I’ve spent three decades in the classrooms of Baltimore City Public Schools, first as a teacher at Collington Square Elementary then as the school’s staff developer and later assistant principal. In 2015, I joined Govans Elementary School as assistant principal, the year Govans became a neighborhood conversion charter school operated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP). Three years later, I became principal.
To me, supporting students means supporting teachers. I was fortunate in my first teaching job. I had an outstanding master teacher as my mentor my first few years on the job. She held my hand every step of the way, stayed after school with me to plan lessons, and helped me learn how to communicate effectively with parents and children. She and I became lifelong friends. Not every teacher has this experience, but it’s essential that schools have that kind of support for teachers, those who are new to the profession and those who are experienced.
Having instructional coaches is central to BCP’s success for our students and our teachers. Each BCP school hires its own full-time instructional coaches. These are master teachers who support, but do not supervise, faculty. At Govans, we have two on staff: one who supports Pre-K through second grade; and the other who supports third through fifth grade.
Instructional coaches are former classroom teachers with great leadership skills. At Govans, we saw our coaches’ expertise in our classrooms with curriculum and implementation and their great relationships with their colleagues. Each BCP administration has the flexibility to select its coaches, which makes a difference.
THE ROLE AND IMPACT OF AN INSTRUCTIONAL COACH
BCP instructional coaches do several important tasks. BCP’s reading curriculum, Direct Instruction, is customized to each child. If a teacher feels a student may need additional support or a student may need enrichment or challenges, the coach will give a placement test to see if they need to move back or forward in the program.
Because our coaches are seasoned educators, they provide our teachers with lesson modeling. Coaches go into classrooms to teach lessons or parts of lessons and “team-teach” to demonstrate specific techniques which the teacher then incorporates into the lesson. Coaches attend weekly team meetings, review classroom data, provide additional resources, and help with lesson planning. They also ensure that teachers are meeting deadlines and help with any technical support needed.
At Govans, coaches are also responsible for student celebration of student academic success. These programs are important at BCP and to the culture of our school. Coaches organize the quarterly celebrations for the student honor roll. They also organize our family math and literacy nights, events where we highlight math and literacy with our community and show families and students that there are fun ways to learn math and literacy.
Developing Custom Professional Development Programs
Whether we have first year or veteran staff, support for all teachers is important. In addition to the training and support provided by the academic coaches, we also have a robust, customized professional development (PD) program. As a charter school, we have autonomy over our PD sessions that can focus on our school community’s specific needs. Each of the six BCP schools surveys its teachers and instructional coaches to determine what its specific PD focus should be.
At BCP, we’re a network of six charter schools. Each year, BCP holds a Winter Assembly, in which staff from all BCP schools come together for peer-led PD. Topics for workshops are based on feedback from teacher and staff needs and interest. For example, one of our Govans teachers led a workshop on how to use Canva, while another led a workshop on helping students achieve mastery in our Direct Instruction curriculum.
Our world is forever changing, and we need our teachers to be prepared to support our students with those changing needs, be they academic or social. During our January 2023 Winter Assembly event, the afternoon program, Leading Minds: Challenging Conversations in Public Education symposium, focused on the role of schools in curbing community violence. Many staff members are struggling with trauma and violence happening in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our personal lives, and in our students’ personal lives. BCP’s panel of local experts was amazing, especially because these were people speaking who have firsthand experience of the violence and trauma happening in our city. It wasn’t someone speaking from a book that they’d read.
Helping Teachers Remain in the Classroom
Teacher burnout has been in the news since the pandemic started. A survey last year by the National Education Association cited that 55 percent of educators across the country were considering leaving the profession. In Maryland, more teachers left the classroom at the end of the 2021-22 school year than any time in the last decade.
Having such robust access to instructional coaches has transformed teaching at Govans and at the other BCP schools. Most of our teachers remain at Govans. Across BCP, we’ve experienced less of the exodus the teaching profession has experienced during and after the pandemic. We just don’t have a high turnover rate.
On the occasion that we have new teachers, I believe having an instructional coach is a selling point. They know that they’re going to have support. I have had candidates say that they’ve chosen Govans because no other non-BCP school is offering this kind of academic and professional support to its teachers.
A key aspect of the instructional coach is that the coach is not a teacher’s supervisor. My focus as an administrator is much wider. I deal with the day-to-day of running the school, from building maintenance to responding to parents’ concerns.
Instructional coaches are in classrooms far more than an administrator can be. Because they are not in a supervisory role, teachers feel comfortable being observed by them and getting feedback. It’s a different level of awkwardness when it’s your supervisor observing you compared to a colleague who is there not to evaluate, but to support and help you improve. They’re a safe space for our teachers.
Interested in working at a BCP school? Check out our open positions.
About Bernarda Kwaw, Principal, Govans Elementary
Kwaw, a Baltimore native, began her 30-year career with Baltimore City Schools as a teacher at Collington Square Elementary for 10 years before becoming a staff developer and later an assistant principal. She served as the assistant principal at Govans Elementary for three years before taking on her role as principal in 2018.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in education at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the first HBCU, and her master’s in educational administration at Morgan State University. She lives with her husband and four children, and when not focused on making Govans the best it can be, you can find her at the beach with her family.