Thousands of miles apart in two very different cultures, Ho Chi Minh City University of Education (HCMCUE) in Vietnam, and Flagstaff Unified School District in Arizona appear to have little in common.
HCMCUE prepares thousands of Vietnamese university students who want to become teachers; Flagstaff Unified, with 18 schools and 800 teachers, aims to prepare its 11,000 K-12 students for the rapidly-evolving worlds of work and higher education.
Differences aside, the two worlds-apart public educational institutions have chosen the same professional development approach: Peer Coaching, sponsored by Microsoft. This proven, cost-effective method of building teacher leaders addresses technology integration, pedagogical improvement, and the need to teach students 21st Century Skills.
“In the new context here, parents and companies that hire graduates both have higher demands. We are trying to find a way to make our classes more student-centered. At the same time we are trying to integrate technology better…Peer Coaching has provided us with a framework for how to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) into classes. How will we know if a certain teaching activity in a certain class is good or not? Peer coaching has helped with answering this question,” says Nguyen Ngoc Vu, a Permanent Lecturer in the HCMCUE’s department of linguistics.
Vu, trained in 2007 as a Peer Coaching facilitator by Les Foltos of Peer-Ed, has contributed to a rapid expansion of Peer Coaching in Vietnam. (In the Peer Coaching models facilitators train coaches, who then work with collaborating teachers back at school). Across five Vietnamese provinces as of mid-2009, at least 800 Peer Coaches have been formally trained and are working with collaborating teachers in their schools.
In the United States, Mary Knight, Flagstaff’s Director of Technology, and the Project Director for the Northern Arizona Technology Integration Coaching Consortium (NATICC), echoes Vu’s notion that Peer Coaching is a key approach to professional development.
“Finding time for sustained professional development is always a challenge. The job-embedded nature of Peer Coaching helps. Also, we align Peer Coaching with other instructional goals so coaches and collaborating teachers don’t see Peer Coaching as a separate goal. Finally, we believe Peer Coaching is the best way to move towards 21st Century Skills development, particularly because of the Peer Coaching focus on lesson improvement.”
In 2003, as Knight prepared to write a technology literacy challenge grant proposal, she was convinced that teachers needed to support one another–she just wasn’t sure how to make that happen throughout the district. At a conference she met Les Foltos, the Peer Coaching team leader, who outlined the Peer Coaching approach for her: “The Peer Coaching assumptions and approaches seemed to fit with observations I had made in schools,”says Knight.
According to Les Foltos, the approach used by Peer Coaching draws on the advice of classroom teachers and research. Classrooms teachers suggested they would learn best from a trusted colleague who was just down the hall when needed. “Peer Coaching,” Foltos notes, “is designed to help these trusted colleagues develop the communication, collaboration and lesson design skills they need to be successful as Peer Coaches.” In short Peer Coaching is designed to help coaches be effective collaborators.
Foltos notes that collaboration, according to Michael Fullan, Linda Darling Hammond, and other researchers, is the key to improving education. “Peer coaches tell us they can see the ways their collaboration with colleagues is improving learning.” Their principals also report that they see the impact of coaching throughout the teaching staff of their schools. In a recent evaluation of Peer Coaching in Washington state, 80% of the principals reported that the collaboration between coaches and colleagues set an example that other teachers were emulating.
In 2007, Knight and two Flagstaff teachers on special assignment, Heather Zeigler and Tricia Roach, were trained by the Peer-Ed team to be facilitators. Knight, as NATICC’s Project Director, charged Zeigler and Roachwith training coaches throughout the consortium. In the last three years, the pair has trained close to 80 coaches.
For their technology integration and 21st Century Skills work over the last seven years, Zeigler and Roach were recently honored by AZTEA, the Arizona Technology in Education Association, with its Technology Integration Specialist Award.
But how does Peer Coaching help with a school’s overall professional development needs?
