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How One Instructional Coach Is Supporting Corps Members' Virtual Classrooms

Addison Combs-Williams shares what it's like for her team to coach new teachers virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

December 10, 2020

The Stories of Leadership series features Teach For America's network of teachers, principals, families, coaches, and staff as we all navigate the ever-evolving landscape of virtual education. The work happening daily in schools, on video calls, and in virtual learning platforms would not be possible without your continued support of Teach For America Memphis. Here, we spoke to Addison Combs-Williams (Memphis '15), an instructional coach, about the challenges facing new teachers, and how her team is helping to support corps members. 

What is your vision for the corps members you support?

As a leadership coach with Teach For America Memphis, I work closely with a cohort of 27 first-year teachers. Not only do I provide professional development and coaching to my cohort, but I serve as a resource, mentor, and friend during this trying time. My vision for my corps members is that they are ready to lead welcoming and rigorous classrooms on the first day of school and show significant development in teaching, planning, and student growth by the end of their first year.

What is motivating corps members in this moment and keeping them in this work?

I hear many different opinions about virtual teaching—it is a completely new thing for everyone involved. Regardless of their opinions, they get up every day to positively impact the lives of students in Memphis. At this point in the school year, my teachers are starting to see the impact that building relationships with students and families has in their day-to-day work. This is a foundation that Teach For America encourages from the first day of summer training; we cannot do this work without building relationships.

What are some of the unique challenges teachers are facing in their virtual classrooms?

Educators are facing a myriad of unique challenges this year, but the most difficult one is student engagement. Teachers are constantly competing for the attention of students with many more extraneous factors than before: the television, a parent’s phone call, poor internet connection, or a sibling’s online class. It is difficult enough to convince students that their multiplication facts are fun; now teachers have many other things pulling away their students’ attention.

How have you adapted your coaching and support to meet these challenges?

In March, when our lives went “virtual,” our coaching team had many challenges to overcome. We had to adapt many of our professional development and coaching structures to the confines of Zoom. Each day I log onto virtual classrooms to observe. After each observation, I debrief individually with corps members online.

In efforts to further teacher development, we have bi-weekly cohort and monthly whole-corps professional development experiences. This year, much of our development has been focused around dilemmas that have arisen from virtual teaching. Due to the cohorts being smaller, more intentional communities, we find that this time provides professional as well as personal development.

“I have seen more collaboration and innovation in the last year among educators than I have seen in my career. It makes me very hopeful for the future.”

Addison Combs-Williams

Instructional Coach, Teach For America Memphis

Memphis Corps Member 2015

This past summer Teach For America launched its first-ever virtual teacher training. What opportunities did you find with this format? 

Virtual Summer Teacher Training was a wonderful experience as our national organization came together to train over 3,000 teachers nation-wide. The training consisted of several synchronous and asynchronous modules over seven cycles of development. All of the content was grounded in four domains: instruction, learning environment, DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), and reflection.

Each week of training, our corps members had the opportunity to learn from some of the best and brightest personnel within our Teach For America network. Additionally, they found virtual community within the subjects that they planned to teach in the fall.

The biggest advantage to Virtual Summer Teacher Training was the opportunity that corps members had to teach virtually. Our corps members came into their first year of teaching with more experience teaching virtually than many of their colleagues.

How have you seen Teach For America corps members stepping up?

Teach For America corps members have been extremely innovative during this unprecedented time. When the pandemic started, no one had a "manual" of what to do in education for kids. We saw clear evidence of corps members’ leadership as many of them led innovative initiatives in their schools during the transition to virtual teaching.

Our corps members were willing to do the research and try new educational methods to see what would be the most beneficial for their students. This year, because many of our corps members had to complete their college studies virtually, they have a unique perspective on what students need to be successful virtually. I have seen more collaboration and innovation in the last year among educators than I have seen in my career; it makes me very hopeful for the future.

What lessons are you and the coaching team at Teach For America learning right now?

The coaching team at Teach For America is learning a lot about the power of personal connection. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions, and it is extremely difficult to build the trust needed for powerful coaching simply through a computer screen. Although I am seeing immense growth through video feedback and coaching, building relationships virtually takes much more intentional time and effort.

I have never seen my cohort of 27 teachers, who I spend a majority of my day with, in person; nor have they seen the hundreds of students, that they spend a majority of the day with, in person. Yet, each and every day, we collectively put all of our efforts towards a goal that one day each child will have the opportunity to receive an equitable education. Although through extremely difficult circumstances, I believe that the field of education needed this push into the 21st century, and it makes me hopeful for the future. Blended learning has been on the rise for a decade because it provides vast and individualized instruction through the power of technology. With our worlds continuously expanding due to virtual connections, I hope that our students can now receive the 21st-century education that they deserve.

What do you want to be true for kids in Memphis at the end of this school year?

By the end of this school year, I want our students to be cognizant of and advocate for the ways in which they learn best from their teachers. I want the lessons that we have learned during this time to mean something for the future of education. I believe that TFA Memphis is an integral part of this goal, by providing the city leaders equipped to see the change in the future as welcomed and necessary.

See more from our Stories of Leadership series!

School Leader Marian Williams (Memphis '11) and math teacher Megan Tryder (Memphis '19) at Kirby Middle school share how the pandemic has impacted their community and how they are working from the school and classroom levels to ensure students have access to excellent virtual learning.