Smith stands behind coaching program

An anonymous letter lambasting the school district’s teacher coaching program has elicited a multi-pronged response by the district. Letters of support from teachers have been disseminated and the superintendent and assistant superintendent of schools have been speaking to parents.

Superintendent Kevin Smith and Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction Charles Smith addressed about a dozen parents at a meeting of the Wilton High School Parent Teacher Student Association on Tuesday evening, Feb. 14.

In explaining how the coaching program came to be, Kevin Smith said a focus on accountability and teacher effectiveness statewide has come to the fore in the last several years. Here at home, the schools have seen a “tremendous change in leadership” in the last four or five years, and that has created uncertainty among staff.

Along with steps such as revising curriculum and establishing intervention protocols to help students who are struggling, the administration introduced coaching “to focus on goals that will move teachers along to improving their instructional capacity.” He added there is no question there is a need for coaching and that the “old way of doing professional development” wasn’t getting the job done in terms of supporting teachers.

At the middle and high schools, there is one humanities coach and one STEM coach to work with a large staff. At Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll there is one math coach and several other coaches and interventionists. A consultant from Teachers College has been working with the coaches, “coaching them to be coaches,” Charles Smith said.

“So when a teacher writes anonymously he or she hasn’t felt the impact of the coaching program, in some respect I understand why that could be,” Kevin Smith said, referring to the many staff members involved.

Charles Smith said, “I think the coaching program is rolling out differently at different schools. I think at the high school it’s been fairly successful. … at other schools it’s more challenging. I think some of it may be related to changes in leadership, multiple changes of leadership in some of the schools, so we have some growth areas in that regard.”

Also at the meeting were Trudy Denton, the high school STEM coach, and Eileen Foley, the humanities coach, who described the program as a work in progress.

While she said teachers are “absolutely willing to try new strategies,” at the same time she said, “at the high school we have somewhat of a buy-in. I don’t think it’s a total buy-in.”

She also disagreed with the spirit of a point made in the letter that coaches do not work with students, saying students benefit directly from the coaching program.

Denton agreed, saying if a teacher replicates what they learn from a coach, they will indirectly affect more students than if they taught a class themselves.

She likened coaches to “master teachers” and said the program is similar to the way teachers interact in countries with high-performing schools such as Japan, Singapore and Finland.

“My hope is to foster more collaboration” among teachers Foster said.

In response to a question on how widespread coaching is, Charles Smith said it is a national movement and most school districts in Fairfield County have some kind of coaching program in place. He admitted it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of coaching, adding the program is too new to assess any impact on student performance.

He said it is expected every teacher will engage in a coaching cycle at some point. The emphasis will soon change from math to science and from English to social studies in the high school.

At this point, the discussion drifted off to communication with parents, math intervention, and other issues, but eventually the question was asked: Are coaches a waste of money? Should the district hire teachers or hire coaches?

Kevin Smith said the town is facing a very constrained budget and needs to manage scarce resources. He said he thought the letter-writer was reacting out of fear they or their colleagues may lose their jobs.

“Across the district,” he said, there are teachers “who don’t value this. There are lots of reasons for that. That doesn’t mean we’re not doing the right work. We are. This is a commitment to making a strong district even stronger and I’m absolutely convinced this is the right way.”