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Listening to What Students Have to Say About Their Classroom Experiences

One district’s work toward student-led, inquiry-guided coaching

What does your teacher do to make you feel safe?
What do you wish your teacher would do differently?

In our fifth year partnering with Houston ISD, we are collaborating with a small but mighty team of district coaches and school support managers to co-create, test, and tweak their coaching model. The goal? Employ authentic student experience data and human-centered design as the primary lever for improving teaching practice.

Traditionally, when we think about coaching, we think about a conversation between adults. A coach or mentor sits down with a teacher to talk through the day-to-day work of teaching (planning, analyzing student work, and reflecting on classroom observations). But what if we think about instructional coaching as a three-way conversation — between students, their teachers, and the coaches who support them?

That’s what our partner, Houston ISD, is exploring, working with students to collect feedback on their learning experiences to support teachers as they develop their practice. NTC is pleased to collaborate in this effort to reimagine instructional coaching as a learner-centered design solution.

Starting small, learning fast

A small team consisting of NTC Senior Program Consultant Sharnice Jenkins-Gallant, HISD Academic Program Manager Vanessa Nieto-Gomez, a core group of HISD school support managers, and four case study coaches are co-designing the initiative, with coaches leading testing at the ground level. Participating coaches are experienced teachers who have completed NTC’s foundational and advanced coaching institutes and, in addition to teaching full time, support anywhere from one to three teachers at their home campuses.

To get started, the team developed a simple empathy interview protocol to collect student feedback as an entry point for coaching conversations. With their supported-teachers’ permission, case study coaches selected three students from their teachers’ classes for interviews that provided a broad demographic representation of the class.

To hear how the students were experiencing instruction, they asked:

  • What does your teacher do to make you feel safe when you are engaging with others and with challenging assignments and lesson materials?
  • What does your teacher do to make learning interesting and fun?
  • What do you wish your teacher would do differently during their lessons?
  • What has been most challenging this year? What could your teacher or school do to support you?

And here is a sampling of what they heard:

  • We talk to our friends to look for answers
  • He asks questions if I got it or not
  • It’s fun when she uses interactive games
  • She gives you a second chance
  • She makes me feel safe because she is always in the classroom walking around
  • She takes care of us
  • She breaks it down in steps
  • I need her to show a different way to solve
  • Homework is piling up
  • I would like for my teacher to give us more work for the students that are done early and not paying attention
  • Have us talk more
  • During a lesson it would be good to have less paperwork and also for us to have more time to finish the work
  • I’m feeling crowded and rushed during transitions
  • We could use more practice, more group work
  • He stays on one side of class which makes it harder on the other side to hear

In reflecting on the empathy interviews, one coach shared that she was surprised by students’ willingness to provide feedback as she had anticipated that they might be hesitant. Instead, they jumped right in, she said, and were very comfortable doing so. Another coach saw how empowering just asking students’ questions about their experiences was. Another insight was the range of student perspectives on the same teacher’s practice, from “she always makes me feel safe” to “I feel like she’s picking on me.”

Powerful conversations

Coaches then used the feedback they gathered as an entry point for conversations with their teachers, reviewing student’s responses, celebrating what was working in their classrooms based on student feedback and discussing possible next steps to address needs that surfaced.  Using NTC’s Knowing Teachers conversation protocol as part of this process, coaches encouraged teachers to share and reflect on their own experiences, mindsets, beliefs, and aspirations to elevate teacher awareness about how they might be “showing up” in the classroom. Coaches also guided teachers through reflections on what they did and did not know about the students who had agreed to be interviewed using another coaching protocol called Knowing Students

Case study coaches described the benefit of investing this time up front in learning about their teachers and their students as “huge.” They also found that NTC’s flexible conversation protocols were “invaluable” in supporting the process. Vanessa said: “We looked back at the tools, and we saw that they already guide us toward these student-focused questions, but we often skipped that part. So we said, ‘look, let’s pause in this area, really focus where the tools ask for consideration regarding students’ interests, culture, etc., and addressing social and emotional needs for the students to be successful.’”

