Field Trip: Coaching Differently


After a funding crisis at Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas, the district decided to try a different coaching model to build teacher capacity.

In this interview, Dr. Suzanne Newell, Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction and Dr. Laura Koehler, principal of Grapevine Middle School, discuss their new strategy.

  • The switch from using classroom specialists to campus-based coaches who report dually to building principals as well as the C&I department
  • Teacher reception to the new system
  • How what started as a crisis ended up with greater teacher capacity and a vibrant leadership development program
  • Why relationships are so important to coaching and leadership

Full Transcript  

LAURA KOEHLER: Coaching works. It absolutely works but more importantly, I think coaching not only empowers the teacher, it also empowers the coach.

SUZANNE NEWELL: One of the things that a lot of people find interesting in our central office model now is we don’t have a professional development director or coordinator of any sort, because our professional development happens in such a job embedded way.

Welcome to the podcast for education leaders, where we bring you stories from people who are finding new and innovative ways to solve problems and make strategic decisions in K-12. Making sure every student gets a great education means attracting, hiring, and retaining great teachers, and then promoting growth at every stage of their careers. So from superintendents to principals, from Human Resources to Curriculum & Instruction to Special Education, we’re talking with school and district leaders who have stories to tell, and we’re sharing those conversations here.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today’s story is about taking lemons and making lemonade.

LAURA KOEHLER: One of my former bosses used to always say, “Never waste a good crisis.”

It’s about a huge funding shortfall. and making changes that were painful in the short run, and tremendously helpful in the long run.

LAURA KOEHLER: It was uncomfortable at first, but it built the confidence of the teachers so that they had a certain greater sense of responsibility and ownership over the learning of all students.

It’s a story about coaching and teacher leadership at Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas.

Dr. Suzanne Newell is the Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction, and Dr. Laura Koehler is the principal of Grapevine Middle School. Suzanne and Laura, welcome, and thanks for joining me today.

SUZANNE NEWELL: Thank you very much.

LAURA KOEHLER: Thank you, we’re very excited.

If you fly into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and hang a left, you’ll find yourself at Grapevine-Colleyville. About 13,500 students bound through their doors each day… a wide variety of backgrounds, languages, and socioeconomic levels.

SUZANNE NEWELL: It’s a very broad mix across the spectrum of demographics, which is lovely. It’s actually one of the things that I love about our district.

That’s Suzanne.

SUZANNE NEWELL: Lots of different nationalities, about 25% of our students are economically disadvantaged. And then we have everything all the way up to lots and lots of corporate executives that live in the Metroplex and have the convenience of being right in the middle of Dallas and Fort Worth. And so, lots of variety, which equals lots of opportunity, which equals a few challenges as well.

We have two comprehensive high schools, grades 9 through 12. We have four middle schools in grades six through eight. And we have 11 elementaries that are grades K through five. We also have an early college high school, we also have an online school, and we also have an alternative high school as well.  So, we got a little bit of everything in the district.

I know that over the past few years, you have really restructured how you approach coaching and professional learning at your district. Tell me the story of that, what led to this restructuring?

SUZANNE NEWELL: One of my former bosses, Rick Westfall, used to always say, “Never waste a good crisis.” And so, back in 2011 when we were crafting before I got there, they were crafting the strategic plan and had this grandiose vision for trying to prepare students for jobs that we couldn’t even begin to predict yet, and the kinds of skillsets and experiences they would need to have.

Right about then, changes to district funding in Texas wound up costing Grapevine-Colleyville millions of dollars from one year to the next.

SUZANNE NEWELL: And so, we went from visionary mode into crisis mode, in terms of how not only to pay the bills we had, but also to try to make use of this vision that we had just crafted.

At that time, Grapevine-Colleyville had about 80 specialists in non-mandatory teaching positions, supporting the classroom in a variety of important roles — ESL, literacy, technology specialists, and the like — and the district looked at those specialists, and said, “Okay, funding is tight, rather than continuing to have specialists working alongside of teachers, we need to figure out a way to build the capacity of the teachers themselves.”

