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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

4 Reasons Instructional Coaching Won’t Work

By Peter DeWitt — September 10, 2015 4 min read
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Over the last year I have been working as an instructional coaching trainer for Jim Knight. Knight has been doing research for a couple of decades through the Instructional Coaching Group. Instructional coaching is a viable option to increase teacher growth, because coaches can help teachers see their blind spots.

The default reaction is for teachers to say that coaching is all about focusing on what they do wrong in the classroom, but that is not it at all. We all have strengths and weaknesses and there are times when I had a coach when I was a teacher or principal because I could undo some of the things that I did. Coaching can help us build our strengths and see our weaknesses a bit clearer.

Coaching is not about pointing out who is bad. It’s actually about connecting people across curriculum areas or grade levels who can learn from one another because the coach is not the expert, as much as they are the person who can foster relationships among teachers who may not know each other well. They work confidentially as an independent observer who co-constructs goals with teachers.

Personally, I have a great deal of respect for the instructional coaching position. As a former long distance runner all of my coaches had a profound impact on my improvement on the track or out on the trails as a x-country runner, so I understand the impact a great coach can have on our growth in whatever area we are working on. Apparently, from this New Yorker article, even doctors are understanding the power of using coaches.

Unfortunately, there are schools that enter into coaching, but they put coaches in situations that will only foster resentment and not growth among teachers. Perhaps it’s these days of accountability and point scales on teacher evaluations, but there is a lack of trust between many teachers and leaders. Where there is a lack of trust there will also be a hesitancy to try something new.

According to Knight, the instructional coaching relationship has to be a partnership. Coaching is about learning from one another, which also makes it a great philosophy for school leaders who are doing observations on teachers. Wouldn’t it be great if we approached our day as if we could learn from one another.

There are at least 4 reasons why coaching won’t work in schools. Those reasons are:

Building administrators don’t support the position - This happens for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because leaders don’t really understand why they are getting instructional coaches in their building. It is seen as just another person they have to supervise, as opposed to an opportunity to assist with the within-school variability that happens in schools. If building administrators are not on board with instructional coaching, it is at high risk of failing in schools. Leaders set the tone for their school building (click here to read 6 Ways Principals Can Support Coaches).

Coaches are seen as principal’s mouthpiece - Unfortunately, this happens even when the coach may not be the mouthpiece of the school leader because the title “instructional coach” can be on the receiving end of eyeball rolls throughout a school building. Some teachers are jealous that they were not chosen to be a coach, while others don’t fully believe in the coaching position. However, if the coach is someone who has long been the friend or ally of the principal, they may not be invited to enter into any classrooms because there will be a sense of mistrust.

Coaches have to walk a delicate balance because they have to work with the principal in order to be supported. Meaning that the coach needs a principal who will talk about coaching in a positive way, take time at faculty meetings to talk about how valuable the position is to teacher growth, and have private conversations with teachers to persuade them to work with coaches. However, coaches also have to separate themselves from principals in order to prove to teachers that they are not working with the principal to evaluate them.

Coach lacks credibility - If the coach has been in the school for a few years and their colleagues truly believe that the coach lacks credibility, there will be a problem. Many teachers would work with a new teacher and help mentor them. However, very few teachers will work with a coach who seems inexperienced. The coach is seen as someone who has a level of expertise. Don’t confuse expertise with experience. Age doesn’t matter here as much as understanding the dynamics of a classroom, how to engage students, and the pressures of accountability.

Schools need coaches that have a high level of credibility. If they are new to the school they have to make sure, in a humble way, that they share their experiences as a teacher at the same time they prove that they have insight that will foster teacher growth.

Coaches evaluate teachers - If teachers believe that coaches are there to evaluate them, it will make it much harder to foster a positive relationship between teachers and coaches. Coaches are supposed to be working in partnership, in a non-evaluative way, with teachers.

In the End

When done correctly, instructional coaching can be so beneficial to our profession. However, there needs to be a positive school climate in place along with coaches who have credibility with their colleagues, and a principal who will support the process. Coaching is not about surface level learning, and too many times schools may say they have coaches but they are only doing it in name alone.

Coaching is about deep, long lasting relationships between a teacher and coach. If we are entering into the coaching relationship we need to do it in a way that won’t be a waste time.

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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.