Extra Credit: Wins from K-12 Schools
The Teacher Support Program That Kept Growing Even Through the Pandemic
Two Coaches in North Carolina Share Tips for Schools to Boost Teacher Retention, Effectiveness
- By Kristal Kuykendall
As the harms of the pandemic continue to make themselves known across the U.S. public education system — teacher burnout at an all-time high and student achievement showing alarming drops — it may be surprising to hear how COVID-19 inadvertently helped a teacher support program become more impactful and nimble.
However, that is exactly what happened in North Carolina. There, a trial program offering coaching to new teachers, launched in 2011 as part of the federal Race to the Top initiative, has since grown into a thriving New Teacher Support Program available to school districts in 11 regions across the state.
The program was built on in-person coaching and mentoring for teachers in their first three years in the classroom. Now in its 12th year, the NTSP has 11 “partner institutions” from the University of North Carolina system (versus two when the program began); each university administers the program for their geographic region.
When COVID-19 prevented in-person coaching, observing, and co-teaching, the NTSP started using video. Support activities continued in full force: in the 2020–21 school year, 1,046 new teachers participated in NTSP, and afterwards, 89% of participating teachers reported they would be back.
The program has continued growing and has just under 1,400 teachers participating this school year, and data shows it is indeed helping the state retain teachers.
Two NC NTSP instructional coaches recently spoke with THE Journal about how the pandemic pivot actually added new tools to their coaching practice, and their insights about the program’s successes lead to actionable advice for school districts and state education leaders considering their own strategies for boosting teacher retention and classroom effectiveness.
Kyla Crews and Megan Romer, who both started their careers 13 years ago as elementary classroom teachers, now coach other teachers full-time, with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte chapter of the NTSP.
Their work is based on three pillars, Romer explained: planning, instruction, and assessment. Each coach is assigned 25 to 30 teachers for the school year, depending on the year and how many teachers are participating.
Every week, the teachers in NTSP meet with their coaches, either virtually or in person, and no two coaching sessions are alike.
And those are about it as far as hard-and-fast coaching rules go, they told THE Journal. Both Crews and Romer emphasized the non-evaluative nature of their roles and the importance of relationship-based coaching.
THE Journal: What is a typical week like for teachers and coaches in the NTSP?
Kyla Crews: No one week is the same. We typically establish a goal with our teachers in a coaching cycle, and we work on that goal for an extended period of time. Whatever capacity our teachers feel like they need us, is how we help. We may attend a planning session with them. We may attend instruction in their classrooms. We could be giving them feedback and observations, we could be planning with them, we could be co-teaching, we could be modeling lessons with them. So it really depends upon the needs of the students and the needs of the teachers, and what they would like to work on.
Megan Romer: Our weekly meetings with the teachers will be centered on one of the three pillars of our program – planning, instruction, assessment – but every teacher gets an individualized session with us every week, no the sessions are never the same across teachers.
THE Journal: How did the pandemic impact the NTSP and your coaching practices?
Romer: As soon as COVID started, we began utilizing video to help teachers see their practice in reality — you often don't see what you're doing necessarily in the moment, but when you get an opportunity to see it played back, you notice things and think, ‘Oh, I should have done this or I wish I would have said that.’ So now we use that video review and analyze the data — not just what we think, but hard facts — and then we help them either add to their lesson plans, model how they could utilize what the review and analysis showed us, or create assessments.
THE Journal: What is a key framework of a successful teacher-support program that you’ve experienced as particularly beneficial for the North Carolina NTSP?
Romer: With our program, we're non-evaluative; we're an outside entity. We create a space where our teachers feel they can feel vulnerable, they feel safe, they feel respected to try new things without having to worry about the judgment of their principal or of a coach within their building. I think that's one of the things that is key to our program — we build those relationships with our teachers so that they feel comfortable and safe saying “I can try this,” and if it's an epic fail, it’s OK, because we're going to refine it, we're going to practice. The teachers we work know we are going to support them in building and improving their practice and their impact within their classrooms.
THE Journal: What are some key signals that administrators or coaches should see as indicators that a teacher — for whatever reason — needs help to be more effective instructionally, or to feel less overwhelmed generally?
Crews: If you're a beginning teacher or really a teacher in general, you’ve got to just anticipate burnout, you know — it is coming. Administrators need to be proactive, especially with beginning teachers: try to avoid giving them extra tasks to do, extra committees to be on, those types of things. They should be checking in with their teachers during their planning periods, and making sure that they're not overworking themselves after school, making sure each new teacher is aligned with good mentors that are intentional about guiding them through their first three years.
Administrators should anticipate that there's going to be some burnout among teachers at different parts of the year, and anticipate when the burnout typically happens. We know that around holidays — coming back and transitioning back from the holidays — those are times where we really have to lean in and check on our beginning teachers, and make sure that social-emotional wellness priorities are met.
