8th grade Algebra teacher and basketball coach Sean Plaskett worked with an A+ Coach through our partnership with KIPP Polaris Academy for Boys. Not too long ago, Mr. Plaskett sat down with us to chat about the incredible community he’s built in his classroom, and about his experience working with his A+ Numeracy Performance Coach.

On his classroom community: I’m the school’s basketball coach.  I would see my players get so upset when they went for a layup and missed it.  I came up with a system called Hard Work and No Sweat.  If any of my players missed a free throw or something, I would look at them – make eye contact – and say “no sweat.” It happened once in class, kind of by accident: a kid got most of the way there, but he didn’t quite get the right answer, and I said “no sweat.”

And it clicked – what I do as a coach can translate to what I do as a teacher. I didn’t start getting a turnaround in their academics until I started playing Connect 4 with them at lunch. Before you can have community and trust in your classroom, you have to have strong, strong relationships. My first year was a struggle, and as I think back on it, I know it’s because I did not have the relationships. But when you have them, it can change the trajectory for a student. Strong relationships mean they trust you and they’ll do what you ask, and they’re more motivated to prove themselves to you. They’re comfortable. They trust each other.

When I have that, it helps me do my job effectively, and it gives me joy. The participation – where they’re trying stuff and owning their learning – you don’t get that in a room where the teacher is talking the whole time. I say that as someone who really needed to work on that at the beginning! I can pose a problem and let them have at it, and they can talk about it and even disagree without arguing. They are motivated to ask the questions that I would have asked. If you have that community, you can take a step back and let the kids take control of their learning. You have to be honest and open with them. There have been times when the information I shared with them was not pleasing: like when I told my Algebra class that they had to take two state tests at the end of the year. But when you’re not open and honest with them, and things happen that they don’t expect, they react in an adverse way, just like any other person would, child or adult. Or when I get an exit ticket and only 40% of them got the right answer, the next day, I’m like “all right, guys, you can take out your homework and throw it away. If only 40% of you got it right, you couldn’t have done the homework right – and that’s on me. So I’m going to try again.” We’re not afraid to make mistakes, and to make them out loud, because at the end of the day, you can get it right, or you can correct the mistakes and move on.  It’s no sweat.

On having a coach: I joined Teach for America because I had the heart to serve these types of kids, but my background is in psychology. Not having had the prep at the undergraduate level, it’s been so important to me to have a coach. But whether you have the education background or not, you can see the benefit. My coach’s wealth of knowledge is so broad. She knows how to teach any objective. Every teacher has things they were good at in school, things they do better than others. My coach has made me a more well-rounded teacher. Students deserve a teacher who knows how to teach everything, not just the stuff he’s good at. She pushed me to use more visuals in my classroom. When I have them refer to the reference materials, I do less talking.

That was a big area of improvement: not being the sage on the stage. You have no idea how many little things you can do differently that will have a huge impact on the efficiency of your class, just because someone offers it as a suggestion. Small fixes, like: a coach can sit in your classroom and see that you spend two or three minutes collecting students’ homework when you could have a homework box instead. It seems like such an obvious thing, but as a teacher, you can’t see every little thing that would help. You need other eyes. And an extra one or two minutes – it can mean everything. It can be the difference between 60% mastery and 80% mastery. It can mean that a student walks out of class understanding a concept that he needs not only that day, but way down the line. That time is essential. Anything and everything your coach tells you, you can trust. Every time I heed those suggestions, it improves my teaching tremendously.

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