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Jul 27

On Coaching Myself

Posted by Bank Street in Math Leadership on Jul 27, 2016


By Deepa Bharath
Consultant at Math Solutions


After having been a teacher for eleven years, I stepped into the role of math coach. As I worked to earn the trust of my colleagues and build relationships, it took me a while to understand and become effective in my role. However, in my second year as coach, I realized that I missed being coached. How else would I improve as a teacher? I stumbled onto an answer quite by accident.

I took an action research course at Bank Street in the summer of 2014. I had never participated in action research before and at first, found the process daunting. After many revisions, my research question evolved: How can I be more student-centered and responsive in my interactions with students in math class? I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of my role in a student’s construction of meaning.

I began audio recording a mental math lesson twice a week to collect data. I often videotaped myself but figured that audio recording would be less intrusive. I was parallel teaching this group in a busy 3rd grade classroom. I listened to recordings on my train ride home and was surprised by how much a 20-minute recording could reveal. It was hard to listen to my own voice at first, but over time this group became my new favorite podcast (that’s a serious exaggeration, but my point is you get used to it).  It helped that I was the only listener/subscriber. I could be my own expert critic and coach. With my advisor’s support, I learned to mine the data for evidence that would help to answer my question.

The recordings helped me to notice and name explicit teaching and talk moves I made. I paused to reflect on the intentions behind the moves and the student outcomes in response to my actions. For example, I asked, “Why does that work? What do those numbers mean?” to push a student to think beyond the rule for subtraction of like fractions (5/6- 3/6). When this student used a context to explain her thinking, I gained deeper insight into her understanding of fractions. Another pattern I found in my lessons was the emphasis I placed on the social construction of meaning. I asked students to actively look, listen and learn from each other. I recorded when my questions were open-ended and when they were leading. When they were leading, I lost the opportunity to hear what students were thinking.

I was taken aback by the extent to which I dominated the conversation with students, at times like a talk-show host who wouldn’t let guests finish their sentences. I believe students should speak freely in my class but I often interrupted them. What was the real message students received? Students addressed me rather than each other despite my targeted moves to engage them in conversation with each other. Why was I still the center of attention? I used the recordings to understand the triggers and reasons behind my interruptions and came up with replacement strategies. Sometimes I restated what students said to show my understanding. “I get that… oh, so you ____” or “You mean…” but the lesson was not for me! A question would have prompted another student to restate, paraphrase or add on. If I need to step in, I have to turn the conversation back to students. “Here’s what I understood. Can someone else explain/add on?” I had a coach...It was me!

At times, I tried to model precise language with students who had speech-language difficulties. I wanted to rescue them when speaking academically was hard. In these instances, I reflected on other supports I could put in place to support them. Could sentence frames help? Were my turn and talk moves strategic?  

I remember sharing my ongoing research findings with my students. “I didn’t realize I interrupted you so much. I really don’t mean to.” My students decided to help me monitor the situation with their own prompts for me. They loved the moment they got to say, “Ms. Deepa, let ____ finish her thought, remember?” or “Can I just finish this thought?” Taking on this role helped them be more aware of each other. I had a second coach, the children. As I came to understand action research, I was reminded again how important it was for me to hear my own voice and the voices of the children. A 20-minute teaching session is filled with so many different interactions and on-the-spot decisions. No matter how prepared and planned you are, you cannot entirely predict what kids will say and do. It’s almost impossible to remember everything you said. I thought I had a set repertoire of questions or comments - a pattern of how I respond to students based on my pedagogical beliefs. I am reflective and take time every day to plan ahead for the next one. It’s just hard to remember how exactly things flowed. The audio recordings allowed me to go back in time and hear what was actually said. Who did the talking? Whom did I call on? Why? The lack of video stripped all other distractions forcing me to just think about what was said and who said it. The person doing the talking is doing the learning. I had to remember that!

While there is definite merit in having another pair of eyes look into your practice, no one can see your work the way you do. I tend to be my own harshest critic and I learned through the process of action research to be gentle with myself. I became less defensive and more thoughtful about my intentions. My action research forced me to think, and rethink. I became involved in inquiry and reflection at a time when I really missed the presence of a coach to support those roles. I realized it doesn’t matter which 20-minute part of my day I recorded, I had a lot to reflect about in my practice.

I wonder why we don’t use action research as professional development in schools? It is powerful when teachers begin to see their daily work as research. To craft your own question makes professional development, personal. It’s not just about a new program your principal wants you to implement and you don’t have to wait to start working with a coach.

Coming up with a focused question is a challenge. It can be hard doing this work alone. Perhaps there is a colleague in your building who might be interested in trying this with you. I hope you will suggest some possible questions here to give us all more ideas.



Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking volumes. Educational Leadership,72(3), 18-23. Retrieved from High-Quality Classroom Discussions.pdf

Hiebert, J., Carpenter, T. P., Fennema, E., Fuson, K. C, Wearne, D., Murray. H., &

Human, P. (1997). Making sense: Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hummel, R. (2009). Leading without permission. In G. Schmerler (Ed.)., Teacher leaders: Transforming schools from the inside (Occasional Papers Series #23, pp. 67-72). New York, NY: Bank Street College of Education.

Van de Walle, J. A., Karp, K. S., Lovin, L.H., & Bay-Williams, J.M. (2014).  Teaching student-centered mathematics: Developmentally appropriate instruction for grades 3-5. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


tagged action research, coaching, deepa bharath, math class
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