Teaching in High Gear: The Classroom Coach

How do educators gain the knowledge and skills to change their classrooms from traditional “teacher at the top” environments to places where students are eager to take ownership of their learning?

In her new book Teaching in High Gear: My Shift Toward a Student-Driven, Inquiry-Based Science Classroom, middle school teacher Marsha Ratzel reflects on a transformational journey marked by a gradual shift toward student-driven learning — and energized by a global network of collaborators who shared her vision.

tihg_cover_flat_175On one stretch of her journey, Marsha developed a new classroom persona — the Coach. In this excerpt from the book (Chapter 8), she describes how coaching differs from teaching in her classroom, and its impact on student self-reliance.

Marsha is a long-time MiddleWeb contributor, and we believe her book (with a great foreword by Bill Ferriter) will interest any middle grades educator interested in moving toward a learner-driven classroom. You can find out more about her interactive eBook at the Powerful Learning Press bookstore.

How Coaching Promotes Self-Reliant Learning in Science Class

MRatzel_classroom-120sqby Marsha Ratzel

Why coaching instead of teaching? I think coaching implies that students will take on more responsibility for their learning and practice. If a basketball coach did lay-ups for players, they would never be able to do it for themselves. Instead, the coach teaches the basics and demonstrates techniques. Then it’s up to the player to put in the practice hours, struggling to find the perfect mix of dribbling, running, jumping, looking, pausing and shooting. It takes time, patience and perseverance under the coach’s watchful eye, offering positive critiques, but not micromanaging.

The same can be true in the classroom.

For students to learn how to independently figure things out after I gave the instruction, I had to resist the urge to immediately satisfy their questions. It can be almost automatic to “help” a student find the page in the textbook, locate the extra pencils, look up a definition. But sometimes our instantaneous help actually increases student dependency. We allow our students to transfer the thinking work to us.

To combat this, I practiced being a question-asker rather than a question-answerer. Applying the coaching techniques, I did a little talking and had students do much more practicing than before. Granted, their work wasn’t as clean and precise as when it was teacher-directed, but the messy practice produced stronger, more independent thinkers over time.


In this picture, I asked students to create a model of the rock cycle (a closed-end product) but allowed them to make the model in any way they liked given the materials on hand (an open-ended process). Here, they broke crayons into “rock particles” and used bricks and 2×4 pieces of wood to compress them into metamorphic rocks. To liquefy them into igneous rocks, most students used a heating pad and a blow dryer or hot plate to melt the bits of crayon. Together, we learned how to model each rock type, but each group went about creating the rocks in a way that made sense to them.

When you adopt a style that requires students to struggle more, some will conclude that you’re “mean,” and some parents might believe that you don’t care about their child. It’s a real danger if you don’t have a strong communication link with the home.

The Time of Planned Struggle

When I began to introduce the coaching style, I would at times announce that we were commencing a “Time of Planned Struggle.” This signaled students that they were entering a period when they would be their own problem-solvers.

Gradually they were able to withstand longer periods of uncertainty as they built up both their tolerance for ambiguity and their coping skills. If you try this, you’ll be tempted to throw them a lifeline, but trust me, students’ perseverance will improve and they will ultimately learn to think through things for themselves. (They also discover ways to get help from each other.)

Pic1Setting up routines is nothing new to teachers, but students are not used to building their own time management and organizational ideas. To prepare them for “Times of Planned Struggle,” I spent some hours equipping students with skills for independent and peer-oriented learning.

One technique that worked was an idea from the Harry and Rosemary Wong training called the “The 4-Minute Huddle,” where all tiered groups started together and quickly talked about the things that were going well and where they needed help. They brainstormed the day’s attack plan and developed more specific job roles based on peer feedback and suggestions.

My students had insightful final project reflections that I believe were more meaningful because they independently worked through difficulties as they went about making their discoveries.

Here’s what I posted in my blog on December 14:

More student reflections were turned in today and I thought several students were able to share wisdom that seems well beyond their 12 years. What do you think?

• We were off a lot but still in the right direction. I’ve learned that making predictions is harder than it seems. I think next time we could pay more attention and spend more time just looking for patterns in our data. That would help make it more accurate.

• What we thought was not only confirmed by looking at the graph but in the emails we sent to [our buildings and grounds HVAC manager]. We thought it was turned off at 2:50pm. That’s what the graph showed and then his email said we were right.

• We finally figured out that when the sun went down the building cools off. It took us a couple of days to figure that out and we know it should be simple. But it wasn’t. Now it seems simple. I learned you have to stop and think about the common sense of things to get it.

Pic3In inquiry learning, when results don’t turn out to be exactly as planned or predicted, teachers have to manage how that outcome is perceived. Some students will immediately think they’ve failed. It is far more productive if they can come to see that “failures” are an integral part of the design/ test cycle.

The learning is messy. In the picture here, this student will figure out how to make the gears work just like the diagram in the textbook by experimenting…trying something out and then, based on what he learned from that trial, changing his design into an improved version. He will continue until the handle works just the way he imagines. Everyone’s handle will look differently and will do different things. Yet everyone will learn exactly how gears work and even how they don’t work!

The Debrief: Processing the Learning

Just as we all can improve a variety of processes using reflection, I also wanted to help my students get stronger by processing what happened in their projects through a series of debriefing exercises. At the end of a learning activity, lab or project, I had a class meeting to talk about how things went.

The topics of a “debrief” vary. Sometimes the focus is on the actual content to be learned; we work to pull together disparate ideas into a common understanding that the whole class can agree upon. Or a debrief also might be where everyone discusses how well an organizing structure played out. How do students feel the 4-person teams worked? Would it have been better if we worked in pairs? We have also debriefed over final tests and assignments; discussing how well-prepared they felt or where more practice or preparation might have helped.

One of the most important ways I’ve used debriefing is to turn “failures” into learning moments. This is time well invested, because students usually equate failure with an “F” grade and only rarely view failures as necessary steps along the path to understanding.

In coaching mode, I have to convince students that failures are valued sources of information that could point them toward the next step. Talking publicly about failure inside a safe classroom environment helps develop positive classroom culture. In the comments I shared in my blog (above), my students could see how to do things better the next time.

© Marsha Ratzel 2013

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified science and math teacher in the Blue Valley (KS) School District and a popular blogger (Reflections of a Techie). In the past three years she has taught 6th and 8th grade science and 8th grade algebra. Ratzel has also written about connected learning and expert teaching practice for Education Week, Voices from the Learning Revolution, Educational Horizons and other publications.

Read the Introduction to Teaching in High Gear here.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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