Romer: Anticipation is so important, and being proactive. If we wait to see some triggers — signs that teachers are overwhelmed or they're frazzled — they're then in a state where they may not be able to receive coaching in an authentic way. But if it's just the routine practice of a school or district that teachers get consistent and ongoing supports, tiered and individualized supports, then it’s possible to avoid your teachers reaching that totally overwhelmed, burned out state. Teachers will be happier overall and feel more valued. Burnout and stress is going to happen — that’s the nature of the job, any job — but having those built-in supports instead of waiting for a trigger or breaking point is important.
THE Journal: What should every school or district be doing to support new teachers even if they don’t have a budget for a full-on coaching program like yours?
Crews: Community-building is super important especially in the beginning of the year. A lot of times beginning teachers are new to the school as well. The community-building helps ensure they understand the lay of the land or the nuances that come with each school — the procedures, the routines, making sure they know those housekeeping items. Also, it’s important to check in with them to see if they have everything they need in the beginning of the year. Those are things any school or district leader can do right now that would feel like a ton of support for our beginning teachers.
Romer: Definitely building professional communities, like providing spaces where the teachers can collaborate with each other and get to know each other. Kyla and I did something this past year with the two of our districts: we created a collaborative huddle and took all of our beginning teachers’ contact information and shared it with the group. We did discussion posts, we did a Dear Abby Q&A to give scenarios of what might have happened or could have happened in various classroom situations, and we had everyone reply to it (with their own examples and stories), like ‘Oh, I've gone through the same thing.’ Boom, they just made a relationship with another teacher and they feel more comfortable now, they have a go-to person (for the next time a challenging situation comes up). We provided them with resources and monthly newsletters, with things like Onward tips from Elena Aguilar to help with managing their stress and self-care. And we connected them with other teachers in similar grade-level content areas. So building those communities, if they aren't doing it yet, would be like a really great thing to start.
THE Journal: If you could wave a magic wand and suddenly every district had one built-in teacher support in place no matter the cost, what would that be?
Crews: Protected time for teachers to decompress and really plan out everything they want to do, to make sure they have good quality lessons for their students. So if cost didn’t matter, I would have substitutes for every classroom teacher maybe once a quarter so the teachers could have protected space and time to go plan and get ahead in that area. Our program teachers say their planning time is always taken, they always have to compromise on it. So they're staying late after school, they're taking work home, and then they lose any healthy work-life balance.
Romer: I agree with that: having that protected planning time, administrators planning to have substitutes available — on a monthly basis would be idea — to allow teachers at least an hour to just plan with each other would be phenomenal. Other things I’d wish for would be quality materials for teachers to use so they can plan great lessons: research-based materials that teachers can use to teach students skills and content. I see a lot of teachers who spend a lot of time trying to find lesson content as they go along, but if we could just have just a bundle of resources that are rich and engaging, and classroom libraries for students to pick from — texts that they can relate to and they can see themselves in — that is so important. Students relate to things that they see themselves in.
And then of course, a coach, or a go-to support person from outside the school — someone who is similar to our position who is non-evaluative, non-biased. Like I have no stake in any of our teacher evaluations, and what is said about X, Y, and Z in sessions with our teachers is all confidential. We don't go talk to administrators. We don't go tell someone, ‘Oh gosh, Miss Smith’s lesson was terrible.’ Everything is strictly confidential between the teacher and I, and if it wasn't their best lesson, we say ‘It's OK, we will do better the next day. We can adjust it. What do you want to work on?’ Having somebody that is not necessarily in that in the school to support them does make a difference when the teachers feel that they can be authentic and vulnerable.
THE Journal: When you talk about ‘teacher collaboration,’ particularly at a school that has no formal support or collaboration program in place, what does that mean and what does it look like on the ground?
Crews: It is voice and choice for our teachers, realizing that they each have assets that they can bring, to collaborate and share with one another. Lots of research suggests that the biggest impact happens when we learn from each other, instead of someone just feeding us information all the time, lecture-style. So it is teachers being able to come together, collaborate, share their resources, lean on each other, problem-solve, and be thought partners with each other — in a safe environment where they’re not penalized for whatever they share is confidential. At any schools, teachers will be (asked to collaborate) in spaces where maybe there are some leaders in there. And then they tend to kind of pull back from sharing. So it needs to be a safe space where they can take risks, authentically share, and collaborate.
Romer: She hit the nail on the head. We need to trust our educators to be the educators that they are, right? They — and everyone — come with different skill sets. And everyone comes with different ideas. So creating that space where everyone can be heard, you can share what you're doing. School leaders can provide opportunities for teachers to go visit other teachers, to see other teachers in action. I learn best from what I see, right? I only know what I know, inside my four walls. But if I see Kyla teaching the same subject in a slightly different way, (inevitably at some point I will say) ‘Oh, why didn’t I think about that, I want to add that to my practice,’ or ‘I'm gonna snag that method or resource for my classroom.’ The more we can see others in in the field doing different things, creative and innovative activities in their classrooms, you can then take it and make it your own. In this way, collaboration among teachers is adding strategies and tools to everyone's toolbox.”