ISA Coaching: A Math Teacher’s Perspective
By Nathan Dilworth
ISA's Senior Mathematics Specialist
Mary Ellen Tyrrell teaches Geometry at the Institute for Health Professions in Queens, NY. She is a fourth-year math teacher.
How did you learn about ISA and its coaching support?
MET: I was introduced to ISA as first-year teacher when I attended a daylong professional development at a Winter Institute. When the facilitators presented the inquiry process, it immediately made sense to me. I found what they shared useful and brilliant and have been working with them ever since.
What is most helpful about the support you get from your ISA coach?
MET: Everything! They provide curriculum, lessons, and incredible professional development. Their coaching helps me gain a deeper understanding of mathematics and how to teach it. My students and I no longer treat math as a series of procedures; it is a discovery process for us that is driven by inquiry. Not only do they learn more and learn it better, they remember what they learn because it makes sense to them. Teaching math as a series of connected concepts has a huge impact on my teaching and their learning. They have procedural fluency and can accurately use all of the same formulas that are taught in a traditional classroom, but they also have a clear understanding of why the formulas work.
What does the ISA coach do that is particularly helpful?
MET: Well, the coach comes into my classroom and observes what is happening in the teaching and learning process. Afterwards we debrief; which is critical. The coach makes recommendations or suggestions. He may suggest that I tweak a certain aspect of the lesson to get a different response or result from the students. It’s the feedback that is so important. I find the conversations inspiring and useful. I incorporate what we discuss into my own practice. My coach also helps me design professional development for my colleagues as part of my responsibilities as chair of the STEM team.
How has your own teaching changed as a result of working with an ISA coach?
MET: My teaching now starts with a big math idea. Then I often present a math task that has many connections and multiple points of entry. To successfully complete the task, students must demonstrate a deep knowledge of math concepts. Initially, I used the ISA-developed tasks, but now I often design my own. My growth as a professional has been amazing. Students also enjoy discovering multiple approaches to a problem, but they know they must always provide sound evidence to support their problem-solving approach. I would not be the same teacher without ISA coaching. The coach and I are both committed to helping students learn more and become more critical thinkers. Together we are making that happen.
Were your students resistant to changing from the traditional way of teaching and learning?
MET: They were hesitant at first. Instead of telling them answers or modeling how to solve a certain type of problem, we now investigate the math challenge together, and try to figure it out. There was some pushback at first, but the ISA coaches have lessons, processes, and activities that help teachers and students make the transition. Using the ISA approach, my students are always fully engaged, and they have high expectations of me and of themselves. They have learned to trust the process. Now they ask questions about how one aspect of math is related to another; they make connections across various concepts and go much deeper and are more confident that they can solve new problems. They believe they have the skills to figure it out themselves. For example, this year they had to present a performance task to a panel. One student said, “I thought it was really challenging at first, but then I realized that I knew everything I needed to know to complete and present the task, and it was easy.” Their fluency in the use of mathematical language was also impressive.
How would you describe your relationship with your coach?
MET: I really see it as a friendship. I can ask the coaches anything at any time, and I get their full attention and support. I even went to one coach’s office over spring break to get his advice and help with a new lesson that I wanted to present, and he helped me increase my own understanding and make sure the lesson was as powerful as possible. I really don’t feel like I can fail at anything. Every teacher should have this type of support. The ISA coach is non-evaluative. We have a mutual, professional relationship.
Are there other benefits that you get as a result of ISA coaching?
MET: Yes. I am part of a network of mathematics teachers through ISA. I know many colleagues in other schools, and we serve as a resource for each other. There is also an online community where teachers share ideas and help each other resolve issues. I even spoke at the Annual Math Symposium two years in a row. ISA creates a connected, family environment. You are not isolated. There is a family of like-minded people engaged in similar work, and we all support each other. Every teacher should have this.