In this episode of Impacting the Classroom, our host Marnetta Larrimer meets with two of Teachstone's own: Dorothy Sanchez and Claudia Perez. They discuss the need for equitable coaching practices in the classroom and how coaches can build better relationships with the teachers they partner with. Listen here, or read the transcript below!



Read the Full Transcript

Marnetta: Hello, listeners. Welcome back to Impacting the Classroom, the podcast that talks about big topics that have an even bigger impact in early education. I'm your host, Marnetta Larrimer.

If you've been listening for a while, you know that one of our themes that's come up over and over again is this push toward equity throughout the early childhood system. We've talked about the need to be more aware of our own unconscious biases and how schools can create more welcoming environments in their cultures.

Today, we're digging deeper by specifically addressing equity in coaching. With me today are Claudia Perez and Dorothy Sanchez. Thank you guys so much for joining us. Can you guys each tell us a little bit about yourself?

Claudia: Sure. I'm so excited to be here. I have been working in the early childhood field for close to a decade now, which is crazy closely with Dorothy. Actually, we've shared very similar paths. We've had the wonderful pleasure of working with teachers along the way. I was also a teacher coach, which, I have to say, has been my absolute favorite role in my journey. I am Cuban raised in Miami, currently living in Los Angeles. I'm loving it.

Marnetta: Wonderful.

Dorothy: I'm Dorothy Sanchez. Like Claudia said, yes, we've shared very similar paths. I got involved in the early childhood world back when I was an undergraduate research assistant, and fell in love with it.

After graduating, Claudia and I helped to develop a coaching model to the University of Miami. We coached infant, toddler, preschool teachers, at Early Head Start and Head Start all across Miami-Dade County. That's what we were doing up until we joined the Teachstone team.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Yeah, I neglected to say ta-da. Hello, co-workers.

Dorothy: We're all one family.

Marnetta: Right, one big whole family, whether here or in the field. I had a little nugget that I was unaware of. When you were at University of Miami, you said you guys created this coaching model. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Dorothy: We really took the best of a few different coaching models. It was an amalgamation of practice-based coaching, which is really popular, really effective, and really widely used in Head Start models. And cognitive coaching, which is really more used in the adult learning world in different fields, but still really impactful.

Our focus was on building the capacity of educators and building their reflective muscle. As coaches, we thought it was really important to get teachers to observe children and really reflect on what they were able to do, to get children to progress in the ways that they wanted them to progress, to meet the goals that the teachers wanted, to meet the goals that the teachers decided were important for children. Really helping teachers to see just how effective they were, and to extend those effective practices and effective interactions to other times of the day in a bunch of different contexts.

A big guiding principle of our coaching was having it be child-centered. We've really helped teachers focus on, what is it that you want your kids to be able to do? What is it that they're ready for? What do you think is important to emphasize in what they're doing? And just being thinking partners. Claudia and I were talking about this earlier, really helping teachers think and reflect on what they could do to get children to where they wanted to go.

Claudia: A lot of it was also play-based learning focus and heavy as well on the observation piece. Something that I think was really cool about the coaching model is that as coaches, we were always very aware of this parallel process, so really practicing what we preach and everything that we know is so important for educators to do with children. We would also make sure that we were enacting those same things in our coaching. It was lovely and I miss it.

Marnetta: It sounds like a great thing that you guys created. How did it focus or help teachers to be more mindful of equitable experiences in the classroom?

Dorothy: That's a great point. Claudia, do you want to take that?

Claudia: Sure. Dorothy, I know you probably have a lot more to say on this, but I think that's something that we really focused on was, like I said, using observation and spending a lot of time on getting teachers to really out of the action, because in the moment, in the classroom, there's just so much going on and it's really hard to see everything.

We made use of a lot of video recordings to reflect on what we were observing in the child. What were the children doing? How are they reacting? How are they responding? What are some maybe nonverbal cues that, in the moment, we didn't pick up on? And what is this telling us about the child?

In a way, this was really allowing teachers to take a moment to see every single child and the whole child, their interests, their abilities, their preferences, their preferred methods of communication, what they were responding to better than others. They really have the time to look at every child and be responsive to every child. I think it was really great.

