Coaching Strategies to Support Personalized Learning

Collaboration Montage

Nancy Meisenger, instructional coach at the Kaneland Community Unit School District 302 in Illinois, advocates her seven qualities of instructional coaches necessary to support the implementation of personalized learning.


s we progress in our quest to bring personalized learning into our classrooms, it's an exciting time to be an instructional coach! We're facing new approaches and strategies that we may not have implemented ourselves when we were in the classroom. In reflecting on my journey in this role, there are crucial qualities of instructional coaches that have emerged in this arena and while each of these may be true of instructional coaching in general, I think it's important to reflect how it may be unique to the personalized learning journey in particular.

Take Ownership of the Vision

As with any instructional approach, it's important to truly believe in what we're supporting or promoting as coaches. The potential inhibitor is the time and experience it takes to develop a comprehensive understanding of this new vision because we're truly learning alongside our teacher colleagues within our district, as well as those in our professional learning networks. To continue to grow, we must research, read, explore classrooms inside the district and our online professional network to can gain new perspectives, and align with a variety of colleagues in the same boat as us. We're in this together and can build a stronger vision as a team!

Be Patient

Naturally, we're eager to support our teachers, but we have to find the balance between sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm to meet them where they are. As we work alongside teachers seeking to explore and implement personalized learning, there are plenty of questions for us to field. It's our job not only consider those questions but to ask questions that will give our teachers the opportunity to form their own ideas about their approach.

One question that I've heard several times is, "When will I know that my instruction is personalized?" This is a challenging question to answer because personalized learning is a process—it's unfortunately not black and white as to whether it's happening in a classroom. To help, I always refer to the continuum of control that shifts a teacher-directed room to student-driven setting. We can ask:

  • What have you done to empower your students in your classroom?
  • How are your students taking ownership already?
  • What else can you do to support students?

Teachers realize that they have naturally implemented some of the building blocks for personalized learning in their classroom already. However, releasing control to students is a bit intimidating for some teachers. As teachers learn about personalized learning, many believe that students will be in complete control—determining what, when, and how they'll learn. While that may be the case in some instances, it's not true in all; there are still instances when students are meeting as a whole group, or in small groups for guided instruction.

Personalized learning is not a free-for-all, it's actually very intentional. As a coach, we must help teachers understand that they can determine where and when this personalization can occur. To begin, teachers simply start with just selecting the process, the content, or the product. This would be a great step to tackle with them! As a heads up, it may take a while for these concepts of personalized learning to sink in. Often times we are offering food for thought and they will come back later once they have had a chance to digest our conversation.

Consider Competency Over a Curricular Timeline

Think about going beyond our usual boundaries and explore the concept of students progressing through a unit of study based on competency, rather than seat time. Jim Rickabaugh outlines the shifts in personalized learning in chapter 4 of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders. Jim's resource is an excellent tool to develop an understanding of the pedagogy shift with personalized learning: it moves us beyond the voice and choice of personalized learning into actual, purposeful learning that advances with demonstrated competency on identified learning targets and feedback.

We explore many avenues of competency-based learning or proficiency-based progress in our district at all levels. Avoid the misconception that personalized learning is students working on a computer program that allows them to advance at their own pace. In fact, teachers have an active role in this process as there are still mini-lessons, conferences, and targeted feedback happening on an as needed basis.

Get Your Hands Dirty

As in any coaching cycle, the true partnership between teacher and coach is imperative. While teachers who've been pioneering personalized learning have expressed that there's a lot of work in the planning stages, they relish in the experience of students taking the lead in their learning. Once the unit is planned, the day-to-day workload decreases and the plans then can be tweaked and improved for future use. With that in mind, some teachers may be reluctant when considering this workload. That's where we as coaches can step in and share the burden from planning to implementing to reflection. In this process, we can build our own toolbox of successful strategies and gain a shared understanding of what we are asking teachers to do.

Be a Liaison

Being involved in a full coaching cycle with teachers allows us to be armed with the best toolbox in connecting teachers with each other. We all know that there are perceptions of what is happening in any given classroom, but is it truly the reality? By becoming part of the classroom's personalized learning journey, our ability to connect teachers with the right colleagues becomes even more powerful. We can then engage teachers in learning walks or video learning opportunities that will help them move further along the continuum.

Allow Students to Tell their Story

Personalized learning is student-centered. It promotes student empowerment, yet we still face reluctant teachers who don't believe there is data to show that it works. We can use our students' voices as qualitative data to show that the engagement and benefits that they express are worth it. Here are a few examples of student reflection:

Model the Vision

Most interactions with teachers in our buildings are job-embedded. However, one of our roles of being instructional coaches is to contribute to district- or county-wide professional development. Not only in consideration of adult-learning theory but also to support our district vision, coaches should be intentional about modeling personalized learning in these settings. I developed two sessions that included multiple components of personalized learning. In both of these sessions, the feedback I received was more positive than the traditional mode of a sit-and-get session that involved some interaction.

Example PD: Skills-Based Session on Sphero Robots (2 hours)

This session was inspired by Nancy Sulla's book, Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active Technology-Infused Classroom. The session provided teachers with an opportunity to explore how they could integrate the use of the Sphero robot in their instruction. With attendees from all over our county, there was no way of knowing what each person's entry point was. So, I created four pathways for teachers to select what they wanted to learn and set them free. Teachers worked at their own pace, we had mini-lessons on an as-needed basis and teachers left with not only having learned skills that were at their level, but experienced what it was like to be a student in a personalized learning setting.

Final Note

Road Sign - Nancy

A teacher's role in personalized learning is more important now than ever. Teachers are working to provide targeted feedback to their students and allow them to attain mastery in a manner that promotes lifelong learning for that student.

As we continue to give our students rich opportunities for discussion, choice throughout their day, and clear learning expectations, we are well on our way to personalized learning for our students. We can't use GPS, Maps, or Waze to get there; there's no optimal route. What matters is that we are learning along the way, and adapting to what works best for our students. Encourage your teachers to enjoy the journey and to not hesitate to reach out to an instructional coach to travel alongside them.

About our Guest Blogger

Nancy Meisenger is in her second year as an instructional coach at the Kaneland Community Unit School District 302 in Illinois. During her 13 years as part of the Kaneland family, she's served as a STEM coach and a literacy special teacher. Prior to Kaneland CUSD 302, Nancy was a reading interventionist and fourth grade teacher in California, and a bilingual teacher in District 87 in Illinois. Her diverse educational experiences and opportunities to gain perspectives from varying districts have fueled her passion for seeing the big picture and supporting teachers as they seek to meet student needs. Nancy believes in working alongside teachers as partners in education.

Follow Nancy at @LightUpLiteracy and be sure to check out the Kaneland Elementary Coaches blog!

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