Towards an Environment of Personalization: The Academic Coaches Program

By: David Teller
from Fuchs Mizrachi School

Learning Environment

Subject(s) of entry:
Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa


Grade(s) to which this was taught:
9, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
9, High school

The Academic Coaches program connects each student to one caring, natural adult mentor in the school building able to provide both academic support and a more personal account of student development to other teachers and administration, while helping students develop goals and foster their own self advocacy skills.

Entry Narrative

[I] Purpose and Underlying Philosophy

The purpose of this program aligns with our larger school mission: to ensure that every child is valued unconditionally and challenged to actualize their G-d given potential. As teachers, we are positioned in a highly sensitive and privileged position in the lives of our students. Our perceptions and expectations greatly influence the ongoing construction of their identities both as academic learners and in the development of their character. The program presupposes that each student possesses infinite self-worth, and that by developing an individualized, collaborative relationship with a caring teacher, can spark an evolving actualization of each student’s unlimited potential.

On a philosophical level, this program ascribes to and endorses a constructionist and relational approach to education. As Nakkula and Toshalis[1](2011) describe, “At the end of the day, our work is not only about what we teach or counsel but also about how we relate to our students and the possibilities that open up for our youth through these relationships (p. xii).” In that sense, teachers become agents of hope in the lives of their students, allowing them to imagine new ways of being, by creating an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard and high expectations.

[II] Goals

1. To “smallify[2]” our school and ensure that no student is falling through the cracks, especially, but not limited to, those in need of additional academic support.

2. To connect our students to at least one caring, natural mentor in the building.

3. To establish another access point for teacher-student relationships and promote teacher-student care, empathy, and understanding.

4. To empower teachers to play a more active role in targeted student support.

5. To help students develop better executive functioning skills, study habits, and responsibility for their learning while engaging in the lifelong process of personal growth.

[III] Background

In the world of Jewish education, modern advances in the public school sector are often appropriated into our system without fully reflecting on the goals and needs of the specific program. For example, advisory systems became popularized as a way of making larger public schools seem smaller, giving students more voice, and personalizing the school environment. Like many Jewish day schools, we attempted to develop an advisory-based system where students met with their advisory group leader twice a week. But many challenges ensued. The most fundamental was a lack of clarity as to the goal of the program, and the assumption that the students needed another group setting to address school challenges and find “their voice.” Reflecting on our advisory process with other day schools, we were not alone in our concerns with this model. Meeting as frequently as twice a week demanded some sort of curriculum with specific agenda items and goals to make the program purposeful. But that assumed a degree of fidelity to a designed curriculum that many teachers, as well as students, didn’t feel comfortable or aligned with. Opting for no curriculum meant that the advisory time became more of a glorified study hall, and imposing monthly sessions to discuss specific topics of interest, was looked at as taking away from what the students perceived as “their time.” Either way the program relied on the group model, which didn’t address the unique and specialized individual needs of our students.

To address this need, I advocated to our school administration last year to launch a pilot program that would emphasize individual teacher-student relationships, allow for more targeted academic support, and serve as a middle-management intervention strategy to alleviate some of the workload on members of the administration by allowing a trained group of teachers to proactively address common student challenges as they arose. That proposal led to the development of an Academic Champions program for 11th grade which has now blossomed into a 9-11th grade Academic Coaches program that involves 9 teachers from almost every academic department in the high school.

[IV] The Program

Unlike advisory systems that emphasize group sessions, the Academic Coaches program stresses individual one-on-one sessions where Academic Coaches (ACs) are involved in relational development, structured academic check-ins, and targeted goal setting. The AC still meets with their entire group but these are spaced out every six weeks where a targeted executive functioning skill or a specific educational approach or issue, is shared and discussed. But the clear emphasis of the program is the fostering of a trusted relationship in a one on one coaching setting.

The program has an in-built differentiating structure based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. The RTI model presupposes that any Tier 1 intervention should work for approximately 80% of a school’s students. This includes all formal classroom instruction, programming, and natural support. The AC program is a Tier 1 support in that all students receive individual sessions once a month with their AC and a group session once every 6-7 weeks. For those students whose needs are not fully met by Tier 1, for example they have weaker executive functioning skills and need more time for organization, or to stay on top of their demanding workload, they are considered for Tier 2 intervention. Within the AC program that means that ACs meet with these students once every 2 weeks and provide additional support to help their academic achievement.

In this way the AC program allows us to better differentiate student needs than a typical advisory format. Unlike a generalized group session where the assigned topic may or not seem relevant to each student, the individualized sessions allow for genuine personalization. Although all sessions start with general relational development and an academic “check-in,” sessions then become targeted to address student specific needs or concerns. Examples can include focusing on a specific executive functioning skill such as task initiation strategies, scheduling upcoming tasks and assignments, or “breaking down” larger projects into more manageable pieces. For those students who are generally on top of their workload and succeeding by normalized measures of school performance, a greater emphasis is given to targeted goal setting, where students are challenged to describe additional ways they can grow, not only by getting “A’s” in their classes, but developing skills, attributes, and talents and developing a systematic plan to achieving them.

