Becoming Student-Centered

Laura Hilger is an Educational Specialist for the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition and a guest facilitator on our Global Forum for Student-Centered Coaching portal.

reinventing schools laura hilgerWhen I was just starting out as a teacher, I remember thinking that MY classroom was going to be how I would change the world because you know, I could do it all by myself with my students. I didn’t need any help and I certainly didn’t need to rely on or align with any of my colleagues. Their style was up to them and I would be doing my own thing in my room. My evaluation was all about me, and how my students were or were not benefiting from my teaching. Sure, I was a team player and worked well with my colleagues, but the bigger picture wasn’t my priority. I was going to rock it out, and build a small revolution, one classroom at a time. Me. Me. Me.

As long as my students were learning, that was the point. Right? Well…..sort of.

Yes, we want students learning. We want data, both qualitative and quantitative, that is evidence that students are growing. We want to be able to say without a doubt that whatever method we have put into place is working. When we discuss why we are educators, we want everyone in the room to simply say, “We’re here for the students.”

It’s not about what I teach, but what the students learn.

But honestly, to be student-centered is much more than an educator in one classroom. In fact, I’d argue that you can’t be student-centered when acting in isolation; instead, WE must work at becoming student-centered as a system. Becoming student-centered is a journey of like-minded individuals with a mission to improve student learning together because what one educator is doing in his/her classroom does matter, but it matters so much more when that educator behaves with a systems thinking mindset.

Say what!? Of course you can do it in isolation. After all, look at all of those “pockets” of excellence that exist. Look at the teachers of the year! Look at the omnivores that lead the charge! But wait….I thought we were here for the students? If we are really doing all of this great work for the students, don’t we want ALL of the students to have the same chances? Isn’t that our true mission: to produce quality graduates? We certainly can’t do that with one or two pockets of excellence; we need a nation full of them. We need a world full of them.

becoming laura hilgerSpecifically, whether you’re a coach, teacher, administrator, or support staff, the key message is that we ALL need to work at becoming student-centered together.

Recently, I got the opportunity to attend Diane Sweeney’s Coaching Conference in Denver, Colorado! On the campus of Regis University, many educators gathered to learn from one another around what Diane calls Student-Centered Coaching. She is considered one of the current experts in the field of coaching, and now that instructional coaching is becoming more and more of a demand across the globe, the field is starting to expand. Professional development offerings in instructional coaching are still limited, but the opportunities are growing.

Here, I’ve given some of the main takeaways from the conference as well as other resources to further explore student-centered coaching.

What Instructional Coaches Do:


I. They Communicate:

“Dialogue is our currency.” “That is where the work happens.” -Diane Sweeney

II. They Set Clear Goals using Standards/Targets:

“We have to have a very clear idea of precisely what kids should be doing. Remember the no standards era? ‘I’m watching the kids, but not sure what I’m looking for.’”-Diane Sweeney

III. They live inside the data

purpose of assessment
Re-Inventing Schools Coalition


Where they are=formative

Where they need to be=summative on standards/unpacked standards

“Coaching is for everyone because we all have kids with needs.” -Diane Sweeney

Student-Centered vs. Teacher-Centered vs. Relationship-Driven

It’s important to remember that we bounce all over this chart, sometimes daily. It doesn’t look like this linear chart.




Relationship Centered: 

You’re not going to get student outcomes by just giving out Starbucks cards or hosting coaching parties. Relationships are key, but you should be able to build them in the context of student-centered coaching.

Teacher Centered:

This is considered the norm for most coaches and this is also the space where most principals see instructional coaches. You can’t just focus on instruction all of the time;  you’ve got to ask, “Did the kids learn it?”

It’s not about what you taught, but what the students learned.

Student Centered:

You are still focusing on instruction, but you use student data for analysis.

Indicators for being student-centered:

  • Brings up the standard (not the product such as an essay)
  • Talks about the students
  • Thinks about pre-assessment
  • Uses student data in the discussion


  • If they start with the product, take them to the standards
  • If they start with an instructional practice, get them specific around the standard first
  • If they talk about their instruction, use kids, kids, kids or students, students, and tie their instructional desires to the student goal

Coaching Cycle Ideas:

  • Units of Study can guide the coaching cycle
  • 4-6 weeks, 1-3 days in classroom/week, co-teaching/collecting student data
  • Weekly meetings to analyze data and adjust plan as needed
  • At most, you shouldn’t have more than 5 coaching cycles at a time (meaning working w/ 5 different teachers/teams on 5 different goals)
  • If you aren’t in a traditional coaching position such as a service provider, use a calendar approach, set 3 meetings with them over a month of time (if logistics are there)
  • Prioritize based on student data
  • Keep communication flowing via technology

Guiding Questions for Lesson Design (via Diane Sweeney)

  1. How will the learning targets be introduced to the students?
  2. What new content will be provided to the students? How?
  3. How will student discussion be built into the lesson?
  4. What are some anticipated misconceptions? How will they be addressed?
  5. How will feedback be provided to students?
  6. How will the students self assess?
  7. How will technology be used during the lesson?

If the district you’re working in does not have a systemic effective instruction model or framework, then there must be professional development for teachers to grow this. There are many effective teaching frameworks out there; the key is to move towards student-centered concepts.

Documenting Impact of Coaching: 

  • Set a goal
  • Pre Assess students
  • Analyze student work
  • Plan Instruction
  • Deliver Instruction
  • Post Assess
  • Data Analysis for results
  • Repeat above

Organizational Change:

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency
  2. Form a Guiding Coalition
  3. Develop a Shared Vision and Strategy
  4. Communicate Widely and Gain Alignment
  5. Generate Short Term Successes and Gain Momentum
  6. Institutionalize Changes in the Culture

The Re-Inventing Schools framework on personal mastery aligns nicely with research around organizational change.

Results Based Coaching Tool :

In order to align the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition concept of continuous improvement through action plans (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) with Sweeney’s strategies around student-centered coaching, as well as Elena Aguilar’s coaching philosophy, we have been working on tools and processes that specifically address the role of coaching within personalized learning frameworks. If you would like a copy of these tools, please contact the coalition. You can also read and learn more about Diane’s or Elena’s tools through their own publications!

Together with the right tools and processes, school districts transitioning to personal mastery can build systems that are constantly asking, “What are the students learning? How do WE know?”

Suggested Reads:

DeLorenzo, Battino, Schreiber (RISC CEO), and Gaddy (2008), Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution

Aguilar (2013), The Art of Coaching

Berger (2014), Leaders of Their Own Learning

DuFour (2004), Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn (or any book on PLCs by DuFour)

Flaherty (2010), Coaching, Evoking Excellence in Others

Sweeney (2010), Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8  Principals and Coaches