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Starting with Learner Variability

By: Nichole Bennett, Instructional Coach, Prairie Heights Elementary, Iowa

We’ve all been there before. You’ve been teaching for a few years. You think you’ve finally got a good handle on what this whole teaching thing is about and you get a class that truly tests you. The class where you have to teach things that you never thought you’d have to teach. Where you have to use tricks you’ve never had to use. Where your knowledge and your patience are tested in ways you never thought possible.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated and it’s common to wonder if you’ve chosen the right career.  

As an instructional coach, you sit down with this teacher and you leave just as overwhelmed as they are. Where do you even start? How can you possibly tackle all of the things these students and this teacher needs?

Thinking about learner variability is a great place to start.

The ultimate goal of examining learner variability answers the question: “how can we create a setting where every teacher has the understanding, knowledge, and skills to expect and plan for variances among learners, providing every student access to standards-based instruction in an equitable learning environment?” And a great resource to help us dig deeper is the learner variability co-analysis tool.

This coaching tool specifically identifies areas of focus to support learner variability, including: teaching practices, student actions, and classroom interactions. Instructional coaches and teachers collaborate using a continuum from emerging to integrating/innovating, and teachers reflect on their teaching practice. Then you can begin to identify which indicator to focus on first.

Do you provide multiple modalities for students to access and share their knowledge? Do students have a choice in what they learn? Is feedback clear and specific? Are students able to work in collaborative groups to achieve objectives? When do they have a chance to self-reflect on their learning? Is your classroom a safe place where every student feels they can meet high expectations?

As I’ve coached teachers to use this tool to improve their practice, I’ve found the following helpful:

  1. Choose one indicator at a time. Choosing more than one can be overwhelming. To ensure success, narrow the focus.
  2. Start small. Are there two or three students that seem to need the most support? Design instruction to meet their needs. If you meet their needs, chances are you’ll meet a lot of other student needs as well. Or, focus on one content area and then expand to the rest.
  3. Be present. Did the teacher want to provide multiple approaches for students to engage in content in the area of math?? Walk-through the classroom during math. Step in and help students. Observe what is happening. Take notes. Help the teacher to reflect on what went well and what could be adjusted.
  4. Focus on the positives. Brain research states that the brain solidifies negative memories before positive. You have to be positive for that teacher.  You have to remind them that they are competent, that they know what they are doing and that they will get through this. When you meet, start with the positive.
  5. Meet regularly- ideally once a week. Slowly tackle that list. Did you get math figured out?  What’s next? Tackle that one too.
  6. Use the tool to reflect at the beginning and the end and document growth. What can they celebrate? What will they incorporate into their classroom the following year? What is a reasonable next goal area? Plan to tackle that one too.

When you have a teacher that faces these struggles, the road is not easy. It is exhausting. But trust me, following the suggestions above can help that teacher see success one step at a time. By the end of the year, that teacher (and you) will be exhausted. But you will also start summer accomplishing something you never thought possible.

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