“Preschool teacher practices in the state of Illinois are improving because of our coaching model and virtual practice. And we know that a high-quality teacher positively impacts student outcomes.”Cindy Berrey, Director at The Center: ECPL
In a state with a significant proportion of rural areas, providing equal professional development opportunities to isolated educators becomes a logistical challenge. This can be particularly difficult for providers in a state such as Illinois, in which there are scattered programs with only one or two teachers working with any given grade level.
We sat down with three members of The Center: Early Childhood Professional Learning (ECPL) team to discuss how TORSH Talent allowed the organization’s Preschool for All (PFA) Coaching Project to overcome the barriers of time and distance associated with state-wide programming. Cindy Berrey serves as Director, Lynn Burgett as Program Manager, and Suzy Finn as Project Coordinator.
ECPL provides free professional learning and resources that support programs funded by the Illinois State Board of Education in implementing evidence-based practices that improve outcomes for young children and their families. Their Preschool for All Coaching Project partners with Early Childhood Care and Education staff, families, and community stakeholders to support sustainable, reflective practice that drives continuous quality improvement and results in high-quality outcomes for educators, children, and their families.
Program Made More Equitable with Virtual Coaching
“I think that our experience with TORSH Talent is validation of a good product.”Suzy Finn, Project Coordinator at The Center: ECPL
One of Berrey’s concerns was the logistic and financial feasibility of providing coaching services to Preschool for All teachers regardless of program size or location.
“Just because you’re in a town with only 3500 people should not preclude your equal access to a coach, even if we don’t have someone based nearby,” Berrey explained. However, it becomes quite expensive very quickly when coaches must drive several hours and then stay overnight in hotels to reach certain programs. “We weren’t happy with the expenses that we were seeing associated with travel, even as we were pushing to make access to the program more equitable.”
So, the team began searching for a solution in the form of a virtual platform that would serve as a home base for everyone involved in the Project. They wanted a space that included a resource library, easy communication channels, and easy access to virtual meetings. Initially, they tried to build their own platform before turning to TORSH.
“We realized quite quickly that we didn’t have the capacity to build it with sufficient security ourselves, and that’s when we found TORSH. Talent has more than fulfilled our wish list! And we have been able to collaborate with TORSH throughout the year to make sure the platform meets our specific needs,” Berrey enthused.
The Talent virtual platform also provided some unexpected bonuses. Their team now has the ability to provide teachers with flexible 24/7 access to educator resources and direct communication channels with their coaches. Their coaches are able to leverage the platform’s built-in coaching tools to easily and collaboratively set goals and action steps, provide in-the-moment evidence-based feedback, and measure progress. Talent also helps to significantly lessen classroom disruptions. These benefits of virtual coaching quickly dissipated any reluctance on the part of teachers and coaches to switch to a virtual model.
“I think that our experience with TORSH Talent is validation of a good product,” Finn stated. “When we started our pilot program, there were some concerns about moving to a virtual coaching model. But by now the coaches have fully embraced the TORSH platform. This step was really important to us, because the coaches’ support of the platform ensured the buy-in with the teachers they work with.”
Using Actionable Data to Drive Progress
“TORSH Talent provides us with the actionable data and documentation we need in order to answer these questions [from the Illinois State Board of Education].”Lynn Burgett, Program Manager at The Center: ECPL
Burgett was with the Illinois State Board of Education before joining The Center. This perspective has allowed her to focus on administrative concerns about program efficacy, value, and data collection.
The ability to easily obtain, access, and analyze data in TORSH Talent was a vital feature for The Center. This data is necessary for government reporting and budgeting.
“Coming from the State Board, I know the questions they’re asking contractors and grant holders — What’s the outcome? Is this worth the taxpayer dollars? How are you having an impact on children’s lives?” Burgett explained. “TORSH Talent provides us with the actionable data and documentation we need in order to answer these questions.”
In a survey conducted after the onset of the pandemic, The Center found that educators identified other teachers as the most valuable resource for their own practice. However, the ability to come together to share ideas, collaborate on methods, and provide mutual moral support is more difficult for rural teachers in isolated programs.
Transitioning their coaching program from a traditional in-person model to a virtual one expanded The Center’s reach and offerings. Not only did TORSH Talent dramatically increase their capabilities for facilitating one-on-one coaching sessions for all PFA teachers, but it also opened the door to innovative group collaboration for isolated educators.
When coaches first started working virtually with these teachers, they called it the Isolated Teachers Group.
“These initial sessions were powerful,” Burgett said. “I mean, it got emotional. These isolated teachers were so glad to have other people who knew what their experience was. They felt like they were in it together.”
Over the past year, this programming blossomed into Collaborative Learning Sessions. In these sessions, participants decide collectively on a discussion topic, project, or other professional development activity. For example, one group decided to study the Pyramid Model, a conceptual framework of evidence-based practices for promoting young children’s healthy social and emotional development. This model can be particularly helpful for children with developmental or learning disabilities.
In the end, “preschool teacher practices in the state of Illinois are improving because of our coaching model and virtual practice. And we know that a high-quality teacher positively impacts student outcomes,” Burgett asserted.