Dorothy: And encouraging them to reflect on the why of every child, and really understanding that each behavior that we're seeing from children is a communication. They're trying to tell us something with what they're saying, with what they're doing, with where they're looking, with their actions. Having those video snippets and really, really targeting our focus on, all right, let's observe this one child, what do you see them doing? Do you see excitement in their eyes? What do you see? What do you hear them saying?

Really spending a lot of time on each child was really helpful. It helped teachers to be more mindful, even in the action, because we were practicing that reflective muscle out of the action during our meetings with them, but then they would start noticing things before we would even ask, which was the best feeling going into a meeting and the teacher being the one to be like, oh, my goodness, I noticed that this child was able to draw this way. He's never drawn that way before, and look at everything he's been able to accomplish, and he really focused today.

It was really exciting to see how teachers were able to really appreciate every single child for what they were able to do and what their unique interests and abilities are. I think it really helped teachers care so much for their children. It was just really nice to be able to focus on that for a while.

Marnetta: I love it. You have these teachers who are able to meet children where they are, and then support them individually, like you said, as unique individuals that they are, and being able to see that in a whole different way, because they were able to step back and just see it play out before and be like, aha, right?

Dorothy: Right.

Marnetta: There's just so much joy in those ahas, those little light bulbs you see pop up above people's heads when they make that connection. What did they notice? They did the reflecting, they looked, and they saw these children. They're learning how to interact with them in a way that supports them as individuals, what changes did they see in the classroom?

Claudia: I think some magic that we saw happen was the teachers were really able to, like Dorothy was saying, see the why behind behaviors, and then reframe their own interpretation of the behavior, and then they were able to build on that. Something that we focused on at times was if there was a teacher who was having a hard time with a child, she was not understanding what their needs were or the child was crying a lot, we would focus specifically on that child, and specifically look for those challenging moments or behaviors and really trying to, like a puzzle piece, just understand.

Once they understood, I think teachers were then able to know exactly how to support that child. That's the beauty of it. These teachers are experts in their classrooms. They know so much. They are in it day in and day day out. They have such an incredible toolbox. The moment that they were able to understand that why, they knew exactly how to support that child.

These teachers are experts in their classrooms. They know so much. They are in it day in and day day out.

Dorothy: What we heard teachers say a lot was that things were going a lot more smoothly because they knew what to do and they knew when to do it. They knew how to be proactive in the support that they provided, because they had taken the time to get to know what each child needed.

We supported them in really setting up the environment to be as supportive as possible for the number of children that were going to be involved in an experience for who those children particularly were. If we know that there's a child who may prefer to use a different kind of material, all right, let's plan for that. Let's plan to include that different kind of material.

If there's a child who speaks more Creole than English, what material can we provide for that child? How can you ask that child that same question in Creole so that they get the most out of that experience, too? Helping them plan and be proactive in the support that they provided just really helped things go a lot more smoothly. It really helped them to see how children were meeting the developmental goals that they had set for them.

Marnetta: Children feel seen and valued in those types of settings. The teacher really cares about me, oh, that's in my language. I'm there with you when we foster those deep connections, those interactions that really help children to succeed.

Claudia: Exactly. I think what I was going to add is that I think it also opened up this door of curiosity for teachers at times because sometimes it was a simple fix, like, oh, maybe I shouldn't put out this material at this time of the day or maybe I shouldn't put out the food before I'm ready for them to eat and that kind of thing.

Sometimes, it was a little bit more complex as far as what does this look like at home? Or what is this child's custom at home or routine, dining routine or eating routine? Where are they coming from, and how can I connect with families to make that bridge?

Sometimes it was, like Dorothy said, just bringing a material from home to the classroom or just using a word in the child's preferred language to greet the child. That already changes the whole dynamic of that morning entry. I think that curiosity of wow, there's this whole other world at home outside of the classroom, and how can I partner with families with something really, really nice?

Dorothy: We also help to facilitate those conversations and those exchanges between teachers and families, making sure that that was a two-way communication and a two-way street, where a teacher, because she was so observant about what children were able to do, what they love to do in the classroom, what they said, and what they accomplished, those are things that now the teacher shares with the families, talks to the families about, and asks them just like Claudia said, how does this happen at home?

