I was recently in the Sweet Home School District (Buffalo, NY) sharing the Art of Coaching. I was thrilled to find that the district’s math, literacy and technology coaches were attending the training along with their principals, some central office administrators, and the superintendent himself. Coaching programs often struggle simply because coaches and administrators don’t share an understanding about the coaching model. Getting everyone in the same room for some learning and shared meaning-making is essential. During my workshop, one high school principal expressed her desire to partner with her coaches and asked if I had any suggestions for how she could best support them. It was such a good question that I said I’d respond on this blog--I’m sure that other principals share these hopes.
Before I get to the suggestions, I want to acknowledge the complications that arise if the principal is also the coach’s evaluator. Whenever possible, I encourage districts to opt for a model where someone other than the site administrator evaluates the coach. I do believe coaches need to be evaluated--I think that’s key to a highly effective coaching program, but I believe it should be done by someone perhaps in the central office who is also charged with providing professional development for coaches. When the principal evaluates the coach, the already-present complicated power dynamic between the two is heightened. The following suggestions apply regardless of who evaluates the coaches.
1. Clarify Confidentiality Agreements
In some places coaches are seen as (or even used as) intermediaries between the administration and teachers in a way that incurs distrust. This is a reflection of the levels of trust at a site. As an effort to address this, it is imperative that administrators and coaches are aligned around what is communicated between coaches and administrators about teachers. These communication agreements should be written up and shared with all involved--and adhered to.
2. Establish Communication Structures
The key to the success of a coaching program will be the communication between everyone involved. Principals will want to meet in person at least weekly with coaches. In addition, principals may want to set up other communication systems such as logs that coaches might use to document their work with teachers. For example, with a teacher’s consent, a coach might want to share that the teacher is working on checking for understanding so that when an administrator observes the teacher during classroom walk-throughs, his or her feedback can be focused on that specific area. Communication between an administrator and coach can be supportive of a teacher; it can also help streamline the feedback that a teacher receives.
3. Co-create Agendas for Meetings
Weekly meetings of administrators and coaches need to feel useful and purposeful to both parties. This is an opportunity to share information about professional development plans and progress towards PD goals, to exchange ideas, and to align on practices. It can be helpful if at an initial meeting coaches and administrators express their needs and hopes for their weekly meetings together and then craft a replicable agenda structure. As the meetings progress throughout the year, it’s useful to occasionally check back in on the process itself--are these meetings helping our work? How? Is there any way we could get more from them? Or anything that either person needs from them? Again, communication is essential.
4. Align on a Coaching Model
What’s your school or district’s coaching model? What are the coaching program’s goals? Vision? Theories of action? What does a coaching cycle include? Which skills are coaches expected to use in their work with teachers? And who has determined all of these components of the coaching model? I recognize that there may be many holes in your answers for these questions--they’re mostly intended to raise awareness about what might or might not be clear about your coaching approach. Discussing these with a coach can lead to more cohesion and clarity as well as surface any large discrepancies.
5. Clarify Coaching Expectations
Emerging from a discussion of your coaching model should be a discussion of expectations. Who is the teacher going to work with? How often will they meet? Is coaching optional or mandatory for teachers? Does coaches have to observe teachers, or is that optional? Creating a shared understanding of these expectations and then communicating them to teachers is essential.
6. Learn Together
The most effective coaching programs are those where coaches and site leaders are engaged in inquiry together around what’s happening at their school: they might do walk-throughs of classrooms, analyze teacher’s lesson plans, or review curriculum. Administrators and coaches partner and learn about their school and teachers together so that they can meet the needs of all children.
7. Learn From Your Coaches
Find out what your coaches really know about and then learn from them. The majority of coaches have expertise in a content area, instructional practices, or some aspect of teaching and learning. Many were excellent teachers. They can help you learn about instructional approaches that you may not be as familiar with. Be open with your coaches, ask questions about things you’re wondering about when you visit classrooms, invite them to share their knowledge with you.
8. Support Your Coach’s Learning
In addition to the domains of instruction and curriculum, coaches need to have a deep knowledge of adult learning. Most receive no formal training in how to work with adults and this is the primary area in which they struggle. Ask your coaches what they feel they need to learn, find resources for them, and allocate PD days and funds for them to engage in their own development. The more they learn, the more effective they’re likely to be.
Furthermore, support coaches to find a coach PLC. They need community, they need to be with other coaches so they can discuss the challenges that are unique to their position. Coaches sometimes feel as if they inhabit a nebulous zone in between teachers and admin. Sometimes they can feel as if teachers no longer completely trust and accept them. It can feel lonely and alienating at times, or just confusing if you were a teacher at a site and then became a coach there. That raises other complications. Coaches need a place where they can discuss these feelings and experiences with their peers. See if you can help in any way to make that happen.
9. Offer Leadership Guidance
Coaches are leaders who need leadership development--but many of them aren’t yet aware that they’re leaders or are having a hard time moving into such a role. Offer them informal coaching and mentoring. Have explicit conversations about their role, naming it as one of leadership, raising awareness about what this entails. Remind them that when they’re in staff meetings teachers will be watching them closely to see what their reaction is to anything the principals says and will be taking cues from them. Remind them that a leader’s emotions are contagious--that they can help to set a positive tone in the school. And throughout this informal coaching, make sure to listen closely to what coaches say. Learn about what’s challenging for them: you don’t need to fix it all, just start by listening and expressing empathy.
10. Appreciate Your Coaches.
Everyone needs to be appreciated, including coaches. Find little ways to recognize their contributions to your school, acknowledge the challenges inherent in their jobs, ask them what they feel proud of in their work, and ask them how they like to be appreciated.
November 4 is the second annual International Coach Appreciation Day. How could you take that opportunity to recognize the work that your coaches have done this fall to help your teachers get successfully launched into the new year? How could you facilitate appreciation from teachers and even from students for the work your coaches do? November 4 could be a wonderful opportunity to strengthen your connection with your coach and deepen your partnership, a partnership that could tremendously benefit the entire community that you serve.
End Note: Last year, when I declared Nov. 4 to be “Coach Appreciation Day,” I declared it as a national day. This year I’ve decided it should be “International Coach Appreciation Day.” That was just an oversight and this year there are some coaches abroad who I’m preparing to recognize!
The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.