Laurie Speranzo

IFL Mathematics fellow

Through a three-year Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grant with the TN Department of Education, the Institute for Learning (IFL) and researchers at the Learning Research and Development Center explored and studied coaching in mathematics. From this work, the partnership further defined a model of coaching mathematics from the original IFL coaching model. The model informs coaches’ practice as they hold a pre-lesson conference with the teacher, watch and possibly assist in the implementation of the lesson, and then provide feedback during the post-lesson conference. The insights gained from the IES work on mathematics coaching complements the existing framework of Content-Focused Coaching® in mathematics.

Pamela Harris-Giles of Shelby County, TN, was a math coach who participated in the IES work and now serves as a district leader. She recently shared her thoughts on how coaching has impacted the work of her district.

Harris-Giles says, “The benefits of having math coaches to support our teachers, principals, and central office staff are substantial. While our math coaches focus on building pedagogical content knowledge of teachers, they also serve as instructional leaders who help communicate the vision for effective mathematics instruction in our district.” To communicate this vision, the coaches make use of the three key coaching practices from our coaching model:

  • Setting mathematical and pedagogical goals
  • Holding deep and specific coach-teacher discussions around the math
  • Providing evidence-based feedback to teachers

Two of these coaching practices are influential in building teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. Setting pedagogical goals that support the mathematical learning goals helps focus teachers on their practice and the choices they make as facilitators of learning. By holding deep and specific conversations with teachers, coaches and teachers are able to continue to strengthen their own content knowledge and understanding of how students develop conceptual knowledge. By naming effective pedagogical practices and working on them with teachers, the Shelby coaches convey the vision of what mathematics education should be within the district.

Harris-Giles goes on to discuss why having the model for coaching in place is critical. She says, “It is imperative to have a well-defined, structured coaching model. Otherwise, you simply have a group of individuals who share the same titles, but not necessarily the same work. A structured coaching model grounds the work of our coaches and ensures that they are utilizing research-based strategies with intentionality and clearly defined expected outcomes.” To that end, she adds that coaching is most effective when teachers, administrators, and coaches work together, and coaching is used as a true support tool, not as an evaluative tool.

Though Harris-Giles says that implementing a well-defined coaching model with a clear role for coaches is a solid foundation, she also acknowledges that it is just the starting point. She recognizes that there is a need for continued support through both collaboration with other coaches and professional learning opportunities. She says that oftentimes “we focus on the growth and development of the teachers who are being supported by the coaches, and we forget that it is just as important to ensure coaches engage in ongoing professional learning to maintain and sharpen their skills.”

Stepping out from the context of Shelby County to think of the work of many of our partners, it is evident that coaches function differently across schools and across district. As part of our work and as research points out, defining roles and responsibilities of the coach position is essential. And the roles and responsibilities of the coach should be tied directly to the work of classroom teachers and student learning. By doing so, a coach’s time and effort can be dedicated to engaging teachers in the coaching cycle, rather than focusing on managerial tasks that do not directly support teaching and learning.

We also recognize that the position of coach can be lonely. A coach is more often than not the only person in a building fulfilling the role. Therefore, providing support, coaching network opportunities, and further professional development for coaches can optimize their work.

Pamela Harris-Giles, a former math coach, is the director of curriculum and instruction for Shelby County Schools in west Tennessee. Her passion is to ensure equity and success for children and to be an advocate for those who often feel they have no voice or choice.