Homer Middle School teacher benefits from virtual coaching

Once burnt out to the point of switching professions, middle school teacher Darcy Mueller is starting off this year more refreshed than ever after having benefited from professional coaching through a national program.

A teacher for nine years, Mueller said she was nearing the end of her rope two years ago. She currently teaches eighth grade Language Arts at Homer Middle School.

“I was just working so hard and just totally burnt out,” she said.

Mueller saw an opportunity to be paired with a personal teaching coach through BetterLesson, a company based in Massachusetts that specializes in instructional training for teachers. Mueller was paired with Julie Mason, an instructional coach living in Boston.

During the first meeting, via Skype, Mueller said she was up front with Mason about being close to quitting teaching.

“I usually try to get a pulse on what a teacher feels he or she does really well,” Mason said, as well as what they think they can work on.

Mason said it was clear from the first conversation that Mueller was a strong teacher.

“What had become challenging for her was that she was doing the heavy lifting, she was trying to wrangle the students and run the show,” Mason said.

Besides shifting instruction practices among teachers, part of BetterLesson’s philosophy is shifting instructional ownership onto students. This gives teachers more room to breathe and to focus on one-on-one instruction.

It was quickly decided that getting Mueller away from the front of the classroom was going to be a goal of the coaching.

“She was really supportive,” Mueller said of Mason.

She said their early conversations focused on things Mueller needed to shift in the classroom so she wouldn’t be so burnt out.

“Something I wanted to work on was giving the students more ownership,” Mueller said.

Mason and Mueller worked on implementing blended learning — a teaching method that integrates online media — into her classroom that first year of coaching. Mason, who meets with teachers every two weeks during the school year, helped Mueller craft completely different kinds of lesson plans, kinds that took a lot of work up front to create and organize, but that required much less of Mueller’s work once the students got started on them.

Choice boards are one example of this.

When Mueller presents them to her students, they are given the assignments they have to complete, but are allowed to choose what order to complete them in. Mueller also learned to implement rotating stations during work time, in which she stays rooted at one station that all the kids eventually cycle through.

In all, the coaching and new teaching methods Mason helped Mueller develop have helped her cut down on the amount of time she spends actively dictating to her students.

It increases the amount of time she gets to help them one-on-one, and it gives the students more control over their own day.

“I’m not standing up in front of my kids doing standard dictation,” Mueller said. “…I don’t have to fight for their attention. That was really part of my burnout, was getting frustrated with classroom behavior.”

The first year of implementing these new practices was not without challenges, Mueller said.

“They looked at me with these deer in the headlight looks,” she said of her students when she first presented them with the choice board.

In her second year of coaching with Mason, Mueller’s goals were to encourage peer critique and self-reflection in students. She accomplished this by having them review their own composition notebooks every quarter and report on what they were most proud of, what they needed to work on and more.

“The kids were just so thoughtful,” Mueller said of the process. “You can’t learn unless you reflect and make shifts, and then keep going forward.”

Mason also helped Mueller implement content-based assignments. In one example, Mueller had her students create their own grading rubrics for three assignments — one was art-based, another writing-based and the third was music-based. Mueller grouped the students according to their own interests; the musically-inclined students created the rubric for how the music assignment would be judged, and so on.

Though the funding that allowed Mueller to receive coaching from Mason ran out this year, Mueller is excited to continue implementing what she’s learned.

“I hope I can keep the momentum going,” she said.

The pair got along so well during the coaching, in fact, that they’ve started their own podcast and website, both called Classroom Crusaders, dedicated to sharing their experience and advice for other teachers.

The experience was beneficial for Mason, too.

Not only did Darcy feel more energized and excited about teaching, I felt more energized and excited about coaching, because we were both all in,” she said.

Mason joined BetterLesson two years ago after teaching for eight years, including middle and high school English in New York City public schools. She, along with many others, noticed the shift in education with the onset of technology. She sought the answer to how teachers were going to use technology in a meaningful way in their classrooms.

Mason said her perspective on teaching has really changed since she became a coach with BetterLesson. It’s made her think differently about what challenges teachers face across the board.

“Often as a teacher, you go to a workshop or for professional development and you get all these great ideas,” Mason said. “… but then you go back to your classroom and you don’t have any ongoing support for how you’re going to make those things work within your own classroom.”

That’s where BetterLesson coaches come in. Mason said her work has been exciting because, as opposed to in-school coaching, interacting with teachers online gives her more range.

“When you’re in a school you often are a literacy coach or a math coach,” she said. “You’re very much ensconced in that district. Because we do virtual coaching, I work with teachers all over the country.”

Mason said individual coaching for teachers is important because, no matter how much a teacher may love what they do, they face many barriers when it comes to actually getting the job done. The support piece an outside, objective couch offers can make teacher feel like someone has their back, she said.

“Having a person who is there fore you and wants to help you grow is really important,” Mason said. “So much of what they (teachers) do is give to students, but they also need opportunities to grow and develop.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.