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I see you, I hear you, I thank you: Coaching is not just for students

(from left to right: Shannon Rush, Li-Ling Cheng, Maggie Bendicksen)


A new instructional coaching program designed to support teachers in their professional development just launched this spring. Long-time teachers Maggie Bendicksen, Shannon Rush, and Li-Ling Cheng want to help faculty discover and refine ways of teaching and collaborating that are joyful, sustainable, and result in positive outcomes for teachers and students alike.

The definition of their role, which has been developed from hundreds of hours of research, long form-surveys, and interviews with a large and diverse group of teachers, is based on the idea that a coach is a thought partner, listener, and sounding board.

Veteran teachers, Maggie Bendicksen, Shannon Rush, and Li-Ling Cheng, have stepped into their new roles as instructional coaches with their ears and hearts wide open, spending the first few months of the school year gathering information from teachers to help shape the program.

They analyzed surveys, interviewed dozens of faculty members, and visited every classroom, many of them twice. After each visit, they wrote a thank-you note with a small appreciation of something they noticed. The response from teachers was so positive that Maggie, Li-Ling, and Shannon received thank-you notes for their thank-you notes.

What began as a gesture of kindness to build community has become an essential component of the program.

“We’re able to help fill a need that we didn’t really know existed,” Shannon shared. “Our teachers need to feel seen and heard, and we’re able to help them with this.”

Maggie added, “One thing teachers at Catlin have in common is such high standards for their work. Collectively, in every division, we start with what’s going well for kids and focusing on their strengths. But with ourselves, we start from the deficit model. So, to have someone come in and work from a strengths perspective it feels like, ‘Me? Really? I deserve this?’”

A day in the life

When you stop by CAC 251, you’ll find the cozy office space where the three coaches “reside” during the week. However, you might not see them there very often – their roles take them everywhere on campus.

They attend every faculty meeting; eat lunch in each division on a rotating basis; meet with teachers; observe in classrooms; lead small groups; collaborate with the Ed Lab team, counselors, and learning specialists; plan and attend meetings; and engage in lots of research.

They also are on every email list across campus, a herculean task to manage.

Because of their unique roles, Li-Ling, Maggie, and Shannon know at a granular level what is happening in each division – the energy, the vibe, what students are reading, what people talking about, and where the challenges are.

With this knowledge, coaches are well-equipped to help teachers explore questions on just about any topic, and the coaching program is highly adaptable.

For example, teachers expressed early on their desire to talk with other colleagues about their practice. In response, the coaches recently launched three small-group sessions on specific topics: building student resilience, culturally responsive teaching, and feedback.

Each small group will meet three times with two weeks in between each meeting. This structure will allow teachers to choose a strategy, try it out, come back together and share, tweak a little bit more, and then try it out again.

By teachers and for teachers

Coaching allows teachers to pause and reflect – with non-judgmental support – in order to improve an element of their teaching practice. “It’s figuring out something new and being excited by the new,” Maggie said. “I think working with adults and kids is like figuring out the coolest puzzle.”

And, research shows this type of embedded professional learning is highly effective. Teachers have already shared powerful stories of learning and positive change. Some have seen improved survey results from students, and others have experienced a boost in their own self-confidence. Most importantly, teachers have discovered that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

The coaches have already surpassed their own ambitious goals set in the beginning of the school year. They credit the willingness of teachers to be vulnerable, to ask questions, and to try new ideas.

If the ultimate goal of instructional coaching is to improve student learning, then the penultimate goal is to help teachers discover and refine ways of teaching and collaborating that are joyful and sustainable. And these coaches are helping to improve the learning environment here, one thank-you note at a time.

Li-Ling Cheng began teaching Mandarin Chinese in the Lower School in 2006. The following year, she moved to Middle School, where she continues to teach half time.

Shannon Rush joined Catlin Gabel in 2012 and currently serves as the math department chair. She previously taught math and worked as an instructional coach in the public schools in Bellingham, Washington.

Maggie Bendicksen has taught fourth and fifth grade at Catlin Gabel since 2002. Previously, she taught students from second grade through graduate school, and before that worked as a writer and editor