The Academic Coaches framework has created a school wide learning environment where students have additional, safer access points to handle academic challenges in a healthier way, as well as develop goals for their personal and academic growth. As ACs have become a feature of the student experience it has reinforced our culture of student focus and an emphasis on student growth. The Academic Coaching sessions has added another learning environment for students to grow based on their needs and specific school related challenges. Outside of their day-in classroom experiences, students now have this additional access point to address challenges and push themselves to achieve. Each AC established two periods in their schedule at the beginning of the year as dedicated to individual coaching sessions. During these times, ACs meet students in their classrooms and find a quiet space for their coaching session. Students have expressed how much they appreciate having a quiet, safe space to express concerns, and plan next action steps to address academic or social demands that remain unresolved. Additionally, every 6 weeks, the entire group meets together over an enhanced breakfast to learn and reflect on an area of growth together.  Students together with their AC have discussed their executive functioning strengths and weaknesses, the extent to which they demonstrate goal directed persistence, and utilizing the WOOP strategy developed by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen to set realistic goals, predict obstacles and plan proactive strategies to address them. The emphasis that ACs place on goal setting and follow up, focusing on specific next action steps reinforces these philosophical underpinning to our students.

Teachers that opted into being Academic Coaches received a training binder at the beginning of the school year. They also received additional training in identifying and providing specific strategies for common executive functioning deficiencies by an ADHD and Executive functioning clinical therapist from the local Cleveland Clinic Hospital. Teachers in the Academic Coaches program meet as a cohort once every two months to discuss bright spots and challenges of the program, and to receive some additional strategies to work with particular challenging behaviors or situations.

Specifically, each Academic Coach commits to the following:

(1) Meetings with Tier 1 students at least once every 4 weeks, and Tier 2 students at least once every 2 weeks for 20 minutes. Basic expectations of these meetings include:

  1. Review student grades and upcoming assignments and develop a plan of action to stay organized and on top of workload.
  2. Collaboratively set both semester wide and monthly goals.
  3. Check progress of goals and discuss strategies to address challenges

A more detailed structure of these meetings can be seen here.

(2) Facilitate group check-in once every 6 weeks (a total of 8 times over the course of the school year). Meetings involve goal checking and introducing an executive functioning strategy or short group activity. Examples: Group Session 1, Group Session 2, and Group Session 3 .

(3) Update Google Spreadsheet, logging when AC meets with students, a bullet point summary of significant issues discussed, and next action steps/follow up delineated. A sample template can be seen here.

 (4) An understanding of our language. Not only what we do, but how we communicate our vision to each other and to our students is integral to this program. A document detailing some of our emphasized language can be seen here

(5) Being a point person for specific students at student support meetings and serve as a primary option to follow up with students based on actions steps determined when necessary.

(6) Being primary address from administration for basic student academic concerns. These can include deliberations about changing a class, struggle with workload, study habits/skills, or developing self-advocacy skills to take ownership/ responsibility for a situation and proactively address it. Students can initiate meetings with AC to meet primarily during designated two periods or a lunch/ student break only and when it works for the AC.

(7) Email other faculty on a need-to basis to gain clarity about a particular student challenge (for example: an assignment they’re struggling with) as well as communicate with administration if a more elaborate school-wide student picture is required.

(8) Attend and participate in AC Program professional development during staff inservice days to learn about the program and specific strategies to employ. As well to attend meeting with administration once each semester to discuss student roster and progress, and once each semester with the entire AC group to assess the strengths and challenges of the current program.

[V] FAQs

1. When do ACs meet with students? Aren’t you concerned that these meetings will be dropped first when teaching demands get more intense?

Each AC designated two periods at the beginning of the year for individual student meetings. ACs shared this information with their students and explained that they will remove students from class for 15-20 minutes during those times. If for whatever reason those times didn’t work for the student, the AC and student can mutually agree on a different time to meet.

2. What do ACs and students do when they meet?

Generally speaking, these sessions are a good chance to check in, to see how students are doing and feeling about school.  As well it is a good opportunity to make sure students are staying on top of their workload. Looking at Powerschool and Schoology to make sure students keeping on top of things and possibly discussing strategies to work through any specific academic challenges. We will also be setting goals to grow to the best of our abilities.

3. What should students come to an AC for?

In addition to our scheduled meetings, the AC is a point person and access point for other school situations and concerns that come up including:

  • Deliberations about changing a class
  • Struggle with workload
  • Study skills/habits
  • Challenge with a particular class
  • Developing Self Advocacy/Getting advice on proactively solving problems

4. Is this Advisory?

Advisory was a program that met as a group multiple times a week. The Academic Coaches program is about meeting with students on an individual basis and best supporting and actualizing student growth and potential. We will meet as a group but only 7 or 8 times over the course of the school year. We will meet more often individually.

5. What do we say if a student asks “is this mandatory?”

(Take a deep breath…) Yes. We believe strongly that every student no matter how academically strong or weak can and should think about ways to grow. This program is not only about focussing on your weaknesses, but on your strengths and working together to best actualize those strengths and talents in our school. We want to help every student flourish and thrive.

[1]Nakkula, M. J., & Toshalis, E. (2010).Understanding youth: Adolescent development for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press


[2]See: Dennis Littky (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business

Entrant Bio(s)

David Teller is currently in his fourth year as a teacher and first as the Dean of Students at the Fuchs Mizrachi School Stark High School. David currently teaches gemara to 10th, 11th and 12th graders and will be teaching a Positive Psychology and Judaism Judaic Studies elective in the Spring. Originally from Toronto, Ontario, David completed Semicha from RIETS and earned his Masters from Azrieli in Jewish Education. Last year he completed his Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at John Carroll University where he focused on child and adolescent counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy. In that capacity he interned at an after school therapy center teaching children coping skills development, anger management, impulse control strategies and interpersonal skills. David hopes to continue to bridge skills, knowledge and best practice from the world of counseling to advance and address the needs of children in school settings.