A good tradition of coaching

 What is a Digital Coach?

This post will be somewhat longer than most and primarily my own working out my own philosophy of coaching. Ever since I started the Google for Education Certified Trainer training program this past summer I was thinking about this question. Really, what should a coach for digital learning be? First, and most obvious, is to ask in relation to what teachers need. Then, one should expand this to consider what support administrators, staff, students and families need for distance learning. Finally, the educational leader should, I think, look to combine the most relevant learning theory with the specific goals of the school and district, or larger community. 

Help me please!

Teachers are overwhelmed and overworked and at the same time trying to be optimistic about reaching all their students through an expanding digital universe of tools. An analogy is appropriate to capture the ethos of our time. What is happening in our day is like a mission to Mars. Being a teaching today is like being an astronaut in training for a future expedition to the red planet. There are so many unknowns and while there is so much science and technology available it is a matter of great community effort to find the perfect strategies to survive and accomplish the mission. 

This is one reason that you see schools and districts refining their mission. Everyone is recalling the core values, both personal and corporate. Why did I become a teacher? How can I connect with all my students and make sure they are all thriving? In the community context, "What is our mission as a school and district?" Appropriate for our time is the big question, "How can we ensure that our learning practices are equitable for all?"

Teachers need coaching to help them be as effective as possible in the ever-changing environment we find ourselves in. From basic skills and "how-to" support, to expanding their professional learning path the coach is a partner. One of my creeds is to help each individual grow and learn towards mastery. One of best ways I have found is to engage in the Google for Education learning path. Mastering the Google Apps is a good beginning and a worthy goal for teachers and administrators today. Another is to broaden your understanding of Universal Design for Learning, Problem Based Learning, Social Emotional Learning, and Humanizing Learning principles. 

Another key is individualization or if you prefer, personalization of learning. This begins, for the coach, in creating a learning path customized for each teacher they are supporting. Surveys, interviews, discussions, observations (not necessarily instructional), one-on-one consulting, and careful analysis of student experience are all some of the means to this end. As a coach I will work to aim to understand what each teacher really needs. At this point the professional growth plans can be targeted, coordinated, and authentically "personalized."

 It is everyone, together

Coaching for digital learning needs to focus on the overall community. It's not enough to just address the needs of the teachers. Most recently I have had a great opportunity to learn what it is we are dealing with. As a third grade teacher with 100% distance learning I have felt first hand the angst of my students and their families. With three children of my own in distance learning I have experienced the challenges faced at home as well. As a member of the school and various district committees I know the need for support, good policy, and the "big-picture." 

Our district's vision for the coaches is to help bridge the digital instructional divide. I will spend about half my time and resources directly supporting the families. One of the resources I have needed to have is just that, someone else who is a capable hand to help in the myriad of issues we are facing. Through the support of the mundane to the philosophical, "How do I learn?" the coaches can be an effective catalyst. 

Then, there is alignment. The coach, to be most benefit to everyone, needs (or must) find the sweet spot where their vision meets that of the school. How is this done? I will find this to be one of the best parts of my job as a digital coach. Listening to what the principal and all the leadership of the school really want to accomplish is where it begins. Direct questions like, "What do you really want for...?" and "How can we make that happen?" are starters. If I have learned anything since I began tinkering in edtech thirty years ago it is that our methods must be blended with the overall vision or they are non starters. 

When I first began teaching as a twenty-something novice my principal would send me to educational technology conferences to bring back the newest gadgets. I wrote grants and brought the finest of these programs and devices into my classroom and school. I designed instructional web pages and set up computer labs. All too often, though, we were plagued with the under-use, or non-use of costly silicon snake-oil. I did my research to address the this great gap between policy and instruction. Teachers were not using the technology because they didn't have training and support to implement it.

Look forward

Now to the difficult question. How do I, as a Digital Coach,  combine the most relevant learning theory with the specific goals of the school and district, or larger community? I'll say where not to begin first, and then spell out some practical ideas I have. 

We don't begin by having each teacher in a school community start a master's degree in educational theory. We have enough theory. We know what works, for the most part. Our teachers are already valiantly applying everything they know to distance learning, but they need practical examples of how to make it work most effectively.

Models approach

"Look what I did." The power of impact of theories in practice cannot be missed. Coaches can model strategies for teachers that can help open up new avenues. Innovation can be dangerous because precious time can be wasted. Teachers feel the pressure of limited time in synchronous instruction and fragmented asynchronous learning. As a coach I hope to infuse the Media Arts and am taking a course in this to hone my skills. Video, if well done, can support both live and on-demand learning. Also, as a coach, I can help highlight the successes of the teachers, involving them in the cycle of innovation we are all in together.

Add just the right amount of spice

Often my job as a coach is akin to that of a master chef. I can walk through the kitchen and say, "that could use a little oregano, and less salt." In our district, like  many, we are working with Google Apps for Education. There are so many nuances that teachers don't know about or haven't experienced, that can increase student engagement or address social-emotional goals and objectives. For example, a teacher may not have considered "how" to have students collaborate on a shared slide project or how to model lively discussion through comments on a project.

The closing is just the beginning

I am under no illusion that coaching will be an easy assignment. My experiences to date have led me to this point and I accept the call, the assignment. Leadership is about helping people take the next steps and the success of the overall mission. My duty, I suppose I could say, is to be there for everyone I can as a guide in this turbulent time. A good many of our students and teachers are holding on to hope as best they can and need support of a very special kind, a Digital Coach.


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