What are they able to do at home? What does he like to draw at home? What do they like to build? What do they like to play with? And then bringing that back into the classroom to, like Claudia said, make that connection. That was also a big part of what we did with teachers.

Marnetta: So many parallels with what we do here at CLASS. How to improve or connect to the real world and really integrate those concepts for children for that higher learning, thinking process is so important.

We've talked a lot about coaching. I just jumped right in because you guys were saying some things that just led me into that. Let's talk more about the role that instructional coaches play in education. We've already ascertained, we're not talking about soccer coaches or gym class. Tell me a little bit more about what we mean when we talk about coaching.

Claudia: I love that question, Marnetta. I love that you're asking that because we almost take it for granted. We just assume that we're all on the same page about what a coach is. I think many people would say something like a mentor, but I think that word implies that one person holds more knowledge or expertise over the other.

Yes, coaches bring a lot of valuable knowledge around ideas, and different teaching strategies and practices, and ideas for content, but educators really are the experts of the classroom. Like I said, they're in it day in, day out, and they know their children better than anyone.

We always say that coaches are thinking partners. Partners don't really make decisions for one another. Partners listen to and respect one another. It's the same thing with instructional coaches. They don't simply tell teachers what to do. Coaches create those conditions that really empower educators to take control over their learning. They share observations, they ask questions to spark their thinking, and really get them moving along, like you said, that thinking.

Coaches are thinking partners. Partners don't really make decisions for one another. Partners listen to and respect one another.

Back when we were coaching, we would say that we were the bumpers down a bowling lane. We're just there to ask this question, and share something that I noticed, like bring out the video and think together. But coaches are not just coming in and taking over. 

I also think that being a friend and a confidant is so important. Educators oftentimes don't have the time and space to vent and just talk about their own feelings and how hard this work is. They also need that space and that person to be there with them and for them and just listen.

As we know, learning happens within the context of relationships. It's not just relationships as in coming in and saying, hey, I love that shirt your wearing today. It's more than that. It's that partnership-building every single time that you're talking, hearing them, valuing their ideas, validating their feelings, really being there with them and for them every single time that you share contact together.

Marnetta: You mentioned that parallel process earlier. You're modeling what those relationships look like in the classroom as well. It's good for everyone, just like they need that from you. Those children need that from them. It's a great way to really tie those concepts together for them as well.

Dorothy: Marnetta, you mentioned earlier that the relationships that we helped support between teachers and children really helped children feel seen, valued, heard, and welcomed. The same thing that coaches need to do for educators and teachers is really help educators feel seen, valued, and authentically really respected. There's so much de-professionalization. I'm not sure if that's a real word.

Marnetta: It's real today.

Dorothy: Yeah, it is now. There's this idea that the early childhood world is not as professional as other fields. There is so much wrong with that. We know how hard the work is that teachers have to do. We know the dedication, the effort, and the time that it takes.

There's this idea that the early childhood world is not as professional as other fields. There is so much wrong with that.

We need to make sure that we are giving teachers that space in that respect and that time to make sure that they really feel supported in what they can do. It's a really difficult job. It’s a lot of things to keep in mind at once.

A coach's job is to make sure that, just like Claudia said, the conditions are set up to make sure that the teacher can be successful, because that's what we need for children to be successful. It all goes back to the child, but the relationship between the coach and the teacher is really an important one.

Marnetta: It is. They have to be able to trust you—trust is an important factor—but they also have to be able to rely on you as a credible resource. It's also the respect of showing up when you say you're going to show up, providing those things when you say that you're going to provide those things, because those types of inactions impact those relationships and their ability to grow as professionals as well.

Dorothy: Yeah.

Marnetta: If teaching best practices are universal, why does diversity and representation matter when it comes to coaching?

Dorothy: Diversity and representation and especially authentic representation, always matter in every context. When it comes to coaching—and we can tie this back to that parallel process—for children, it's important to see each one as a unique individual. Teachers are unique individuals as well.

