Shared Experiences: A Roundtable with RISE Network Coaches

Data Tools and PracticesGrade 9 SuccessNetwork Collaboration and LearningPostsecondary ReadinessRISE by 5 Strategies

At RISE, a key element of our school partnerships is the coaching support provided by members of our Freshman Success, Postsecondary, and Engagement teams. For an inside look into this important aspect of their work, six RISE coaches got together and talked through shared experiences, challenges, and how they can achieve the greatest impact with their coachees.

Coaching roundtable

Q: How has your approach to coaching evolved? What was a recent moment in coaching that stood out to you?

Gaby: It’s been an evolution for me. Because I’ve been in the high school space for so long, my default was to think “When I was doing this, this is what I did and it was very effective.”  But I’ve since adopted more of a learner’s stance, asking questions that allow them to get to their own conclusions, and therefore, get bought into whatever solutions they want to implement in regards to whatever problem of practice the data may reveal. I’ve been getting a lot of joy from being more of a partner and it helps me to bond with educators. 

Peter coaching

Peter: I was on a call this morning and one of my coachees was telling me about the lack of district funding for summer bridge programming and I knew I couldn’t change that. But I was able to explain how another school was getting creative doing it during the school year, and this was a moment where he thought, “Oh, I can do this differently.” This school happened to be in his district so he immediately reached out to them to learn more about how they are doing their summer bridge program.  A lot of times as a coach, my job is to listen and to see those areas where I can make connections. 

Sam: Right, you’ve got to listen and help reflect back another understanding of what this person’s story is.

Gretchen: Being curious is something that I try to lead with, in addition to empathy. Two things are really important; being honest and building credibility. We’re looking at your data and we’re looking at the research and that’s informing our conversations. You need to anticipate that there is going to be pushback and how you can turn those into moments of productive conflict, because a lot of really great work can come from that.  

Kristen: I’ve been leaning into understanding that they are the experts in their buildings and their students and their contexts. And so, most of the answers, they already have them. It’s about finding the right way to frame it to get what they want out of it. I’ve also been making a concerted effort to give back the coaching space to the coachee. Initially, I was very focused on the strategic data calendar and it felt like I was doing this for them as opposed to them using the space in a way they felt was necessary.  So in my coaching meetings, I’ve been asking, “What do you need?” and then using that to guide my agenda.  This has allowed me to embed what they need out of the space into those conversations.

Q: What makes coaching more “transformative” vs. “transactional?” How do we get there?

Rebecca coaching

Rebecca: I had a moment this morning where, in the past, we would check in on strategies and data and how things are going, which I think gave the perception that coaching felt a little transactional. So I think we need to lean in with understanding where people are and where they need pushes, but also put the ownership on them. So how do we take this out of feeling like a punch list to a feeling of “Wow, this has made an incredible difference for my practice, my kids, and my school?” 

Gaby: I can think of an example where we went from being transactional to transformative. I think the way we got there was that I was just asking questions. The transformative moment was when I suggested a new meeting practice, which the coachee ended up implementing successfully and which alleviated her concerns. It becomes like magic, at that point, when it becomes transformative. 

Peter: So much of it has to do with relationships and knowing your coachee. In the 10 schools I work with, I know the people who want a packed agenda, those who want a three-line agenda or a punch list, those who want to chat, and those who want to control the agenda. Similar to what Kristen said, I  have several calls where I have an agenda and the opening is, “What’s on your mind?” because I know the people who need that space. So that’s been really big, the question of how do you develop the relationship? The other thing that I’ve had to learn is that, as a coach, I can’t control all things and I can’t be involved in the school all the way through implementation. So for me, it’s been a lot of listening and knowing that I might say something and I actually don’t know where they’re going to run with it, but hoping it becomes transformative for them in their practice. 

