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An Instructional Coach's Tips for Back to School Planning

This interview features Romain Bertrand, the Senior Manager of Innovative Learning Experiences at BetterLesson.

Romain Bertrand, the Senior Manager of Innovative Learning Experiences at BetterLesson.

Romain, thanks for talking with us about our August newsletter topic, back to school planning! To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with educators and how you approach the work?

I was a middle school math teacher for 12 years, both in France and in the US, prior to becoming an instructional coach in 2011. At that pivotal moment in my career, my vision was to strive to provide teachers with the personalized professional development experience I wish I had always received, one that centers on a teacher's vision and on students' growth, one that listens, empowers before forcing feedback or models on to educators and their students.

Now, serving as the Senior Manager of Innovative Learning Experiences at BetterLesson, I remain driven by the same vision when I design, deliver or support teams delivering professional learning experiences: Creating a space for educators to reflect deeply on their practices, set an exciting vision they might have thought unreachable before, and commit to support them in a personalized way to reach this vision at their own pace, and by carving their own path.

When teachers are planning for the first days of school, what do you think is the most important thing to consider?

I made the following mistake earlier in my career: I got back in my room and instantly I focused on the "Now" without having thought about what I wanted the future to look like. What it looked like year after year was me jumping in too early into the nitty gritty without having a long-term vision of what I wanted to create with my kids that year. First day activities, first days lesson plans, set-up of the room--I was doing all of these tasks to check them off my list but I did not really have a compass set to help me accomplish these important tasks with a purpose.

I have learned that the most important thing to do first is to block off time to think deeply about your vision for the school year and how you will help your students both see the value of this vision and want to follow you on this path; and contribute to making this vision a more common and inclusive vision along the way.

What does that concretely look like? Ask yourself a few key questions:

  • What vision will I set for what I teach and how I teach it so that my students can see the relevancy of what we are about to embark on together?

  • What do I want my classroom to look like, feel like and sound like when we are running at full potential in a few months?

  • What values, norms and eventually procedures will help us get to this place further down the road? (While we may not reach this ideal picture right away, starting the year knowing where we want to go will help you and your students build the right culture to get there).

  • What mechanisms do I want to put in place to gather students' feedback and creative ideas regularly and allow them to continuously improve our systems and culture?

In your experience, what are the biggest challenges educators encounter when starting a new school year?

Too many things thrown at them in a short period of time with not enough time for themselves to think deeply about their practices, to be creative, to think big. Many educators, if not all of them, get a jump start by thinking about all of this ahead of time during the summer. But it is unfair to expect of people, who do one of the toughest jobs there is, to be constantly thinking about next year at a time when they should be resting and replenishing their creativity and energy.

We must do a couple of things better:

  • Give educators more (paid) time to be preparing the upcoming school year without every single minute of their day being planned out for a new PD.

  • Make sure that the PD experiences offered to them, while exposing them to new practices, abide by the principle that it is vital to embed during this learning experience: space and time to reflect and vision, choices when it comes to what I want to focus on, and how I will focus on it to reach this vision, personalized, job-embedded support to be able to gradually get closer to this vision.

At BetterLesson, for example, we build our Design Workshops using a Define-Explore-Build framework that we have carefully constructed, tested and refined based on the feedback our teachers have been giving us. It helps us create an experience that delights and engages them while leading to meaningful shifts in their practices. But we do not believe that this will happen solely thanks to a one day workshop. We conceive most of our experiences as a combination of an in person workshop, virtual coaching and collaboration throughout the year.

Many teachers like the idea of educational approaches such as project-based learning or mastery-based grading or differentiation, but it feels like these things are too big to tackle. What would you say to a teacher who feels overwhelmed by the idea of implementing a shift like this?

First of all I would ask myself: "Why do I really want to do this?" If you cannot articulate a motivating why for yourself, that resonates with your personal experiences and with the world out there, chances are that you might not be able to get your kids on board with you on this challenging journey. You might also quit it as soon as the going gets tough.

Once you have articulated your why--your vision--accept the idea that breaking it down into small, incremental steps is not only okay but probably the only way to go. By adding one piece at a time, and by being strategic and reflective along the way, you create the best chances for yourself to continue to build up meaningfully and in a sustainable way.

So if when you think of mastery-based learning going at full speed, with no more boundaries and students able to master competencies at their own pace, you get extremely overwhelmed, breathe and accept that it is what most of us have felt at first. Next, think about a first layer that could feel more manageable to build. For example, you might want to test out the idea of creating blocks of time during which students can use formative assessment data on a smaller set of competencies, in order to set personalized goals for competencies they would like to master and work on simple pathways toward mastery; something like our Fill in the Gaps strategy for example.

As a teacher, I felt I was constantly striving for perfection in my classroom, but never attaining it. When planning for the new school year, what would you tell a teacher who wants to implement 100 new strategies this year?

Well, no hurt in listing them all and even creating a vision board with all of them. But then I would push yourself to think deeply about your personal vision, your goals before you even go back to looking at that board. You can use the questions I suggested when you asked me your first question. After doing this, go back to your board and force yourself to select just a few strategies that align best with the big ideas you just outlined. Don't be afraid then to try them one at a time, but make sure that when you do you keep asking yourself a few questions:

Prior to testing this new idea:

  • What do I want this strategy to help my students (or me) to do better?

  • How will I know if I reached these goals?

  • What aspects, then, should I pay attention to during implementation?

After testing this new idea:

  • What went well? Did I reach my goals or get closer to them?

  • How could this be improved next time around?

  • What is a new opportunity this strategy creates?

So many new teachers enter the profession each year. When I think back to my first year, there was so much to do and think about, I was a bit overwhelmed. For a new teacher just starting their first school year, what tips would you give them? Where should they focus their time and energy?

As I said earlier, start by envisioning where you want to be down the road with your kids. Ask yourself the few key questions mentioned earlier and answer them for yourself, without letting other people tell you that it is not possible.

Then I would say, focus most of your energy on building a culture that could allow you to get there eventually. Culture is everything when you start teaching. If you can build a decent 1.0 culture in the first month and continually improve it with the support of your students, everything is possible.

Now, culture is a big word that can feel empty and daunting when you are a new teacher, or that is influenced too strongly by what other teachers have done with you when you were a student.

Take some time to think about:

  • Key values you want to model and nurture in your classroom, the pillars that will help you build the rest of this house. For me, for example, the idea of welcoming growth and feedback was essential.

  • Norms for living together that support these values. For example if growth is a key value for you, then what do you needs to norm with your students around what we do and don't do when someone makes a mistake in the classroom.

  • Systems and procedures that make these values come to life on a daily basis. To stay with the example of a growth mindset, think about a system you could build allowing students to truly materialize the idea that mistakes are learning opportunities. It is one thing to say this beautiful phrase, it is another thing to have a system that supports it. Remember Fill the Gaps, which I shared earlier, that is an example of a system that makes this concept come to life on a regular basis.

Of course, it is hard to imagine these ideas and to set extremely high expectations right away when you start teaching. So push yourself to go see other people who have similar visions as yours and have managed to reach them or take a look at our Master Teacher strategies, videos and resources to see what is possible.

Is there anything else you would like teachers to know as they are planning for the 2019-2020 school year?

You truly do one of the hardest and most important jobs in the world. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise and be proud to be an educator. Also, because this job is hard, while incredibly fulfilling, take time to take care of yourself or ask people for time to take care of yourself when the going gets tough. It is impossible to teach while not feeling well in your body and mind. We have all been there, so if you reach a very low point go tell someone you trust and let him or her help you. You've got this!

Thank you, Romain, for your inspiring and helpful tips!


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