HELENA — For the last two years, Helena Public Schools teachers have been hard at work, supporting students through the COVID-19 pandemic. The district has also made an investment in support for the teachers themselves, by bringing in more instructional coaches.
“I like to say that I get to help teachers teach,” said Christy Mock-Stutz, a coach at Helena Middle School.
Mock-Stutz is now one of 19 instructional coaches working in the district.
“I really view my role as side-by-side, working with teachers – helping support them with resources, helping support them with ideas, help with planning, help with analyzing data,” she said.
On Wednesday, Mock-Stutz met with seventh-grade English teacher Roxanne Shockley to look at some data on student progress. She’ll also work with teachers on strategies – modeling instructional methods and helping them set goals.
Mock-Stutz, who previously worked for four years as an instructional coach in Chicago, says data is playing a much bigger role in education now, so it’s a major topic she works with teachers about.
“To know they have someone that they can come to and ask those important questions about data – How are my students doing? What does this data point mean? How can I use that to guide my instruction – I think having that point person for them is really important,” she said.
Helena Public Schools first introduced instructional coaches in some of its schools about four years ago, as part of a literacy grant. One of the first to use them was Central Elementary School.
Principal Nick Radley came to Central this year, after years at Four Georgians Elementary – which didn’t use a coach. He said he was immediately impressed by how instructional coaches helped create consistency throughout the school.
“Every classroom at Central on every given day posts an agenda of what the learning objectives look like for that literacy or that math lesson or science and social studies,” he said. “The standard’s written on the board, what the teachers are expecting them to be able to learn. That happens every day in every classroom, so kids walk in and they know what the expectations are.”
Radley said it’s valuable to have someone thinking about instruction on a school-wide level.
District leaders say, during the pandemic, instructional coaches played important roles in helping plan for the switch to remote and hybrid learning.
“The coaches were able to do the legwork with the curriculum and establishing the lessons, so that the teachers could focus on the instructional part,” said Joslyn Davidson, the district’s curriculum and instruction administrator. “I think that made a big difference.”
Davidson says the pandemic and the associated disruptions exacerbated not only academic gaps, but also social gaps, as some students simply hadn’t had the experience of being in a classroom or at their current schools.
“It’s kind of a restart systemwide,” she said.
This year, as part of their attempts to address those gaps, the district committed to put a coach in every school. Leaders say that support has been a key tool.
“We’re on track to meet the goals for the end of the year, even though they seemed like they were really high at the beginning,” Davidson said. “It’s that light at the end of the tunnel, like ‘Oh my gosh, this is working.’”
Radley says he’s glad to see more instructional coaches across the district.
“The biggest bang for the buck comes from what our teachers are providing with our kids, and the most support we can give in those areas, the better off we all are,” he said. “I would argue that coaches in every building – before COVID, during and after – is a great thing to have because it prioritizes us being the best that we can be.”
The district says the instructional coach positions were funded through a Montana literacy grant, federal Title I funds and federal COVID relief money.