Gretchen: I think transactional and transformative change are both required. Though I will say that transformative is more durable and it gets to the heart of systems and those deeper things. In the transactional space, we have our RISE agendas, protocols, and KPIs that are part of the conversation, but I have 100% had to push those to the margins because I recognize a transformative moment is needed at the time. 

Sam: One of the things I struggle with is the relationship between transactional and transformative work and the data we have access to. A lot of times, transactional thinking is about trying to drill down to “How can we move this student or these few?”  The data that we end up looking at, there is this loop where it goes from transactional to almost abstract, but we’ve just gotten enamored with the ways that this data tool or this spreadsheet can help us ask questions, but it’s not always reflective. And so, I have actually found it interesting for my coaching to have work where we have limited data. We’re just trying to figure out how to do this and get, I think, more transformative through realizing that I can’t have the data crutch. If you’re asking them to do the work of reflecting on the thing that they know best and can see most clearly, then you are helping them develop skills. So I felt like I’ve brought some of that into the work where I can see the Hub, so that hopefully, the rest of the coaching is feeling as comfortable being in that data-blind space. 

Q: How can we streamline data practices across coaching spaces in a way that drives measurable student outcomes consistently, despite all schools not having RISE Data Hub access?

Gaby: I have been wrestling with, what is that balance? Not all of the schools we work with have access to the Hub. So it’s about creating this muscle of feeling like this is complementary to my workflow so I can feel more effective in my school space.  That’s where coaching can get challenging. I can be the one to produce data, but how do I transform your thinking so you want to pull data from what you have access to and start identifying trends? For those who have access to the Data Hub or not, what does that look like and how can it be sustainable across a multitude of schools? 

Peter: Coaching, with data or without data, is different. All of the schools I coach don’t have the Data Hub. So often the conversation flips from “Let’s analyze the data” to “Why would that data be useful and what are you trying to do with it?” What I tell them is, “I need you to develop a way to identify students who are progressing effectively within Grade 9 and students who you are worried about, and for those students, you need a system to flag them.” At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is create a data visibility system so you know which students you need to pay attention to.  So I think sometimes I’ve had to simplify it, rather than asking them to go super complex. 

Kristen coaching

Kristen: One of my big pushes is very similar to Peter. It’s not only elevating the data you feel are important, but making sure that you understand the data point. One of the things we’re working on now, especially with the expansion of the Data Hub and working with schools that don’t have access, is data literacy. Making sure they understand what these numbers mean. A data point is giving you information but it’s not telling you anything. You have to make meaning and give context, so how do you do that? Do you understand your population, your teachers, and your school enough to make meaning? 

Gaby: I think that’s why we struggle with the transactional piece because it can move you away from why we do what we do and the impact of those “whys.” Just because we have access to this data, is it relevant? Is it something we need to focus on or is it just interesting? What are the implications for the work and student outcomes? This is something I need to always keep asking as I’m coaching my schools. 

Q: When have you had to adapt your coaching approach based on unexpected challenges or changes within the school environment?

Gretchen: I have one coachee who has shied away from conversations about race disparities because it’s uncomfortable. My instinct was to be very direct, but I realized that wasn’t the best approach. So I consulted with Gaby about this and she suggested including it as a wondering and asking them their interpretation of what they’re seeing with just the facts. It turned out that was the better approach with that coachee. 

Peter: I think of moments when I’ve had to ditch my agenda or pivot my coaching completely. I have a school I was struggling to connect with and finally, I got the APs to commit to a coaching call. I had a great agenda and we didn’t get past 1a because they wanted to take the time to tell me everything about what was happening in the school. So we put the agenda aside and took that hour to talk and work through it, and then we scheduled follow-up meetings. I understood that they were just stuck in a system that wasn’t working well and my job as the coach was to step back and let them process through this. I have so much respect for the people I coach and I’m just there to help them and walk along with them, not to tell them what to do. 

