Partner Spotlight: Q&A with Don Yanek

The Learning Partnership just released a report on the Chicago-based Exploring Computer Science (ECS) coaching program. We recently sat down with one of our partners, Don Yanek, to discuss his experiences as an ECS instructional coach for the Chicago Public Schools. Don is a founding member of the leadership team of the Chicago Alliance For Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS). He serves as a national facilitator for the ECS professional development program, and as an advisor for CS for Oregon research-practice partnership. Don is a veteran computer science teacher and former president of the Chicago Computer Science Teachers Association.  He is also a National Center for Women & Information Technology Educator Award winner.  Don is the drummer for the indie band, The Purcells.   

Question: What past experiences or positions have prepared you for the role you are in now?

Answer: I’ve been a high school teacher for 31 years. I’ve been teaching computer science for 26 of those years. I’ve been an instructional coach for the last 4 years. I’ve been a member of the CAFÉCS leadership team for 11 years. My participation in CAFÉCS has shaped my interest in educational research and computer science education policy, which informs my coaching and advocacy. I taught the first pilot ECS course in the Chicago Public Schools almost 9 years ago, and I became an ECS PD facilitator 7 years ago. I facilitate PD for Chicago teachers, as well as Oregon State teachers.  

I think all of those roles influence me as a coach. Many of our conversations within CAFÉCS are around pedagogy and computer science, or about educational research. So, I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about teaching practices, especially in terms of equity and inquiry. 

Question: What inspires your passion for computer science?

Answer: I truly believe that all students deserve access to a real computer science course. I see it as a social justice issue. In order to participate in society and the modern economy, some level of computing knowledge is essential. Without it, doors can be closed to our students. For me it’s all about fairness. When I see something that’s wrong, I want to fix it. I see the inequalities and inequity in student access to computer science, and I want to change that. Righting this wrong energizes me and keeps me going. 

In terms of computer science itself, I’m fascinated by how creative it can be – that whole problem-solving angle; that you can take your ideas and thoughts and translate them into something that a machine can then do. I just think it’s fascinating. 

Question: When were you first exposed to computer science?

Answer: The first time I ever took a computer science class was in college, but the thought of being a computer science teacher didn’t happen until my fourth year of teaching. Around 1994, I participated in a National Science foundation initiative to train high school math teachers in the new AP Computer Science course. It was a summer program at Loyola University. The following school year I persuaded my school principal to offer a section of the course. I applied for a $10,000 grant from the Amoco Foundation and won! The course had to be offered after school as an extra class, since there was no room in typical student schedules. I recruited 24 students. Thinking back, it was a pretty diverse group of students, but I can’t say that was on my mind then. I just wanted to teach this new class that I was excited about. 

Question: How did you first become involved with the coaching program? 

Answer: I became a coach primarily as a result of my experience teaching ECS and as a PD facilitator. The idea to initiate a coaching program came from analysis of results from the NSF research grant, Taste of Computing, which brought ECS to the Chicago Public Schools. When we looked at the research data from Taste of Computing, we realized that teachers were struggling with the equity and inquiry pieces of the curriculum.  Because ECS was designed as an introductory course for all students regardless of previous experience, teaching it, especially the early units, requires a more student-centered classroom approach. In the curriculum, direct instruction is limited. For our new teachers, we noticed that when they hit a roadblock or challenge, there was a tendency to slip back into a direct instruction mode. So, we realized that we needed to have more classroom contact and support. 

My personal decision to become a coach is rooted in my experience teaching ECS and how the PD changed me as a teacher. I like to describe this change as prior to becoming an ECS teacher there could have been an infinite abyss between me and the students and I was never in danger of falling into it. Afterward my classroom and my teaching decisions were firmly centered around the student’s experience. I never really considered how even the most minute decisions or actions I made as a teacher could affect a student’s understanding so much. I’m really fascinated by the study of teaching. It truly is a science. I really enjoy brainstorming strategies with my teachers. 