It's really important to make sure that we respect each person's unique individuality, that we respect their cultural backgrounds or linguistic backgrounds. Respect, honor that, value that, and make sure that that partnership that we build is within a context of, like you said, mutual trust and mutual respect. What better way to show that respect than to make sure that you are giving that space for that variation to be there.

It ties back to CLASS too. We know that there are these interactions that are core and beneficial for all children, but we know that those interactions can look different based on so many different things. Effective interactions can vary based on cultural background, based on developmental variation, based on the setting, based on the context. It's the same principle.

A partnership between a coach and a teacher can vary and it can look different. It can be effective when there is that trust, when there is that respect and that validation, that openness including the teachers cultural context in the conversations and the children's cultural context in the conversations, too.

Claudia: And I think, like Dorothy said, it's so important for a coach to come in knowing that there's so much variation and saying, hey, there's not this one way of creating a classroom community, showing affection, and of creating connections. I wonder how this educator demonstrates affection with their children.

Just having that awareness, acknowledging that variation, coming in with that open mind, that sense of wonder and curiosity about what that looks like in this learning setting between this educator and these children, is already huge.

Marnetta: I have a question and it's around representation. Have you ever had any barriers in regard to building relationships with any of your teachers due to the lack of seeing themselves in the people who are coming to support them?

Dorothy: We were really intentional about the ways that we tried to support teachers and make sure that we had as much of that representation as possible. I think one of the challenges is that Miami is such a multicultural community. We have a really big population that speaks Haitian Creole, and there were some teachers that was their primary language. We did not have a coach that spoke Haitian Creole.

There was a little bit of difficulty there. Truthfully, it is difficult sometimes to really try to meet everybody where they are. I think that's why that openness and that respect is so important, and making sure that as a coach, you're not coming in with your decisions already made, that you're not coming in with a fixed mindset, that you're coming in with curiosity, like Claudia said, with questions, with that openness, because we first have to acknowledge that we don't know everything.

Not one single person can relate to every single other person, but we can make sure that we're making that space, and respecting that, and knowing that you're coming into a different cultural context.

Observing, waiting, watching, learning, as much as you are, those bumpers, we also have to take that time to learn. More often than not, we were able to really get past those first few challenges because we approached everything with openness, curiosity, respect, and ended up establishing some wonderful partnerships with our teachers.

I think language is the first and foremost barrier that you have to make sure you can overcome. Thankfully, we have lots of bilingual coaches that were able to just do coaching fully in Spanish with our Spanish-speaking teachers.

Marnetta: Did you want to add anything, Claudia?

Claudia: I guess, yes, because I'm talking. That language match is so critical. I think, sometimes, there are teachers that they speak a second language, but it's not the language they are most comfortable in or the language that they can really go full length in.

I think it's so important that when possible, the coach does speak the educator's preferred language, because if there's not a cultural match, that's all right. I can come in and learn so much about how this educator interacts, and does things, and what their views are. But as long as we speak both fluently the same language, I just think that that access is so important.

Marnetta: Thank you so much for adding that. How can program leaders ensure more diversity among their coaches? What are your recommendations for that?

Dorothy: Claudia, do you want to say what you were thinking up first?

Claudia: Yeah. We were chatting about this. I think before even going out to try to diversify and find more coaches, it's just really just getting to know who is on their team first. Who's on my staff? Who are my educators?

What cultural communities do they come from? What are their preferences? Who are they and what are they like? I think it's just step one. Dorothy, you were going to add something.

Dorothy: I think that an important and a second step, I guess, the first step is you really take some time to get to know who your people are. Secondly, I think that there is a way to build internal capacity to make sure that the leaders and the coaches that you bring into your team, what better way to make sure there's representation then to build that capacity from that own internal community?

Really hoping to secure those supports in the languages that your educators speak, helping to facilitate some communities of practice, where educators can help to bring each other up and really help each other's practice. Through that, you're building this own little community of peer-to-peer coaches.

A coach doesn't have to be somebody external that comes. It doesn't have to be somebody that you have to go out, search, and find. You have to find this expert in the field. Not at all, there's so much experience that educators have that they bring to the table that can help other educators. We know that there's so much turnover.