Trained Peer Coaches may work initially with just a handful of collaborating teachers but find that the coaching mindset spreads rapidly, often creating a culture of collaboration throughout a school.
“In my first year of coaching,” says Maureen McCauley, library media specialist in Flagstaff’s Sechrist Elementary, “I worked formally with two teachers. We met once a week, logged the meetings, had agenda items we addressed. Even during that time, you saw the flow-out from there. I was meeting formally with one second-grade teacher, who was sharing our conversations and ideas with another, nearby second-grade teacher. There was also some very informal coaching right away: that hallway interaction of people saying to me, ‘You know this; can you help me with it?’ In my second year of coaching, I continued to work with the original two collaborating teachers and added grade-level teams that I helped coach. Both of the original collaborating teachers have gone on to become Peer Coaches, and we still work together frequently.”
Vietnamese high school teacher Tran Duc Thinh sounds as though he could be one of McCauley’s collaborating teachers. He had good PC skills but wasn’t sure how to create project-based activities. “Using the Peer Coaching model, my colleagues were ready to take me step by step through a project and answer all my questions. Gradually, I became able to organize a class into specific activities as a project so that every student is involved in learning and sees how to explore that knowledge by themselves.”
Educators like Tran, Knight and McCauley have seen the ramp-up of technology infrastructure in schools worldwide. However, professional development that helps educators use the new tools well has not always kept pace or been cost-effective. Peer Coaching addresses these needs.
“Vietnamese administrators appreciate Peer Coaching because it saves professional development money. We have made a big investment in equipment in recent years—but we find that teachers do not know how to use the equipment. We find that Peer Coaching is a good way to help teachers learn how to use technology effectively in teaching,” says HCMCUE’s Vu.
Flagstaff’s Mary Knight sees a similar need. The tools that only coaches had a few years ago—a laptop, projector, document camera, and voice amplification systems—are becoming commonplace in Flagstaff classrooms. Teachers need help integrating this equipment effectively into instruction.
“We are trying to provide tools we haven’t had before to overcome resource issues. We offer training on the use of the new equipment—two courses on the technology, and a third course on rigor and relevance in student activities. This last course is most related to the lesson improvement portion of Peer Coaching. Our challenge now is this: how do we use resources and impact lesson design so that we move more towards innovative, collaborative experiences for students?”
At the coaching level, Sechrist library media specialist McCauley says that all of this new technology in classrooms and libraries means that “teachers need to jump in and fool with the new technology. If you wait until you have all of the kinks worked out, you’ll miss out. What I’ve done is started several projects through the library, so teachers and I can learn new programs. Many times there will be glitches that the kids can figure out.”
When it comes to integration into key classroom activities, McCauley meets teachers at their level of comfort. “With teachers that have a project already designed and who may be reluctant to use technology, I might collaborate informally and suggest ways to convert the finished research into a polished presentation using technology. I know the teachers will be sitting there, absorbing and interacting. My hope is for next year that I’ll have hooked them and we can start earlier in the year.”
Although the grant funding to continue NATICC is winding down, Project Director Knight hopes to continue Peer Coaching. “This last year of the grant is devoted to training coaches, collecting data, and having discussions about how to sustain Peer Coaching beyond this project.” Knight is working actively on finding ways to continue and expand the Peer Coaching impact throughout NATICC-member districts.
Over in Ho Chi Minh City, HCMCUE’s Vu also looks to Peer Coaching as a key professional development program moving forward. “In just a few years, we have managed to train many facilitators and coaches because the Ministry of Education, the Departments of Education in cities and provinces, and Microsoft have all offered a lot of support. I think Peer Coaching will become even more popular and common in Vietnam. Many teachers need upgraded skills. We will use the Peer Coaching train-the-trainer model: one strong teacher-trainer will come to a central training, then go back to school and train other teachers.”
We are curious about your thoughts:
How has coaching contributed to a culture of collaboration for you?
How do we use resources and impact lesson design so that we move more towards innovative, collaborative experiences for students?”