Ashley McBride spent her first few months as an edtech coach helping teachers solve easy problems. She showed them how to set up Google Classrooms. She taught them how to use new tools.
Then she realized she was doing it all wrong.
“The teachers had to start getting CEUs in technology, and they came to me panicked, asking, how do we do this? I had to stop what I was doing and find out how to run good, effective professional learning,” says the author of The EdTech Coaching Primer.
She started digging into research to discover best practices for designing professional learning that truly changes the way teachers teach. What she discovered completely transformed her own approach to edtech coaching.
“One of the pillars, one of the most important pieces, was coaching,” McBride says. “In order to have an actual change, you have you have professional learning that provides supports and coaching. That word, right there, was what got me wondering whether I was being an edtech coach correctly.”
While the role of an edtech coach looks a little different — or sometimes drastically different — from district to district and school to school, McBride champions a model in which the coach serves as a learning partner for teachers, helping them put new ideas into practice and transform their teaching over time. Using the Learning Policy Institute’s guidelines for effective teacher development, she highlights how coaches can change the way teachers teach by providing professional learning that includes:
1. A strong focus on content
Professional learning often takes a firehose approach, overloading teachers with generalized information on generalized topics. But the more you can zoom in on each teacher’s specific context and subject area, the better. Content-focused professional learning is typically job embedded, taking place within the classroom where teachers can test out new curriculum with their students or study a particular element of pedagogy within their content area.
This is where edtech coaches really shine, McBride says. They can help bridge the gap between training and implementation by partnering with teachers and focusing on specific problems of practice within their classrooms.
2. Active learning
Students learn best when they’re engaged in activities that allow them to do something with what they’re learning — and teachers are no different. Effective professional learning immerses teachers in the types of learning activities they’ll be creating for their students.
One advantage coaching has over traditional “sit-and-get” professional learning is that it’s inherently more hands-on. You might start by discussing the teacher’s goals and how to approach them, but the coach’s role is to then guide the teacher through actually implementing the new lessons or practices.
Teacher collaboration plays a key role in promoting schoolwide change, and edtech coaches are uniquely positioned to enable collaboration between teachers across grade levels, content areas and even different schools within the district. One of McBride’s most magical moments as an edtech coach occurred when she brought together teachers from different subject areas and watched as a science teacher helped solve an art teacher’s problem of practice.
“I didn’t even have to say a word,” she says. “I just made sure they were in the same room having a conversation so they could share best practices. An edtech coach facilitates the collaboration between teachers, and they can also be a thought partner to talk out ideas with. So you’re getting two types of collaboration.”
4. Use of models and modeling
Educators who are not as familiar with edtech often have a hard time wrapping their heads around new practices because they’ve never seen them in action before. McBride recalls a meeting between teachers and administrators in which one teacher said, “Stop. I don’t understand what you just said. Show it to me.”
Edtech coaches can model new teaching practices in two different ways, McBride says. When delivering group instruction, the class should be structured so teachers experience the learning in the same way their students will. When working with teachers one on one, the coach can offer to teach the first lesson to students while the teacher observes.
5. Coaching and expert support
How often do teachers leave a professional learning session and actually implement the information they learned? It does happen, but most educators need ongoing coaching and support to truly transform their practice. Teachers are more willing to take risks and try out new practices when they know they’ve got an expert backing them up.
“If you’re implementing something like virtual reality, it’s nice to have a coach in there the first few times just so you have an extra set of hands in the room,” McBride says. “It allows teachers to step out of that comfort zone.”
6. Feedback and reflection
Professional learning models that deliver tangible gains in student learning share at least one thing in common: built-in time for feedback and reflection. That’s why McBride strongly encourages the use of coaching cycles, which engage teachers in an ongoing cycle of setting goals, co-planning and implementing lessons, and debriefing afterward.
“It’s a very intentional reflection and feedback loop that allows the coach to deeply personalize the professional learning,” she says.
7. Sustained duration
Transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Professional learning has the greatest potential for impact when it’s sustained over time.
“It’s one thing that’s often missed in professional learning,” says McBride, whose coaching cycles take an incremental approach to transformation by focusing on one change at a time while propelling teachers to constantly improve. For example, when one teacher wanted to redesign the way she taught her class from the ground up, McBride worked with her to flip one unit every quarter — recording lecture content on video for students to watch at home — over the next few years.
“It can take about three years to really see a huge change,” she says.
While there’s not necessarily a “right” way to be an edtech coach, there are ways to maximize the role’s potential as a catalyst for change. By engaging with teachers as a learning partner, edtech coaches can design professional learning that’s truly transformative.