Facilitating Coaching Labs

Written by Diane Sweeney and Leanna Harris
From: Student-Centered Coaching: The Essential Guide for K-12 Coaches and Principals (Corwin, Forthcoming)

We know that teachers need job-embedded opportunities for professional learning. But let’s not forget that coaches do too. While it can be valuable for coaches to attend conferences, read professional texts, and meet with district leaders, nothing takes us further than providing support that is rooted in our own school communities. We accomplish this through coaching labs.

Coaching labs take us deeper into the practices and decision-making of effective coaching. They are not exemplars of coaching, but rather are examples of authentic coaching that stretch our thinking. The process involves a prebrief that provides time for the coach to set the focus and share tools and strategies that have been used. Then an observation of coaching is followed by a debrief to unpack implications and points of learning.

Any coach is a good candidate to host a coaching lab because the philosophy is one of peer learning rather than being an ‘expert’. If a district has hired coaches with the stance of learner, then there shouldn’t be any problem recruiting a coaching lab host. When planning coaching labs, we take the following considerations into account:

  • Coaching lab hosts aren’t experts, they are learners. We are observing to expand our thinking, generate questions, and develop a view of what Student-Centered Coaching looks like in our schools.
  • Coaching labs occur over a half day and include between 8-12 observers.
  • Coaching labs are authentic examples of our work. They are not about showcasing practice.
  • Coaching labs adhere to a protocol and norms for observation.

Coaching labs are led by a facilitator who provides support before, during, and after the observation. It is essential for the facilitator to use a protocol as it keeps the conversation objective and learning focused.

Collecting Student Evidence During Coaching Labs
Coaching labs are the perfect opportunity to practice collecting student evidence using the strategy of noticing and naming. In Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves, we define noticing and naming as a “dynamic process that takes place when a teacher and coach work side by side in the classroom to surface what the students are doing well and where they have potential to grow” (Sweeney and Harris, 2017, p. 60).

We achieve this by providing each participant with a student evidence note catcher. This tool guides the observers away from talking with (or teaching) the students or only focusing on the instruction. Instead, they use the learning targets that were identified during the prebrief to practice formatively assessing throughout the lesson, which is one of our most important coaching moves. Students may not be used to a group of adults listening intently to their learning, but we’ve found most don’t mind showing what they know and they usually go on about their business.

A few minutes before the lesson ends, we ask the coaching lab participants to do a quick analysis of their notes and identify three patterns or trends they noticed. Participants are then able to anticipate the discussion that will follow between the teacher and hosting coach during the planning conversation. This clearly reminds us that coaching is about understanding where students are right now and then working together to decide where to go next.

Note Catcher for Coaching Labs

Planning for Coaching Labs
About a week before a coaching lab, the facilitator meets with the hosting coach to discuss; (1) background on the coach’s work, (2) which teacher, or teachers, will be included, (3) what the schedule will look like, and (4) other information that will be important for the observers to understand. The schedule is often the hardest part of the planning process. We suggest identifying the timeframe for the lesson first, and then going from there. Sometimes a coach requests to only include the co-planning portion of the observation, or to plan first and teach the lesson second. We try to remain flexible, and always encourage the lesson component because it provides context that can’t be achieved by simply observing a coaching conversation. That said, we also recognize that we need to take the coach’s readiness into account. Thoughtful planning is key to ensure that the lab is well run and that the lab host feels comfortable with the process. It helps us get the most out of the coaching lab experience.

A Final Thought
After years of facilitating coaching labs, we’d recommend taking this step boldly and cautiously. While this statement may seem like an oxymoron, we mean to suggest that by being a careful facilitator, you will create opportunities for coaches to grow together. Coaching labs will take you there.

© Student-Centered Coaching: The Essential Guide for K-12 Coaches and Principals (Sweeney and Harris, forthcoming)

If you’d like support facilitating coaching labs in your district, we are here for you. You can contact us at info@dianesweeney.com.

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