As we shared in our first post in September 2013, many Liberian teachers who have entered the profession since the outset of the civil war have done so without having received any formal training. Christiana Davies, a teacher coach at USAID’s Liberia Teacher Training program (LTTP) asserted that the lack of formal training doesn’t necessarily preclude teachers from becoming successful reading instructors. “If teachers out of high school know how to read well, they can get good results,” she says. “But reading is a key skill for teachers.” From a practical standpoint, this means that coaching support must touch on a teacher’s mastery of core reading skills, too, not solely her mastery of teaching techniques.
How the coaching of teachers works
"It is one of a coach’s first tasks during a support visit to sit down with the teacher to review the lesson plan for the day. Christiana found that practicing reading skills and teaching techniques with the teacher before class was a very effective review strategy."
For instance, if the lesson for the day called for practicing phonemic awareness by blending letter sounds, she and the teacher would first practice saying each of the letter sounds individually. If the teacher’s pronunciation of each sound wasn’t quite accurate, Christiana and the teacher would spend some time repeating the sounds aloud correcting any errors.
Once the teacher’s pronunciation was solid, they could move on to reinforcing the teaching technique. In a lesson on blending letter sounds, Christiana might emphasize using a nonverbal cue—such as a hand wave, or snap of the fingers, or some other gesture—when prompting students to blend the sounds /p/ /a/ /n/ together to form the word “pan.” This would reduce unnecessary “teacher talk” and minimize the time between students’ hearing the individual sounds and hearing the result of blending them.
If the teacher’s skills needed only minor shoring up, Christiana would do so on the spot before class began. However, if the teacher was simply not up to the task that day and more substantial review of the instructional techniques was required, she would step in and deliver that day’s lesson herself as a refresher for the teacher.
"Christiana flagged this as the most rewarding aspect of her work: “I enjoy working with the students the most. Sometimes teachers think the kids are bored…but if you bring excitement to the reading [lesson], you’ll find that they are smart!”
Monitoring teachers’ delivery
Coaching visits also include observing from the rear of the classroom as the teacher delivers a lesson. Watching for certain key markers of the teacher’s performance—like preparedness, mastery of the content, usage of the project’s preferred I do, we do, you do” methodology, and effective teacher-student interactions—coaches complete a classroom observation form and provide written feedback to the teacher on areas of strength and areas for growth. The classroom observation process is repeated for each of the teachers in grades 1 through 3.
Reviewing feedback together
The end of each coaching visit is marked by a collective debriefing session with the teachers and their principal. This is done because principals have an important role to play as leaders and mentors for their teachers.
"Christiana emphasized “Principals are the eyes for the coaches—the principal is supposed to encourage the teacher to teach reading every day.”
What’s more, she said, the principal should be able to step up and fill in for the day if a teacher gets sick. So during the meeting with the teachers and principal, the coach reviews what she has observed, answers any questions, provides any remedial training that might be required, and gives guidance on how the teachers can continue to grow.
Enabling coaches to do more
Providing this level of support to teachers takes a lot of effort and time—which is why reducing the number of schools each coach supports from twelve to six is expected to yield large returns in terms of improved teacher (and thus student) performance.
“If we pay attention to the teachers, they’ll pay attention to the Liberian kids,” Christiana explains. “Now I can make more visits to schools than before. I can give more time and support to teachers who are weaker and help them to become stronger. And I can now have two times as many PTA meetings with parents, teachers, and the community…so we can have a greater impact than before.”
Christiana believes that maintaining such a level of support could have a transformative effect on reading levels, which would in turn have a transformative effect on the country. “[Children who read well] will be able to pass all their subjects. They’ll be able to know things, to say things without fear. They’ll become good leaders for Liberia—doctors, teachers, engineers, and nurses.”