We know that there are a lot of new teachers coming in. Let's take teachers that do have this experience, build their capacity, really help them to facilitate communication with other teachers, and take some of these newer teachers under their wing and really help them peer-to-peer coaching, I think is a really great way to start building that from your own internal staff, your own internal team.

Marnetta: Wonderful. There's something else on the tip of your tongue, was there?

Dorothy: I also think that there are a lot more tools now at people's disposal. If the pandemic taught us one thing, it's that a lot of things can be done virtually. I think that there are more and more ways to build people's capacity now and more and more resources that are becoming more readily available in multiple different languages.

It's difficult. We're not saying this is easy. Finding coaches and leaders that perfectly represent who your team is... we're not saying that's easy. What we're saying is that there are more things that are becoming readily available that can help you build capacity and help you connect with others that have the same shared goals.

We know that there are a CLASS Learning Community that helps to bring a lot of different people together across a whole myriad of roles, across a lot of different locations. I think that there are ways to find supportive communities that are more common now than it was ever before.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Thank you for adding that. See, I knew there was something else. We've got this diversity amongst our coaches. We are building them at an internal capacity, as you suggested. How do we foster more equitable coaching practices from those coaches? What would you tell program leaders?

Claudia: Wow, what a question. I think there are several things, but I think one of the most important things is building off what we were saying earlier. At the very least, have our coaches engage. It doesn't have to be something that's extremely lengthy or time consuming, but some forms of diversity and equity training that expose them to this awareness and bring awareness to their own individual self that they are an individual self and that we all have our ways of being.

We all bring so much uniqueness and amazing differences and diversities to what we do every single day, even when we are from similar or the same cultural communities. I would say that training around supporting coaches in understanding how to acknowledge and reduce their own biases and what they bring to the table, but also this sense of wonder and curiosity as an initial approach.

That should always be the approach. Especially in the early phases of coaching, it's just so critical because even if there is not a cultural match, even if you know nothing about the background of this educator and these children, you can still engage in equitable coaching practices and honor and value that if you come in with the right approach.

Yes, cultural match and language match is always the ideal, but of course, there are limitations. Sometimes, it's not feasible. I think, to not feel discouraged by that if leaders don't have access to maybe a very diverse coaching tool, just taking the right approach is still such an important, powerful, and effective road.

Dorothy: In addition to making sure that the people on your team that have the responsibility of coaching engage in those training and professional experiences around acknowledging their bias and reducing their bias, I think there's also a part about making sure that you have the right people in decision-making roles.

Not only having the diversity in your coaches, but also making sure that the people who are deciding how that coaching is going to happen, how often, what it's going to look like, what you're going to focus on, making sure that the people who are involved in those decisions are the people who are also going to do that work.

That might mean getting all of your teachers together, understanding what their priorities and goals are, really coming together and thinking about who are our children, what do they need from us, us as teachers, how can we as coaches really work together to support all of that, and really helping to facilitate this partnership between teachers and coaches, where everyone has an equal footing on the decision making table?

Making sure that when you're deciding on a coaching model, talk to your teachers and gather information about what their communication preferences are, what their availabilities are, how they want to support children, in what context they want to support children in. Are they already engaging in certain kinds of experiences? How can we support them?

Making sure that teachers are just as much in that decision-making process as the people that you're giving that responsibility to coach is a really important part of equity. Making sure that you're not making decisions for people. You're making decisions with the people that you're asking to do this work.

Claudia: I love that so much, Dorothy. Imagine how much more enjoyable and how much more open educators would be to coaching if they were a part of designing and determining what that coaching is going to look like. How incredible would that be?

Marnetta: Another parallel process, imagine that. Following their lead, right? They're interested in it and building around that, imagine that.

Dorothy: It seems so simple, but we know that it's not easy. We know that it's not typically how people think about coaching and engaging teachers. But yeah, it sounds so simple.

Marnetta: A lot of times you think of coaching as some type of punitive thing. I did something wrong and now here comes this person to tell me how to do it right instead of it being this collaborative effort just to elevate our practices. There's nothing wrong. You're doing all these amazing things. I'm here to support you to get even more of that in there.

