Coaching The Destreamers

Submitted by STAO Member Brad Dixon @TeachingMrDixon

Guelph CVI, Destreaming Coach, Minor Head of Science, Math and Science Teacher

Upper Grand District School Board @ugdsb

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to not only teach grade 9 destreamed, but also help coach teachers as they navigate through this process. As a result, I’ve put lots of time and devoted effort into reflecting on what has worked, and what has not. This is a set of lessons I have learned over the last year about helping myself and others in the destreaming process. 

Don’t do it alone

First and foremost, don’t let anyone do it alone. 

In June 2020 when all the math teachers were freaking out, I had a conversation with a colleague. He told me “in my 20 years as a teacher, this is going to be the biggest shift in education I have ever seen”. I think he was right. So why would we let anyone do this alone? If we let people do it alone, there will be burnout. I have seen this and experienced this.

I also believe that some of those who are trying to do this alone are those who do not think this is a monumental shift and have not gotten themselves to the point of realizing the philosophical and pedagogical shift in teaching that needs to be done in order to properly destream. 

Your team matters

Since we aren’t letting anyone do it alone, we need a team. How you compile that team matters, for many reasons. In my opinion, forming a team of people who are willing to take risks is the most important characteristic at this point in destreaming. If we aren’t taking risks and trying something new, are we not just doing the same grade 9 courses we’ve always done? This is not the point.

I think keeping a team of like-minded risk takers will allow your team to move forward and feel like they’re making headway. We can and will have lots of discussions about the “right” way to destream, and likely they are all somewhat right, but at this point making progress in one direction is important. If we form a team of people who are pulling in many directions, we will go nowhere and everyone will feel like they are spinning their wheels. That is not good for teacher morale or our destreaming efforts.

Experience is not always best

As I said above, I believe risk taking is the most important characteristic in formulating your initial team. A lot of people’s first reaction is to select the most experienced teachers. This MAY be the best option, but experience can also mean inflexibility when it comes to taking risks. Having teachers who are stuck in a “this is how we have always done it” way of thinking can be detrimental. This can have lasting impacts on your school’s implementation of a destreamed curriculum, and on generations of learners. It can contribute to a negative vibe within your team. This is not the same grade 9 course. Ensure your teachers do not make it the same grade 9 course.

Not everyone is ready

I have alluded to this above. Not all teachers are mentally prepared or ready for the pedagogical and philosophical shift needed to implement a destreamed course successfully. I am still working on how to address that as a leader and coach. I think realizing that fact, and meeting our teachers where they are (just as we do with our students) is an important conversation to have with teachers before they embark on this journey. 

Team 2.0

At this point in the year as a department head, I am planning for the next school year. Risk taking might be top of my list for my initial team, but as we move forward there are many other things to consider. Here are things I am trying to balance as I form a team for year 2 of destreaming efforts:

  • Keeping some consistency in your team to allow for institutional knowledge, transfer and ease of progress
  • Allow new players into the team to infuse new ideas and expand the breath of available teachers
  • Keep the group small, more hands usually means more ideas which may fracture your team into inefficient groups
  • Who has the energy and capacity to do this again?
  • Who might be crushed to not have a fresh start or a second kick at the can?
  • Get teachers involved who traditionally teacher grade 10 (if we change things in grade 9, the next teachers should be intimately aware of what is going on)

Make a plan

As a leader, it is vital to help your team make a plan. Not a lesson plan or unit plan, but a long-term implementation plan. This plan should be three to five or maybe more years long.

I split my plan into semester goals. Semesters are a nice way to chunk the year, and gives us a finite point to stop and reflect. It might also mean you have a different team from one semester to the next, so a clear plan is key for transfer of duties. The plan should include what are the big overarching things that the team is going to attempt to accomplish in that semester.

The semester 1 plan might simply be to survive. That’s okay! The semester 2 plan might be to make sure everything you do is documented so that you can reflect back on what worked and what did not work over the summer, or next year.

Most importantly, make the plan with your team and make sure they are involved. Make each person accountable to that plan and modify it as needed. This is also a great way to celebrate a win when you complete something from the plan!

Take baby steps

Implementation of a destreamed curriculum is a big deal! A big freaking deal! So it’s okay if it doesn’t all happen at once. Like I said before, make a multiple year plan.

When making your plan, it’s okay to take small chunks. You cannot feasibly implement a new curriculum, pedagogy, instructional strategies, assessment techniques, and all that other stuff that comes along with a new course all at once. Pick one thing at a time. It’s okay if your focus is different from another school’s focus, or that of a teacher you see posting things online.

For those in math and science who have new curriculum pieces to attend to, certain parts of those may deliberately shifted to later in your plan. That is also okay; you have a plan to get there eventually.

Be the coach

We all need a coach or cheerleader in our corner once in a while. That is you! Take time to celebrate the wins. Buy your team coffee or donuts or that silly treat they like. Involve the team in deciding how to celebrate.

Sometimes the coach has to delegate too. I find it hard as I am not anyone’s boss but I am trying to lead the team. This is a fine line to walk. Sometimes I find I just need to specifically “ask” someone to do a certain piece or get something done in order to make things progress. Sometimes people just need that leader to delegate. On the other hand, sometimes the team just needs someone to do the work too. I have also been trying to take on some bigger planning pieces and making any overarching new projects to get things rolling and let each teacher fill in the small pieces to fit their style. 

Get the team together

Teaching can be a very isolating job. As I said at the beginning, formulating a good team is important. But keeping them working as a team is equally important. 

Make meeting on a regular basis a priority for your team. Our science team met once a week at first, but then paired it down to once every two or three weeks once we got going.

Meet as a school wide destreaming team too. We are all doing the same thing in different subject areas, all at the same time. So let’s learn from each other, commiserate with each other, and celebrate each other’s wins. I have tried to get the bigger school-wide team together a couple of times a semester to keep ideas flowing. 

We can do this

Destreaming is hard and will be hard for a while. We need leaders to keep the progress moving forward. We owe this to our students. All of them. I know that coaching teachers can feel like a thankless job, especially when most of them are just trying to keep their head above water. Know that your role is important, necessary and that forward motion is the win some days!