SUZANNE NEWELL: And they completely redefined and re-evaluated all of those positions and built an instructional coaching model that redefined those roles. So, you can imagine how much fun that was to be a part of, talk about a big piece of cheese that was moving.

And so, a lot of these specialists reapplied for these new instructional coach positions. It was a big change. And in some cases, Suzanne said that teachers were grieving the loss of someone to come in and handle some of the more challenging situations.

SUZANNE NEWELL: I’ve gotten to see that the last five years of that, and I’ve seen it go from this very tumultuous experience, probably most described. And then one thing I had to point out that in the process of recreating all of those roles and eliminating a lot of roles, the district saved nearly half a million dollars in salaries.

Ultimately, though, Suzanne says this shift brought about positive changes.

SUZANNE NEWELL: It was uncomfortable at first, but it built the confidence of the teachers so that they had a certain greater sense of responsibility and ownership over the learning of all students. I think it also probably gave the students a more aligned experience. Instead of bits and pieces of special help from this person or that person, the teacher who knows that student best was able to integrate all of the needs into the support the students got.

The coaching roles also have a rather unique reporting structure. Rather than just reporting to the central office, each coach — they’re called “learning liaisons” — works in a specific building, and reports to Suzanne in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, as well as to the campus principal.

SUZANNE NEWELL: Exactly. So, for example Laura is the principle of a middle school. Every one of our 17 brick and mortar high school or brick and mortar campuses have a learning liaison that is officed on their campus. And that person, in Laura’s case her name is Mia, and Mia reports dually to Laura and to me. And so she has responsibilities, a job description that reflects a lot of the C&I initiatives:  leading PLCs, working toward a learning platform instead of a teaching platform, utilizing the curriculum resources and helping to design instruction.

She has those sorts of responsibilities but she also has responsibilities that are very reflective of the unique needs of the campus, right? So, Laura’s campus has undergone a lot of turnover over the last five years, they’ve seen a lot of demographic changes. And so, her role at that campus looks a little bit different, for example, than maybe one of our other learning liaisons that has had a much more stable population.

And so, Laura is able to direct Mia’s day-to-day activities as needed, although a lot of our learning liaisons don’t really need to be directed, they’re just kind of natural leaders, so they just stay in constant contact with their principles about that work. And then I check in with them periodically, monthly, and then it’s in intervals for appraisal conferences and that sort of thing, so that we both stay tied to that person as an agent of change on the campus.

I asked if there were any challenges to having the learning liaisons answer to both the C&I office as well as to the principal.

SUZANNE NEWELL: It is a little bit difficult, in fact I had one liaison express to me that it’s kind of hard having to answer to two people who may not necessarily have the exact same objectives. And that definitely speaks to the nature of the need for my relationship with principles to be solid. I find that where my relationship with principles is solid, and we have good communication and trust, then it really isn’t a problem for the instructional coach because we’re all, like I said before, rowing in the same direction. 

I can see how it could be challenging, but I also consider this to be one of the most valuable unique features of our model, because what I’ve seen in a lot of instructional coaching models is that the coach gets placed on a campus and then never again interacts with the C&I department. And so, the work they’re trying to do with teachers or that they ought to be doing with teachers to be one of the keys to alignment across campuses horizontally, vertically and so on with the district schools, if there’s not a direct accountability tie through the role or appraisal or whatever it is to central office, I think that that’s really hard to maintain.

I asked Suzanne to talk about the effectiveness of this coaching model compared to more traditional professional development.

SUZANNE NEWELL: In the research we’ve done about effective models and professional development, we can all agree I think that one-and-done models are pretty ineffective.

Teachers need continued support, they need to scaffold, they need a thinking partner in order for true capacity to be built and change to happen. Whereas one of the things that a lot of people find interesting in our central office model now is, we don’t have a professional development director or coordinator of any sort, because our professional development happens in such a job embedded way.

