using this method, when the correct answer is discovered, the student understands why the answer is correct, and how the process “fits” with related concepts.

With the transition to this approach to teaching and learning and influx of technology taking place across Wilton’s classrooms, teachers are being asked to fundamentally transform the look and feel of the “traditional” classroom. Students no longer spend most of their time sitting in neat rows and listening to a series of 45-minute lectures. Instead, students collaborate in groups and work — under a teacher’s direction and supervision — to not just learn subject material, but to master key concepts and hopefully become passionate about their learning.

And let’s not forget that all this is taking place as we continue to align our district curriculum with Common Core standards which, Dr. Smith points out, has resulted in significant changes across every subject area.

It’s essential then, to make sure we have highly trained and well-supported teachers in every classroom across the district. Teachers need the skills, support and confidence to lead their students in exploring and embracing this new approach to teaching and learning. To accomplish this, the district has implemented an “instructional coaching” program, through which teachers receive ongoing professional development, support and feedback. As part of this, 11 existing teachers have given up their classrooms or other positions, and moved into full-time coaching roles to help their colleagues become more successful, resourceful and innovative in the classroom. To be very clear, these individuals are still very much teachers, not administrators, who are focused on helping teachers teach, and students learn, using this new approach.

Assistant Superintendent Smith invited several coaches — along with Curriculum Coordinators Julie Wojciechowski and Gina Dignon to our board meeting last week to provide us with an update on the program, and to share some first-hand experiences. Dr. Smith reminded us the program is premised on what he calls “the instructional core,” whereby three pillars of learning are intricately intertwined. Those pillars include:

  • Improving teacher instructional practice;

  • Providing academically challenging content;

  • Improved student achievement.

Critical to note, you cannot make a change in one of these areas without impacting the other two. You cannot, for example, have high-quality students without high-quality teachers and a first-rate curriculum. Similarly, taking the foot off the gas with regard to teacher development, will negatively impact student outcomes.

The board heard firsthand from teachers about the positive impact the coaching program has had in their classrooms. First-grade teacher Kim Hastings spoke about how Coach Katie Ferguson helped her incorporate new teaching techniques to address her students’ need for vocabulary and phonics support. And at the high school, math teacher Cindy Cherico explained how Coach Trudy Denton has helped her go beyond “regular” teaching practices to identify and incorporate “out-of-the-box” approaches to core math concepts. Her example of using water and an angled container sounded like it had kids captivated and highly engaged in learning math! That’s exactly what we want!

The coaching program is now in its second year, and like most new initiatives, there have been a few bumps along the way. For one thing, because the initiative requires our highly experienced teachers to change their classroom practices, there has understandably been some hesitation and in a few instances outright resistance. Change is hard, but as more and more teachers come to see the benefits of immediate access to professional development, we are confident the program will take the district where it needs to go.

We are also sensitive to the impact these classroom changes are having on some of our students. Our students are being asked to approach learning in a new way, with some left wondering why the teacher isn’t standing at the front of the room, like in previous years. While it is not correct, as some in our community have reported, that students are being expected to “teach themselves,” it is correct that students are now asked to draw on their critical thinking skills and follow non-traditional routes to find answers. Rather than alleviating a student’s frustration by providing the correct answer, classroom teachers are instead suggesting resources the student might use to research the concept, or use a Socratic line of questioning to help validate their assumptions. It’s akin to teaching kids to fish instead of giving them a fish.

The coaching program is a vital component in our ongoing strategy to ensure Wilton’s status as a leading school district, attuned with 21st Century learning practices and a first-rate curriculum. As the assistant superintendent’s three-pronged “instructional core of learning” makes clear, we can’t expect our students to progress without ensuring our teachers have the latest teaching tools. The coaching program provides those tools, and will soon be an integral part of education in the Wilton public schools.