Kristen: One example for our team this year was our quarter three role-alike. We realized that we weren’t going to have an opportunity to do an AP retreat during the summer, so we decided to bring them together now and give them space to do problems of practice and share successes. That conversation, just having them share and talk, was so powerful for them. It was a great opportunity and we got lots of feedback asking for more time to do this. It’s a need that we accidentally exposed and it was fantastic, so now we’re thinking of how we can continue to incorporate this in our spaces. 

Sam coaching

Sam: My response is more structural, thinking of the situation where your coachee leaves their role and that relationship you’ve been investing in ends. It begs the question, “Are we coaching individuals, a team, or a building?” I aspire for the work that we do to influence people well beyond the one person whose calendar we’re on at the moment. 

Gretchen: To Sam’s point and the durability of transformative practices, they can theoretically leave but the building policy lingers, which benefits all kids moving forward.  

Peter: I’m thinking of a school with a really strong AP and really strong systems, but then he left and the school has just had a rough year. Reflecting on what Sam said, so many of my moves this year have been about distributed leadership. I work with one to three people and I’m often asking how they’re spreading this across a variety of different people. This brings to mind two things. One, I think our coaching is great but also happens within a network of different schools and we share resources, we get them together, and that has value. Two, in those coaching spaces, I feel like I’m coaching the school, or really, I’m trying to reach the students through you.

Q: What value does having a coach bring to our work as RISE?  Where have you felt the impact of your work as a coach?

Gretchen and Gaby coaching

Gaby: I think back to a year ago when I met with a Grade 12 AP to go through end-of-year numbers, and application completion for trade school students was not as good as their college-bound peers. So there was a tough conversation about whether we were being equitable around our approaches in engaging all students across all plan pathways. That ended up being a really magical moment where the AP said, “This is not going to happen again.” So over the year, we identified key players, equipped them with what they said they needed to support trade students, and created a new event targeted to those kids. Now their numbers are around 96 percent of two, four-year, and trade students saying they’ve completed at least one application. I met with the AP recently and we reflected on where we were last year and how pleased we were with how the plan worked. This made me feel the impact of why coaching is important and how it builds capacity within our schools so they feel empowered to bring those practices back and pay it forward to somebody else. Because they feel like they became a better educator because of what they were getting from RISE and their engagement with me as a coach.

Kristen: I think about the work that Rebecca and I do with our admins. That space has been tremendous the past couple of years, in just allowing them to have a space to share their ideas. This has allowed us to create a unique bond with all of our principals where they are dedicated to participating and being vulnerable in sharing during meetings. We’ve had principals reach out to us to share information for a presentation they’re making and that shows value. 

Peter: I feel like I’m doing it right when my coachees are reaching out to me for support and advice. That means they trust and value my opinion. That’s when I’ve felt the best as a coach, when I get that outreach.

Gretchen: I think that’s at the root of why I like coaching so much, because it is, at its heart, a deeply human endeavor. Because of the work we do in the education sphere, we contribute to the professional growth of our admins, we contribute to student achievement, and we increase the effectiveness of school districts and the systems they have in place. I believe in the coaching model so much! 

Rebecca: The celebrations of hearing how well things go, nothing makes me happier than when I’m their first call, hearing that they’re so excited and they know I’m going to share in their joy and know their struggle. That is just a really powerful feeling 

Sam: A lot of us have talked about how others are the experts in their buildings and so, in a certain sense, you could say, “Well, what are you doing here?” It’s precisely because we have some expertise that is on a broader perspective. By virtue of our work, we actually aren’t a mile deep, we’re a mile wide, and it’s valuable for schools to have people around their tables who can spend time with them thinking a mile wide. That’s part of the freshness or novelty that the coaching space with RISE can bring. As for impact, I’m thinking of one school that achieved substantial growth in year-over-year on-track rates. When I had that leader come over summer vacation to testify to the Board of Education that our contract should be continued, I felt a validation that this work was helping them grow, and ultimately, helping their students achieve the goals that we all have for them.