That doesn’t mean we never workshops for large groups of people or anything like that, but it really has to come through and be integrally woven into the people who are sort of charged with building capacity on the campuses and through the different content areas.

It’s really an expanded understanding or notion about what sort of learning teachers need to do in order to do their job well. And when does that happen? It happens in RTI meetings, it happens in PLCs. They will lead the PLCs or they at least co-facilitate some of that planning, so that there’s consistency across the campus with the expectations and that sort of thing.

So I think you’d be hard-pressed — in fact, we’ve talked about this in the central office a little bit — you’d be hard-pressed to get any of our principals to willingly relinquish their learning liaison. Sometimes we get a little bit worried about central office coaches being maybe more vulnerable because they don’t have a principle jumping up and down and advocating for them quite so much.

But I know that when I was a content area director, I said, “If you take my coaches away, I go away, because the work I’m expected to do in this district, in terms of being a place where change is just a part of the air we breathe, is completely impossible without coaches to help support that on the campus for the real change to happen.”

Suzanne said that in addition to the building-based learning liaisons, they also have centrally-based coaches that have different teaching backgrounds and content expertise, and these coaches help teachers develop curriculum, lesson plans, model lessons, and that kind of thing.

SUZANNE NEWELL: So they became my hands and feet and to do a lot of the work that, for instance, in some larger districts might be done by a curriculum coordinator or some other quasi-administrative role.

Relationships with teachers were kind of the thing that made their work go, because they didn’t have any direct authority over a teacher on a campus. But they really did the lion’s share of the nitty-gritty part of my work. I cast the vision, I work with them to determine systemic needs. And then they helped make it happen by creating documents, by designing training and so forth. And so that’s another part of our model based on coaching that a lot of other sorts and other duties have assigned as well.

Thanks Suzanne – now I’m going to turn to Dr. Laura Koehler, who as I said earlier, is the principal at Grapevine Middle School.

LAURA KOEHLER: Actually this is my first year as a middle school principal. I used to serve as the associate principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, and prior to that I was an instructional coach in the district and one of the first instructional coaches as this model was rolled out.

Could you describe how you would work with teachers as when you were a coach for the district.

LAURA KOEHLER: Initially at the time, the idea was for us to be coaches that weren’t necessarily content-specific, but true coaches where you would ask questions and seek to understand to really get the teachers to think about what they were asking or what they wanted out of their classroom instruction, that sort of thing.

When Grapevine-Colleyville changed their coaching model, when they ended the specialist positions and brought in the campus-specific learning liaisons, Laura echoed that it took a little while for teachers to get comfortable with the idea.

LAURA KOEHLER: Oh yikes. I think sometimes people were scared of us coming in. We had heard lots of things. We would come back together in our portable and we would say, “They think I’m a spy,” or,  “They think I’m going to go tell.” And that was really challenging for almost every coach.

There were a few of the coaches that had been specialists, that had the opportunity to come into this model. And people who knew them, continued to use them, but there were many of us that were brand new. And we were not received well at first. It was like we had a lot of, “Why you?” Or, “They’re taking all of our good teachers from this campus and that’s not fair,” and, “If I call a coach, then it’s going to seem like something’s wrong with me.”

And it just took a few teachers that were like, “I don’t care, I need somebody to think with.” To just come out and say, “Hey, can you come and help me with this planning, I just want to draw out some questions, tell me what you think.” And then that’s how it started to gain speed.

How did you see teachers start to embrace the new model? What did that look like? Was it because they saw that their capacity was indeed being built up?

LAURA KOEHLER: It was really nice because once I met with the teacher, they had what they would deem as a success, and they felt like, “Okay, I tried this, let me tell you what happened,” and they would tell me and they would get very excited about it, ultimately they told other people. So they were seeing, “I did try it and this did work. Oh my gosh.”

