A teacher at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in southwest Denver felt she was having trouble getting buy-in from her class of high schoolers. She was the most recent in a series of teachers who had taught this particular class during the past few years, and the students didn’t seem engaged.
She decided to create a unit on magical realism in literature, hoping it would catch students’ attention and help her build relationships. That’s when she turned to her coach, Mandy Israel, a teacher leader at the school.
“So we sat down and we had a planning conversation about it: Why does this matter, what is your purpose, how are you going to differentiate?” said Israel. “At the beginning of the conversation she had an idea. At the end she had a plan.”
The progression sounds straightforward. But the strategies Israel used in that conversation were actually part of a coaching style, known as Cognitive Coaching, that Denver Public Schools officials hope will help teachers improve their practice in a way that sticks.
This year, the district has trained dozens of teacher leaders, peer observers, and principals in Cognitive Coaching. It also has a full-time staff person — coaching coordinator Sarah Baird — who is newly dedicated to cognitive coaching training.
“The belief is that every teacher has experiences they can draw on to support them in making their own decisions,” Baird said. “The other belief is, a coach, a principal, any other person is not with the teacher all the time. So how do we support teachers to feel self-directed in their own classrooms?”
At a time when teachers are faced with adjusting to new evaluations, new standards, and changing school and district initiatives, Baird said, Cognitive Coaching focuses on supporting and empowering individuals to set, reach, and reflect on their own goals.
“It’s much different than coaching in the past,” said Mario Giardiello, the executive director of school support for DPS. “Coaching had such a bad reputation…Cognitive Coaching really respects the learner. You want the learner to bring the next steps to the table.”
He said the new training is particularly important as the district builds its teacher leader program, which means more staff have hybrid teaching-coaching-mentoring-evaluating roles.
Cognitive Coaching was developed more than 30 years ago by two educators, and is now run as part of the Thinking Collaborative, which also runs a team-building training known as Adaptive Schools.
The core of the approach is a set of conversation “maps” aimed at helping teachers draw out the thinking behind their practice. Coaches and teachers move through the maps during a series of one-on-one meetings before and after observations. There are maps for planning, reflection, and problem-solving. The trainings also include lessons on paraphrasing, giving feedback, body language, using data as part of reflection, and other strategies to help aspiring coaches consult, evaluate, and collaborate with other adults.
Victoria Harp, a teacher leader at Garden Place Elementary, said that while the strategies might sound simple, “it’s a really difficult approach to implement consistently because it really taps into so much of your brain.”
Jane Ellison, the Colorado-based executive co-director of the Thinking Collaborative, said that the program’s creators “were mostly interested in principals interacting with teachers in a more humane way,” but that the tools are useful for anyone working with teachers.
Ellison said that though the model has been around for years and is supported by neuroscience research, most of the districts that have adopted it on a large scale are suburban. “The potential in a large urban district like DPS is huge,” she said.
And at a time when the state is experiencing high rates of teacher turnover, she said, offering a strong coaching program might help districts attract and retain teachers.
Baird said one of the biggest challenges she hears from the coaches she has trained is mixing the evaluative part of their role with giving feedback. Another is that cognitive coaching is just one of several strategies DPS teacher leaders and coaches learn about.
The training also requires a large investment of out-of-building time. Baird said that coaches must be perceptive, well-trained, and supported or their guidance will not be well received.
Harp said that it took time for teachers to buy into the new style of coaching. “It’s a big shift in terms of really building capacity as an individual versus [coaches] coming in and telling them what to do.”
Kate Claasen, a teacher at Kunsmiller, said she appreciated the change.
“Anyone who’s gone through Cognitive Coaching training, it just makes the dialogue so much more constructive and so much more positive,” Claasen said.
She said she hopes she can eventually take the training herself, but most sessions have been full.
Baird said there has indeed been more demand for the training than the district currently has the capacity to meet.
Still, the basics of Cognitive Coaching can be useful even if you are not fully trained, Baird said. She said she finds herself using strategies like active listening even in conversations with friends and family members.