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Differentiation: It Just Makes Sense


It’s no secret that there are two things I love: education and analogies.  Oh, and people and shopping.  Ok… that’s four.  Luckily, for the purpose of this blog these items fit together quite nicely.

This week marks the completion of my first year as a differentiation instructional coach. As I look back, I am amazed by how much I have learned in one year alone.  I often need to take a deep breathe when I start thinking about the fact that I don’t even know how much I don’t know.  However, I do know that I am excited to keep learning and growing as a coach.  I have found blogs of fellow educators to be a source of inspiration and knowledge. I would like to give back to my virtual PLN by sharing some of what I have learned about instructional coaching and differentiation this year.

Prior to being a coach, I taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS.   As a classroom teacher, I always viewed teaching as a form of sales.  My students were my clients and their learning was the product I was selling.  As a teacher, I continually asked myself the question: what do I need to do to make sure that all of my students value the product (learning) and become repeat customers (continue to learn)?

This analogous relationship presented an answer to my question.  Just as a savvy salesperson adapts their approach for different clients, I needed to do the same for my students.  I needed to differentiate. Truth be told, when I started teaching I had never heard the term “differentiate”.  I just knew that to satisfy all of my students I would have to determine the best approach for each of them.  

During my thirteen years in the classroom, I spent many hours reflecting on my practice.  I looked for patterns in learning and patterns in personalities.  I wound up developing a strong understanding of how to create and implement an effective differentiated practice. I was able to see the powerful impact differentiation had on students’ learning, engagement, and disposition.  

As a coach my customer base has shifted from students to educators.  The product I have to offer is providing and supporting meaningful professional learning.  Now I ask myself the question, how do I ensure that my coachees value the product (professional learning) and become repeat customers (reflect, refine, and reach their goals)?

After a very short period of time in my role as a coach, I realized that my approach to collaborating with teachers would not be the same for everyone.  I have colleagues that are veteran teachers, new teachers, part-time teachers, teachers on multiple teams, teachers who teach multiple content areas.  I have colleagues that prefer to communicate in different ways, have different life experiences, and different dreams.  My colleagues have varying proclivities for the topic and delivery model of professional development in which they want to engage.   My goal is that teachers find value in coaching cycles and are satisfied customers.  To accomplish my goal I must, once again, differentiate.

I try to differentiate my approach in a variety of ways.  I look at the impetus for the cycle, input from teachers, and the teacher’s goal.  Furthermore, I try to select the tools (video recording, modeling, co-teaching, checklists, etc.) that will be a good fit with what the teacher is trying to achieve.  I try to be cognizant of teachers’ time, mindset, and approach to teaching and learning.  I work to ensure that the tools are helpful and informative not intimidating or complicated.  I look at the customer, what they want when they need it, and what I have in my “store” that matches items on their shopping list.  

The type of coaching (individual, team, small group) informs the way I differentiate. When planning and facilitating small group PD, I like to use Katie Martin’s The 10 Characteristics of Professional Learning.  I use the features Katie outlines to question my planning. Will the teacher feel safe? How can I model this? Is the learning action-oriented? How am I encouraging inquiry? Will participants find this content purposeful?  Then, I mindfully try to plan sessions that affirmatively answer these questions.  This usually means that the sessions will include a variety of formats and plenty of structured choice.

10 characteristics of professional learning that shifts practice

When I am planning for a coaching cycle with an individual teacher, I again consider many pieces of information.  I have found that the single most significant factor that allows me to differentiate for my coaching partners is the same factor I considered most important when I differentiated for my students:  relationships.  By building strong relationships, I am better able to use questioning to help enrollees goal set and reflect.  I am better able to determine the appropriate tools, methods, and support to help my partners achieve their goals.  

Throughout this post, I chose to use the words “I try”  rather than “I do” because I know that while I always attempt to meet the needs of my colleagues, there is always room for improvement. When success eludes me, I will reflect and try again.  Feedback from administrators, teachers, my family, and my PLN have been instrumental contributors to my growth as a coach.   I welcome your feedback about this post and would also like to hear about your coaching experiences.  You can find me on twitter @lisa_westman or subscribe to my blog, Put Me in, Coach.  

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