 So then they would say, “We’re going to do a team project, maybe you could come and talk to us about that, and what we’re thinking.” It was those types of experiences that really helped it take ground, I guess you could say. The teachers were also seeing that I wasn’t the one doing the work, they were the ones doing the work. But the best part about it is they could turn to me, call me back and I’m there to say, “Hey, what did you think? Yes, I love that, that’s wonderful. How is it going?” And to be that support partner so that they weren’t going at it alone, you know?

I think that was very important and critical for them to experience that I was going to be there. And if it didn’t work, “Well let’s try again.”

So we went through these conversations where we really talked about success and failure, and what would we do as a result of that? We could really see that that helped them build capacity in themselves, where they said, “I’m in charge of this, this is great. Just having somebody that I can rely on if it does fail, and I can turn and say, ‘Oh my gosh it didn’t.’” Because they knew we were going to come back together and talk about it.

At first the program started slow, Laura said, and the tickets they received for support were pretty surface-level. But as time went on, and as the superintendent and other leaders got the word out — “Hey, need help? Call a coach! These are excellent teachers!” — pretty soon, teachers were calling the learning liaisons for help in content-specific work. So you might have a teacher working with a certain coach at the elementary level for English Language Arts, and that led to teachers working with certain coaches a lot, and building collaborative relationships.

And as that went on, the district began seeing more ways they could support teachers at a deeper level.

LAURA KOEHLER: We have a program that we created called VALOR, where teachers have the opportunity to be coached at a much deeper level, and not just by instructional coaches but through peer coaching, so to speak.

They have their colleagues there with them from multiple campuses, different grade levels, different classroom experiences, different years of experiences. So these teachers could see that we can build capacity in lots of ways, but we needed to figure out a way to go deeper with it, so we created this opportunity, this organization that teachers could take part in.

We also have another group of coaches who began a model in which they’re responsible for new-hire training, and decided to say, “Hey, how can we support teacher retention when we know that statistically in five years, you lose a lot of teachers?”

So what could we do to keep teachers? These coaches said, “Hey, we’re going to focus on strengthening that and providing brand new teachers to the district different levels of coaching support.” So when somebody comes into our district we want them to know about our coaching model, and we want them to know that they’re not going at it alone, so they’re going to have support. So a group of coaches then begun designing what that looked like.

That retention piece was really interesting that you just mentioned, and providing coaching support in order to keep teachers in your district. Is it too early to see the results of that, or have you already been able to tell that that’s making a difference?

LAURA KOEHLER: No way, you can tell it’s really awesome. It’s been, I want to say, five years now that that’s been going on, and it has really created a sense of investment: “Our district is invested in you and we’re going to support you.” And as a principal now, I can’t tell you how valuable it is when I have teachers that come to me and say, “Oh my goodness, thank goodness we did our first year training and guess what? This is what we went over. I’m going try it,” and I see young teachers excited about that, or see experienced teachers that come into the district who do work with the liaisons and what they’re interested in learning. So we can definitely see the impact that it’s having.

Laura and Suzanne were quick to say that Grapevine-Colleyville differentiates coaching support based on the teachers’ experience. New teachers, right out of college? They meet with learning liaisons every week. Other experienced teachers but who are new to the district, they might meet with a liaison once a month.

SUZANNE NEWELL: They don’t all need the same thing, but they all need something. That was what the subculture within our central coaching team built, that differentiated model of curriculum if you will, teacher curriculum, for how to support people in each one of those bands of levels of experience. The retention we’ve seen from that has been really positive.

I think it’s definitely helped us with the retention, but I also think it’s given us a lot of leverage, whereas some of the older, more seasoned and confident teachers might not have been as eager to jump in and say, “I’d like a thinking partner, I’d like a coach.” What they’ve seen now is how much value our newer teachers are getting from the coaching model, and that has unlocked a lot of doors that would’ve probably remained locked.

And on the other side, they provide a much deeper level of coaching to develop teacher leaders. Laura mentioned this already, the program is called VALOR.

