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Seeding a Culture of Coaching

Eastern Kentucky leverages reflection amid disruptive learning challenges

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, New Teacher Center in partnership with Southeast South-Central Educational Cooperative (SESC) began work with 10 regional school districts in Appalachian Kentucky. SESC has provided support services, professional learning opportunities, consulting and initiative coaching to the schools and districts in their service region for the past eight years.

NTC partnered with SESC on an EIR (Education Innovation Research) grant from the federal government to accelerate student learning for underserved students through instructional coaching as the lever for change, with school leadership alignment to drive coherence in building strong instructional cultures. Specifically, the goals of the grant are to increase student learning in ELA, Math, and Science, improve instructional effectiveness and retention of teachers, and build partner capacity to implement, sustain, and scale a high-quality instructional coaching system beyond the term of the grant. These goals are aligned to current realities and highest priority needs voiced from the districts involved in this project and the region as a whole.

Although some coaching was already in place, led by several consultants, SESC’s vision for the partnership with NTC was to build a complete coaching system that could be replicated in other projects of the Coop and be sustained in the districts. In order to implement NTCs work and meet the requirements of the EIR grant, SESC hired project Lead, Angie Keene, two lead coaches, Tori Anders and Leah Marcum, and four full-time equivalent (FTE) coaches, Missy Conlin, Ashley Judd, Markita Proctor, and Jenniefer Siler. This team provides services for 10 districts and 21 schools across the SESC region.

"Make a plan and stick with it…"


The first step in the partnership was to establish region-wide clarity about the nature and purpose of coaching. This step was not as straightforward as it might sound. There was a widespread belief that the primary function of coaching was to “fix” teachers who weren’t performing at or above proficient levels. Our hope is that through this project everyone sees the value of coaching and owns the belief that “everyone deserves a coach”, said NTC Director of Programs Shelley Winterberg.

Finding ways of replacing that negative connotation with a positive one meant being sensitive to the stories behind the perceived bias against coaching — stories which were, in essence, life stories, deeply rooted in place. Sarah Watkins, supervisor of instruction at Corbin Middle School and High School, notes that most of the teachers are from the area. “They’ve grown up in this town, they’ve lived in this town, they’ve raised their families in this town. And when they went off to college and [then] came back, they wanted to work in this town.”

And that town was not a coaching town. “If you go anywhere else in the country, coaching is a great thing,” Sarah said. “Good teachers are getting coaching. Tiger Woods has a coach. Michael Jordan had a coach. Great people have thought partners. But in education, in Southeastern Kentucky, it’s a negative thing to have a coach, almost a taboo.”

The key to success was introducing all educators, from teachers to district leaders, to the heart of NTC’s coaching practice: continuous and collaborative reflection, and demonstrating the empowering effect that reflectiveness can have on educator mindset and approach. Tori and Leah, SESC’s lead coaches, were integral to tailoring that practice to the region whose districts they already knew so well.

SESC FTE Coaches were indispensable in sharing how radically different the learner needs of a primarily rural area can be from students in urban locations. For example, access and connectedness — through technology and Internet — can be an issue for many students in a low-density population region. Careful planning and attention are necessary to ensure strong centering and close connection for each student, but also for all educators, many of whom work in isolated settings (and who, in some schools, are the only teacher for an entire grade level). Having coaches present on every campus, available to every educator, and creating and sustaining viable professional learning communities to bond educators across schools and districts, required a proactive and flexible logistics strategy.

Susan Elza, Principal at East Bernstadt School, welcomed the ongoing, holistic support that touched numerous aspects of educators’ needs simultaneously: “a continuous cycle of setting goals, working through the learning process, observations, data collection and effective feedback/reflection,” she said. “Coaching has supported the teachers with valuable tools and the capacity to reflect upon not only their teaching but student learning as well.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020, more than halfway through the school year, NTC’s partnership and work to date with Southeastern Kentucky was critical. With planning and decision-making thrown into disorder, the region’s educational ecosystem maintained cohesion and focused on what mattered most for its students, educators, and communities. The thruline in the budding coaching-based culture put educators in a position of self-understanding and intersectional reflection. The result was a cooperative, confident, and empowered team up and down the districts. Teachers shifting to remote instruction maximized efforts toward inclusiveness of all students — many of whom would be challenged to connect in remote learning — and all educators in the rural community enabled the region center and engaged students even when physical schools closed.

The coaching work makes us feel hopeful for our future and appreciative that our teachers will be supported in every aspect of their instruction by having a coach dedicated to helping them find the best ways to teach their standards

As a consequence, although a year disrupted by the pandemic might have seemed untimely for introducing the practice of instructional coaching to a region that had never had it before, Sarah recognized how valuable it was — in fact, it turned out to be “the perfect time for us to start with coaching,” she said. “It was the time when our teachers needed coaching the most.” She compared it to the anxieties new teachers face when they enter the profession. “It reminded me of my first year of teaching: the isolation and the loneliness and not feeling supported. And when COVID hit, whether you were a veteran teacher or whether it was your first year, everyone felt like this was a new experience that we’d never had to navigate before. Coaching was what helped us get through it.”

The partnership to introduce, build, and sustain a strong coaching culture amid a global crisis called NTC to its highest purposes:

  • Center students and keep them connected to their teachers.
  • Provide critical, integrative resources for social-emotional support for kids and educators alike.
  • Build tools for educators to maintain communication and ecosystem alignment during a time of disruption and trauma.

The emergence of coaching support throughout the pandemic has opened a window of understanding that even in so-called “normal” times, students and educators — especially those caught in economically inequitable systems — can experience systemic trauma on a near-daily basis. NTC’s equity-driven coaching model was “a much-needed supportive partnership,” said Susan Elza, enabling teachers and administrators to meet this moment and future ones by attending to systemically underserved students’ needs. Only then is it possible to build optimal learning environments for every student.

Regardless of what further changes come as schools move into post-pandemic reopening and recovery, a coaching groundswell has already taken hold in Southeastern Kentucky. “What’s so great about NTC,” Sarah said, “is that it’s providing that missing professional learning that we needed.” She has already worked out a prospectus for where her district might be in three years. She envisions not only an increase in the number of trained coaches but an organic wholesale change in her region’s educational ecosystem, enriched with the power of an asset-driven culture powered by coaching.

“The coaching work makes us feel hopeful for our future and appreciative that our teachers will be supported in every aspect of their instruction by having a coach dedicated to helping them find the best ways to teach their standards,” said Susan Brashear, Principal at Whitley Central Intermediate. “The coaching program makes us feel like together we can conquer anything.”

Meanwhile, SESC’s team meets regularly with NTC lead, Shelley Winterberg, to improve the system of support to districts, and to plan for sustainability for instructional coaches at the regional level as well as the individual district levels. Also the team updates SESC’s Executive Director, Kay Dixon, and the Governing Board on the progress of the project several times per year.

“It’s about continuing to change that mindframe of what coaching is,” Sarah says. “In their hallways and in their PLC meetings, teachers are going to hear about the success [enabled by coaching].” She sees her dream of 100 percent buy-in and the transformational impact on students and educators getting closer each time a positive coaching moment takes place.