Embedded: How District 97 schools focus on teacher growth

Instructional coaches are always at the ready in elementary schools

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By Lacey Sikora 'Connects'

Contributing Reporter

Professional development typically calls to mind those handful of school days each year in which students stay home and teachers and staff gather for learning opportunities.  In recent years, Oak Park's District 97 has been thinking outside of the box for professional development. Instead of relegating learning opportunities to a finite number of days, the district has added instructional coaches to each school to assist teachers and principals throughout the school year.

Martha Polley works at Hatch Elementary School, 1000 N. Ridgeland Ave., and was part of a pilot program that saw technology support staff transition to the role of instructional coaching five years ago. Sarah Mendez, Hatch principal, says the move towards instructional coaching has become more common among Chicago-area school districts.

Mendez previously worked in Evanston and saw the positive effects instructional coaches had at schools there. "This is one of the things that attracted me to Oak Park. I'd seen what a difference they make. It not only helps student outcomes but contributes to a culture of learning for the professionals as well. Instructional coaching lets teachers develop and grow, and the more teacher develop, the better outcomes you'll get."

For Polley, who began her career teaching in Chicago Public Schools and later worked as a reading and literacy specialist, working as an instructional coach means something different every day. She calls teacher development on the large and small scale the biggest part of her job and says that takes many forms.

She does one-to-one coaching with teachers all the way up to programming for the entire district, and jokes that sometimes her various job duties remind her of the old-fashioned one-man band with a drum strapped around one leg, a guitar hung over one shoulder and an accordion on the other. "There are so many different hats to wear."

She studies curriculum and instructional goals for Hatch to determine what each year's programming will look like, in addition to taking into consideration teacher needs. She notes new teachers might need more time at the beginning of the year to adjust to the school, and a new curriculum might require working with more established professionals to adjust to changes.

Mendez says a few of the tools Polley implements regularly are model classes and Lunch and Learns sessions, in which teachers can opt into sessions on specific topics. Mendez adds that Polley also regularly reviews school-wide data to determine what kind of opportunities would best support the teachers. 

At the end of the day, Mendez says the elementary learning environment is positively impacted by the instructional coaching model. "Data shows that one-and-done professional development is not as effective as embedded professional development. This kind of instructional coaching is a much more powerful and effective form of professional development that is a very valuable investment."

At Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave., April Capuder, principal and Katie Dean, the instructional coach, say this is the school's fourth year with someone in the role of instructional coach. Previously, Dean worked as a social studies and humanities teacher at the school and as a data technology coach. Capuder says moving to include an instructional coach in her team, which also includes assistant principals, has been beneficial for teachers as well as the administrative team.

Dean describes her role as working to partner and collaborate with teachers to support student learning, and Capuder says one positive part of this is that Dean's role is not to evaluate teachers, stressing, "This is really about helping teachers figure out where they are and where they want to be."

Capuder says with the four professional development days built into the school calendar, there was not a lot of time to cover a lot of material. She says having professional development embedded in the school day enables teachers to get a lot more assistance. The 12 Wednesday morning staff meetings provide an opportunity to align with school improvement plans and provide learning opportunities. On other school days, Dean can assist teachers in their individual classrooms or sponsor Lunch and Learn sessions on specific topics.

Not all other districts have adopted the instructional coaching model, but Capuder says the unique approach is often the envy of her colleagues in other school districts. "For the teachers to know they can reach out to someone and have that resource, I don't know how much better it can get. Having learning supporters like Katie is really unique and helpful. You're able to take what you've learned and make it happen in real time."

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