LAURA KOEHLER: Initially when we created it, the important aspect of it was to make sure that teachers were getting the opportunity to receive deeper coaching, something that would really impact instructional practice.

It’s a program that teachers have to apply for. There’s limited space, and it costs money for resources and for substitutes so teachers can visit each other’s classrooms, so only some people who apply are selected.

LAURA KOEHLER: We ended up getting a wonderful first year group, wonderful. As they started to go through this program that we were developing, we had to build a comradery between them, because they were from all different campuses, different experience levels and grade levels. So that comradery really was important because we were asking them also, “Hey, we’re going to cluster you in a cohort and you’re going to go and watch each other teach, and then give feedback.”

So this was scary. They had to film themselves teaching and talk about it with the coaches, and that was scary, it was scary for them — even these growth-minded teachers who wanted to try something new. It was so incredible to watch how excited they were, or when they were so nervous and how we had to really say, “Trust me, nobody is judging here,” It was about growth. The whole idea had to be about growth. And it was just an incredible thing to see.

And how many people have been affected, and the outreach they have with all the students that they have, that’s been so powerful for us that people get excited. More and more people want to participate.

So now it’s become one of those things that teachers talk about VALOR. Many of our current instructional coaches and liaisons came from the VALOR program.

Suzanne said she loves to see the leadership development aspect of VALOR. She said, not only has it helped people move into leadership positions across the district, it’s also helped them improve and refine their coaching program.

SUZANNE NEWELL: And so they have moved up, a lot of them are in assistant principle roles or principal roles such as Laura and that sort of thing, which is fabulous for them, but it leaves vacancies, and they are really important-to-fill vacancies, because I really believe that you’re only as strong as your weakest coach.

So it’s been really nice to see is how the VALOR opportunity for really deep coaching has opened the door to letting some folks develop their leadership skills and develop their systemic understandings of a school system in such a way that we have been able to pluck several of those teachers into coach roles because they’ve been so well-trained. Which was certainly not the main mission of Valor — it was really to extend and deepen the learning of teachers, and those people who go through VALOR do stay in the classroom, and are now just more effective than they were before. But it has been a really nice pipeline as well for leadership development.

LAURA KOEHLER: And they are engaging in conversations about instruction that they really understand and have a better understanding of the transformation that they went through as teachers. So as they’ve moved into leadership roles, they’re able to support growth in others. Does that make sense? Because they’ve experienced it, so they can support growth in other teachers as well.

Laura, you used to be a coach, and now you’re a principal. How has your history as a coach helped you in your current role?

LAURA KOEHLER: I think when I became a coach, I do remember going through that year in wonder and amazement because it was so new to me. I had moved from the classroom into that coaching role. And so through the coaching model, I had the opportunity to be a leader in so many ways such as helping be a part of a group of coaches that established VALOR, or being a part of coaches that led professional development.

You naturally start to become a little more comfortable with that leadership, and I had really wondered what direction would I go in. I really enjoy curriculum and instruction, and at one point, I, of course, had excellent role models that made me think, “I would love to do what Dr. Newell does, or what Dr. Downy does.” So having those role models and then feeling a sense of empowerment through the leadership opportunities I was given, made me think, “I think I would like to try a curriculum position.” 

And I just happened to get excited about the direction I was going and thinking, and happened to enroll in a doctoral program at that time. And there were some people in the district that were part of the cohort in that program. As we started to talk about it, one of them asked me, “Well, would you ever consider being an assistant principal?” And I remember saying, “Oh, gosh, no, no.” And they were like, “Well, why not?”

I had to stop and think and say, “Yeah, why not?” And again, it was through that experience that empowered me to feel like, “Sure, I could do this, I could be an instructional leader.

And as she moved from assistant principal into an associate role, and now serves as a principal, Laura loves being able to come alongside teachers and help them think about and own their instructional practice — not just saying “Change this, and change that,” but having real conversations. “Have you considered trying something like this?” or “What do you think was effective about that lesson, and what wasn’t?” She takes those skills she developed as a coach, and now can have an impact on an entire campus.