Claudia: A funny story about that, Marnetta, when Dorothy and I started coaching, we just weren't as tainted and we didn't know all the darker sides of some of the stuff that goes on in our field. We walked into the classrooms and we were like, oh, my God, teachers are going to be so excited that we are coaching them. What a pleasure, and they were all like, oh, no.

Almost every single teacher was like, are you here because I did something wrong or I am not doing well and I need the most help? And I'm like, what? No. That is how, sadly, coaching is portrayed oftentimes and how it is treated.

Teachers have been scarred by some negative, not very respectful experiences. I think, just as a field, we need to do better and we need to align on some of these not easy to implement, but so, so, so important practices.

As a field, we need to do better and we need to align on some of these not easy to implement, but so, so, so important practices.

Marnetta: Everybody needs to grow. It's always great to have a partner in that growth.

Dorothy: Exactly. It makes the whole process a lot easier when you have that thinking partner, when you have somebody that you can show you clips of what your children were able to do, and what you've been able to do, and that can think through things with you and provide some more ideas, and help you think of solutions to things that you want to focus on.

A big part of what we would always remind ourselves in the big state of mind was as a coach, this is not my classroom, this is not my program. This is this teacher's classroom. I'm coming in and they're allowing me to come in. They're offering me the opportunity to come in and spend time with them, spend time with their children, and help them accomplish what they set out to do. I'm not here to tell them how to do their job.

It was difficult to get teachers to believe us at first, but the actions spoke louder than the words. We told them at first, hey, we're not here to tell you what to do, we're here to support you. At first, they were like, yeah, sure. But then the more that we met with them and the more that we engaged in these really reflective collaborative conversations, we got to the point that we were asking them questions, and they were like, just tell me what to do. Don't ask me any more questions, just tell me. We were like, you've got this.

Claudia: When we would ask them questions, at first, they thought we were quizzing them. We're like, no, no, we genuinely want to know what you think about this. They just thought it was like a test and I was just like, oh, no. We need to do better, everybody. Why should that be the default?

Like Dorothy said, eventually, they really trusted us and knew that we were just thinking with them, and that we weren't out to get them, and that we're trying to do best together. It took a while, but we got there.

Marnetta: I appreciate that story. I could just imagine. I literally just pictured you guys going in there and like, hello, world, and they're like, whoa, back up, like, what are you doing here? But I appreciate you sharing that story, because that's a true obstacle.

It's just like what you guys said, if you're intentional about how you're going to approach this in a way that is respectful and understanding that we're dealing with professionals here, they've got this, they do this every day, they don't really need us, but we need them. Our mindset is right as we're engaging in this process. It's just valuable for everyone involved.

Claudia: Totally.

Dorothy: Exactly. There's an anecdote that we always share too. There are some data points that we gather right at the beginning. When we were recruiting teachers to be a part of this coaching, we asked teachers, how interested are you in receiving coaching? And so many of them said that they weren't. But when we asked them if they wanted to receive help in supporting the children in their classroom, all of them said yes, every single one.

A huge part of an equitable coaching approach is to align on your shared goals. What we made sure to do was align on that shared goal of supporting the children in the classroom. That's why we're all here and that's why we're all doing this. Keeping that in mind, every single conversation we had every single time, it was about the kids.

A huge part of an equitable coaching approach is to align on your shared goals.

Aligning on that goal, realigning, and making sure that we were asking teachers what they wanted to focus on, we were thinking about the children, we were thinking about what each child individually needed. We're not telling teachers what to do. Making those decisions with them helped us to enact that equity in our coaching and make sure that we were just keeping focused on that shared goal. I think that really helped to move our coaching forward.

Marnetta: Wonderful. Believe it or not, we're out of time. It went by really fast, didn't it? Thank you both for joining me today. I'm so happy we were able to have this very important discussion.

Dorothy: Thank you, Marnetta.

Claudia: For giving us a space and bringing up this really important topic.

Dorothy: Thank you, Marnetta. This was such a pleasure.

Marnetta: Awesome. You guys can find today's episode and transcript on our website, As always, behind great leading and teaching are powerful interactions. Let's build that culture together. Thanks, guys.


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