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Robbie Case Lecture explores teachers coaching teachers


October 3, 2012

By Fred Michah Rynor


Robert Pianta 2012-13 Robbie Case LecturerIt's not just kids that today's teachers can offer guidance and direction to ... they're pretty good at teaching their colleagues as well says Dr. Robert Pianta of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

"It's been our experience that both teachers and educational administrators are deeply appreciative of the value of coaching for teachers," Pianta told the packed crowd at the MaRS Discovery District during this year's Robbie Case Memorial Lecture.

Pianta is an avid supporter of having teachers observe their colleagues in the classroom via video and then making suggestions on how they can improve their teaching practices as well as their interactions with students. Pianta's research has shown a marked improvement in teacher achievement as a result of this cutting-edge initiative.

"Teachers experience the coaching as an opportunity for professional development that's relevant, challenging and supportive in their roles," states Pianta. "They're very engaged and they also feel less isolation and stress I think, largely because they have someone working with them who knows what their classroom experience is like. Administrators, on the other hand, value such coaching because it's effective for improving teacher practice and learning in children."

Pianta believes the reason most educators don't object or resist being observed in this manner is because they realize the purpose of this form of professional observation has the end result of improving their own professional development.

"They sometimes resist when they're told the only purpose of coaching evaluations is the possibility of negative decisions when it comes to pay raises and tenure situations," adds Pianta, "but our approaches to observation are used solely for professional improvement. When that's the goal, teachers are very cooperative and they see the benefits."

But some teachers at the lecture admitted they might be cautious about having administrators in their schools approach them with this kind of initiative but Pianta says this can be handled in a sensitive and caring manner.

"I suspect administrators, such as principals, already know teachers who could benefit from coaching — these may be staff members who are struggling in the classroom a bit," explains Pianta. "A good superior already has a relationship with teachers in which they should be able to mutually discuss professional development opportunities that might be helpful to them. It's in this context of dialogue that an administrator can make a suggestion. Also, some schools or school systems provide a menu of professional development options or they have district-wide programs and therefore coaching could be involved in these opportunities as well."

Embedding the Case lecture within the larger context of the launch of U of T's Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development (IHD) brought the subject of education to the forefront of the conference," states Janette Pelletier, Director of the Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at OISE, "while attendees were simultaneously thinking about issues of physiology, behavioural neurology, epigenetic research in medicine and psychology."

Pelletier believes this merging of disciplines "was an effective way to showcase the mission of the Fraser Institute and to consider its transdisciplinary importance."

"The lecture itself covered a lot of territory within the research program of Dr. Pianta and his colleagues but what stood out for me was the power of knowledge mobilization regarding effective intervention practices in education. In particular, I thought his professional development methodology, through the use of mentor training and video support for teachers in classrooms, was widely applicable to other contexts including Canada."

Pianta is both optimistic -- and cautious -- with the way education on all fronts is progressing.

"Teacher preparation institutions, usually in higher education, are starting to innovate and use more effective and contemporary methods for building trainees' knowledge and skills," he says, "but for the most part these programs and institutions are slow to change because there are very few pressures on them for accountability or innovation... a reality I hope changes soon.”

The Robbie Case Memorial Lecture is sponsored by OISE's Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study. This year it was held in cooperation with Investing in Mothers and Children, a Connaught Global International Symposium to mark the official opening of the IHD.