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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Reasons Instructional Coaching May Not Be Working

By Peter DeWitt — April 24, 2016 4 min read
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Instructional coaches empower teachers and don’t enable them.

For the last 2 years I have been working with Jim Knight as an instructional coaching trainer around North America. To say I respect coaching, and training coaches, would be an understatement. I believe there are enormous benefits to it. Through Knight’s work coaches work in partnership with their teachers around co-constructed or teacher-chosen goals.

Let’s face it...when we choose our own goals we work harder at achieving them.

Coaches have the opportunity to help teachers see their blind spots, and high quality coaches can help teachers have a larger impact on student learning through using high impact teaching strategies (Knight). According to Knight, coaches and teachers work in a collaborative and confidential setting, which helps both the coach and the teacher grow as professionals.

However, there is another benefit of coaching which can help leaders. Too often teacher observations are a waste of time because teachers get very little feedback, but coaches can help fill that gap by providing teachers with the effective feedback they need in order to grow. Yes, I understand that leaders should be providing effective feedback, but with a good coach we can at least see that teachers will get some sort of feedback around a co-constructed goal.

Instructional coaching, although not evaluative, can help support an instructional leader.

Coaching Gone Wrong
I’ve had the opportunity to see impactful coaching programs in place where coaches either have the full day to work with teachers or one period at a time because they have other teaching duties. The latter gets complicated and it’s not always the most optimal situation but there are amazing coaches who are making it work and having an impact.

However, other times I have heard from teachers and coaches who say their coaching program is going bust, and that’s too bad because they are losing a great opportunity because of some common issues that can easily be solved.

There are at least 3 reasons why coaching may not be working for you, and they are:
Coaches Enable Teachers - As teachers we have always wanted to help our students. Sometimes, we have wanted to help students so much that we ended up enabling them. The same can be said for coaches. There are times when coaches so want to help teachers that they end up enabling instead of empowering them. Coaches will go in and teach a lesson...and then another...and another. First and foremost...stop it. Let the teacher teach.

Suggestion - If a coach is going to model or co-teach a lesson they should do it for a defined period of time within ONE lesson, and not keep doing it day after day. Additionally, if coaches are going to look for resources for the teacher, both parties should agree that the teacher finds two and the coach finds two and then meet up to discuss. Remember, coaches empower and not enable.

Principal directed - This doesn’t sound like such a bad thing; after all, school principals are the leaders in the building. However, what happens is that the principal tells the coach that they should work with a specific teacher, without ever telling the teacher first. This happens for a variety of reasons. One is that the leader really doesn’t understand how coaching works. Perhaps they were left out of the communication chain by central office or they believe that the coach is supposed to be told who to work with, but many times the teacher is caught off guard. This seriously jeopardizes the coaching relationship.

Suggestion: Instead of the coach being put in the awkward position of walking into a teacher’s room to say they have to work with them; the principal should have the initial conversation with the teacher so they are not caught off guard. Use the coach as a resource and not as a compliance officer.

Coaching is misunderstood - I remember Tweeting out a blog on why instructional coaches should be in every school, and a teacher responded by saying “Do doctors have coaches?” I understand where the Tweet was coming from because teachers have felt over the years like they are being told they aren’t good enough, and this teacher thought I was saying they were not good enough. The rhetoric has not been good, and as a principal I stood up against that (and by the way, read this article on how doctors do have coaches).

I think that part of the problem is that some teachers, leaders and even some coaches themselves do not understand that coaching is not about making sure teachers are pacing at the same time, and it’s definitely not about making teachers feel as if they aren’t good enough. Coaching is about reciprocal growth on the part of the teacher and the coach. They both learn as they work together on a common goal.

Suggestion: Read any of Knight’s books on coaching. Additionally, create a sheet that is divided in ½ that describes what coaching is and what coaching is not, and discuss it at a faculty meeting.

Instructional Leadership
In these days when principals are moving out of the role of manager and moving toward the role of instructional or collaborative leader, it’s important that they understand the nuances of coaching and how to help support the relationship between coaches and teachers.

In order to have an effective coaching program it’s important that everyone is clear on the roles and responsibilities. According to this article by Knight there are 6 ways that leaders can support coaches. Those 6 ways are:

  • Support the coach
  • Let the coach coach
  • Clarify roles
  • Clarify confidentiality
  • Make instructional coaching a choice
  • Make it easy for people to be coached.

Don’t give up on the coaching program because of some solvable issues. Work through them together, just like we would want a coach and teacher to do. Our career is about life-long learning, and we need each other for that.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of the LincolnGroup.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.