LAURA KOEHLER: So now to make me say, “I can make that leap,” and seeking a campus to lead is a very different experience, but those experiences, coaching experiences that I’ve had over the years, I have still applied to the way I run my campus.

You saw this happen with others in your district as well, didn’t you? Coaches who then took leadership positions like principals?

LAURA KOEHLER: Yes. Many of the coaches again, it was going back to feeling empowered that you could be an instructional leader that could affect change on a large scale. And so that’s when we started to see that people were like, “Hey.” Especially campus liaisons, they were on campuses all the time. That’s where they were housed, they were experiencing working directly with the principal or assistant principals on that campus. So that empowered them, too.

What have you learned as a result of your own journey here? And how does all of this impact how you view coaching?

LAURA KOEHLER: What I’ve learned is that coaching works. It absolutely works. But more importantly, I think coaching not only empowers the teacher, it also empowers the coach. And once you have been a part of a coaching model in which you see the effect that we’ve seen on a large scale and spread throughout the district in different ways, I think it really gets you excited about coaching and connecting teachers with coaches, and just about overall improvement in growth and leadership.

What are the critical things that any school district simply must do with their coaching program if it’s to be effective?

SUZANNE NEWELL: Number one, you have to very carefully select the people you put in the role of coach, and I could talk for another hour on our hiring practices, but I would, suffice it to say in this short time, pay very close attention to who you choose, both in terms of their credibility as a teacher but also in their relational skills and growing other people. We actually do a simulation interview where they have to do a group interview protocol, and we can see them in a simulated action version of what they would have to do on the job and that tells us so much.

So, choose your people carefully, that’d be number one. Grow them accordingly, making sure that people whose job it is to feed other people must also be fed. So to pick a good person and then just let him die on the vine is not fair to that person. And so whether that’s inexpensive things like book studies and centrally-cultivated learning opportunities or sending them to conferences or whatever, that’s very important, preparing them to coach.

And then the third thing is making sure that the relational aspects of the system are strong. Relationships between my role, central office roles and campus principals have to be strong or ought to be being worked on. Because really where I have found that that effectiveness of a learning liaison or a coach is less effective, it almost always goes back to the relationship piece, whether that’s between coach and a particular department, or my role and the campus principal, there’s a relational breakdown. Because all coaching is trusting and learning from each other, and you can’t do that if there’s a part of that system that’s broken.

It sounds like Grapevine-Colleyville took a difficult situation and made something great out of it. And my question is if you were to go back to the beginning — and I know that you weren’t there right at the start of the process — what would you like to see done differently or what would you still do the same?

SUZANNE NEWELL: That’s a great question. I think I would like to, probably, replicate almost every aspect of it. I think that we might, at the beginning, have underestimated the critical nature of relationship in the efficacy of the model. And by that I don’t mean to indict any person or part of the process. But what I’ve learned, because I wouldn’t have told you that was the most important trait of the coach at the beginning, I probably would have labeled it as content knowledge or competence or some things like that.

What I have learned, though, is that a person can have all of the skillsets imaginable, and if they don’t know how to build trust and be relational and relatable and sort of disarming in contentious situations, possibly, then they’re not going to be as effective.

So we’ve had to learn some messy lessons along the way with how to coach and how to curriculum develop that, how to market and communicate that. But all of the things that we stumbled through have helped get us to a place I’m still pretty proud of.

Dr. Suzanne Newell and Dr. Laura Koehler have been speaking to us from Grapevine-Colleyville School District in Texas. 

Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast, don’t forget to subscribe – you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and almost anywhere else fine audio is served. Field Trip is a production from Frontline Education – bringing you Frontline Professional Growth, software designed to help you support the complete cycle of educator growth, including professional learning, employee evaluations, and peer collaboration and coaching.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Have a great day.