Question: Can you please describe the mentoring you are receiving from Gail Chapman and Kirsten Peterson?

Answer: Gail Chapman is one of the authors of the ECS curriculum and is the director of professional development for ECS. Kirsten Peterson’s area of expertise is in remote learning and remote teaching. My colleague, Valerie Curry, and I meet with them twice a month.  Coming together gives us an opportunity to strengthen the philosophical foundations and computational practices of the ECS curriculum, like revisiting and reinforcing equity practices.  We also focus on pragmatic needs. For example, this year we have expanded our focus to include the particular needs of our more experienced ECS teachers during remote learning. We are discussing how coaching an experienced teacher may differ from coaching a new teacher. 

Question: How has that mentoring helped you be a better coach?

Answer: Well, one of the things we say as ECS facilitators and which is true about being a coach is to trust the process; the process means trusting the teachers and listening to them. The mentoring has been a nice refresher about the importance of listening and meeting the teachers where they are. Teachers know their students the best. They know their school community the best. And so, what’s helped is just having a reminder of our core principles. Coaching is a partnership based on trust.

Question: How do you prepare yourself to be the best coach possible?

Answer: Coaching begins with preparing myself to be a good listener. I think that’s the most important thing. Being honest and open with my teachers by giving feedback that’s based in reality, and not being a judge.

I read a lot about current research on coaching. I have also done a lot of coaching professional development workshops which have really informed our coaching model. My coaching has evolved in two ways.  Initially our technique revolved around questioning as a way to help the teacher be more reflective about their practice. I would try to guide them to an ‘aha’ moment. I would be very careful not to provide my opinion or suggestions unless specifically asked. Now our coaching method is a more dialogue-based approach where we work as a partnership sharing expertise and ideas.  Also, my coaching focus has shifted to a more student goal centered approach. We start by getting a picture of reality in the class by recording a lesson or doing some simple data collection. Then we have a conversation about the lesson. “When you were planning this lesson, how did you imagine it?”  “What is the goal you wanted for your students?” “How important is this goal?” These are important questions because we want to commit our energy to something the teacher feels is vital. Together we brainstorm teaching strategies to help us reach that goal. This might require several more sessions and conversations. 

Question: What’s the most challenging part about being a coach?

Answer: Building trust is the most challenging, but also the most important aspect of coaching. It’s difficult to invite someone into your classroom and then to talk about what happened. I try to instill in my teachers that it’s not about measuring how good you are right now, it’s about how good you want to be in the future and working toward that. It also helps to bring coffee or a treat!

Question: What is the most rewarding part about being a coach?

Answer: I think it’s probably the same reward as when you’re a teacher; this feeling that you get when you witness a student have that ‘aha’ moment. Now, as a coach, I not only get to see those moments in the classroom from students but also teachers. It’s such a rewarding feeling. I like to say that that’s what keeps me young — at heart, anyway. It’s worth all the treasure you can imagine. I know that might sound corny but that is such an incredible feeling to be there and witness that. 

Question: Have there been any important mentors or coaches on your life journey that you would like to give a shout out to?

Answer: Absolutely. Gail Chapman is number one on the list. She is a very close friend of mine and does probably not see herself as being my mentor.  Her work and guidance have changed my life both professionally and personally. Another person is Jerry Vandemark, my high school math teacher. When I decided to be a teacher, he was willing to be my mentor when I had to do some practicum hours in a real classroom. When I was done, I remember he said to me, “You know the concepts, now go and have fun,” which I think is great advice. And then there is Eric Hamilton from Loyola University who recruited me to take the summer AP training for math teachers and set me on this path. Watching him teach, he was just joyful and having fun – that inspired me. Alan Mather is one of my closest friends, and an inspiration to me. He was a high school English teacher, then a high school principal and a district administrator. Alan has this incredible leadership ability to foster consensus. He has this great ability to zero in on what’s important, particularly regarding students and their experience.