NTC Senior Program Consultant Sharnice Jenkins-Gallant and HISD Academic Program Manager Vanessa Nieto-Gomez
NTC Senior Program Consultant Sharnice Jenkins-Gallant and HISD Academic Program Manager Vanessa Nieto-Gomez

Get a closer look with Sharnice and Vanessa at jumpstarting student-led, inquiry-guided coaching

Based on the value of this initial discovery exercise, HISD and NTC team members then participated in a professional learning session offered by Californians for Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to racial and educational justice for marginalized youth. The goal of the joint training was to allow coaches to dig deeper into what it means to center learners, reflecting on their own beliefs about student voice and considering the shift from students as “bystanders” to active designers in shaping teaching and learning. The team also learned about a more formalized protocol for co-generative dialogues (or cogens) designed by researcher/authors Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan for their Street Data Toolkit. These conversations are designed to engage those students whom teachers might not typically hear from regularly.

Continuing the approach of testing a strategy first, after the training, coaches practiced conducting cogen dialogues with their students. They recorded the conversations and invited the teachers they coach to observe the dialogue with students and then participate in a “think-aloud” with the coach as she reflected on her teaching. Coaches then supported their teachers to conduct cogen dialogues with their students.

Going forward, coaches and teachers are using this data to identify teaching practices, student actions, or classroom interactions to focus on for improvement. They will continue to return to the student input throughout a teaching and coaching cycle of planning and instructional delivery, analyzing student work, and observing/reflecting on a lesson or series of lessons together.

Throughout the process, Sharnice said, participating coaches and their teachers have had some truly “eye-opening” discoveries and powerful conversations about their practice. What’s even more exciting, according to Sharnice, is what happens next.

This fall, students who have participated in cogen dialogues will join a training led by Californians for Justice along with NTC and HISD team members. Together, they will learn how to use an observation protocol next semester during student-led “learning walks” to complete the feedback cycle, reporting on the changes they see in their teachers’ classrooms based on the input they provided. In this way, students become not just accountability partners but work in close proximity with coaches and teachers to ensure impact. “We will bring students directly back into the conversation,” said Sharnice. “We heard you say x, y, and z, and we tried this out. How did it go? What do you think? Are you seeing the changes you said were needed?”

“This pilot of teachers bringing young people in to co-design and co-create instruction is really exciting. It requires, encourages, a level of vulnerability for educators to tell their students, ‘I don’t have all the answers, and I want you to help me make this experience better for you.’ And when teachers bring in students who are at the margins, who are the least engaged, and lean into their expertise for how to redesign the classroom experience — that conversation is transformative.”

— Najla Gomez Rodriguez, Capacity Building Director, Californians for Justice
Bringing student-led learning to scale

Throughout the co-design process with the Houston team, Sharnice said, “we are learners right alongside them.” After the joint training, the team works together to identify and customize new strategies for the HISD context and then articulate a concrete, deeply intentional plan for practicing and testing, gathering feedback from coaches, and refining and redesigning along the way.

To provide additional context for the inquiry, NTC is conducting book studies and developing a curriculum for experienced coaches who have completed NTC coaching training focused on deep understanding of the importance of student voice. The first study was on Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Right now, coaches are reading Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation by Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan.

Read more about the power of partnering with students

In this EdWeek blog, Shane Safir describes “street data” as “ the voices and experiences of our students…. It’s about humanizing the process of gathering data. Rather than positioning students … as objects whose value can be quantified, street data teaches us to engage with people as subjects and agents …. And the process itself, if done well, builds trust and relational capital. Equally important, street data helps us center the voices of those currently at the margins of our schools and systems.”

Sharnice shares that the district’s small-scale, inquiry-based approach will be key to its success. She describes HISD’s action research approach as fundamentally “grassroots.” It reflects the tenets of human-centered design (sometimes also referred to as design thinking), improvement science, and the principles of liberatory design for equity in complex systems change.

“Starting off small is really beneficial,” she said. “If we took this to the whole group without even testing it… there are so many opportunities for it not to work, and it might get scrapped. This way, this small group is testing and tweaking it and then rolling it out slowly with others. As they learn, case study coaches are bringing other teacher leaders into the process at their campuses, inviting them to observe. We are also planning an end-of-year showcase with a much larger group of teacher leaders to share their learning. In this way, in time, we’ll be able to scale it.”

Based on what the team has learned so far, the district is already testing one high-level shift in focus in its district-wide coaching program. Specifically, the district will reposition analyzing student work as the entry point for a cycle of teaching and coaching rather than the traditional focus of starting with planning first. This change prioritizes knowing students and understanding their needs as the focus of instruction versus a content-first orientation.

Bringing learners to the table has the potential to redefine coaching in HISD as a “true partnership with students,” Sharnice says, a long-time professional goal of hers and an NTC organizational priority. This is what we mean by centering learners. We are grateful for this opportunity to learn with and from the HISD team as they imagine a student-driven model of teacher development.

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