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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons We Need Instructional Coaches

By Peter DeWitt — November 06, 2014 4 min read
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If you’ve ever played sports, you know that great coaches can help you change the way you play the game. It’s not that they take over your spot and play for you, but they teach you how to be more aggressive, work smarter and harder, and get to a place where you know what to do when they are not around.

Coaches provide an outside perspective and can see things that we may be doing wrong, or need to do better, which can help us perform at a higher level. When we are successful, coaches pat us on the back, but they refocus our efforts so we do not take too much time to rest on our laurels.

That outside perspective can help us see our “Blind spots.”

We all have blind spots. Otto Scharmer says,

Why do our attempts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail? Why are we stuck in so many quagmires today? The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change."

Change is something we all need to do from time to time, because our goal should be to improve in our profession. In that case, blind spots do not just take place in leadership, they can take place in the classroom as well.

There is an old saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” We need an outside perspective that can see the things that we don’t even know exist in the classroom about our instruction or classroom management, because we are so busy teaching that we cannot see everything that is happening and read the minds of the students in our classes.

Scharmer goes on to say,

This "blind spot" exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being. We know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate. And it is this source that "Theory U" attempts to explore."

This is where instructional coaches enter into our lives. They help us see our blind spots, and can help bring our instructional practices up to a new level.

Why Instructional Coaches?

Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work closely with, often says, “Most people don’t know what it looks like when they do what they do.” They are teaching, and interacting with others, so they can’t predict or acknowledge their blind spot because they do not know it exists. This is why instructional coaches can be so important for teachers, and ultimately for students.

Although there are many reasons why instructional coaches are important, I believe that there are three major reasons. Those reasons are that they:

Focus on Best Practices - Teachers need help understanding what will give them the biggest bang for their buck. They are busy, often dealing with initiative fatigue because of so many changes. Instructional coaches can help teachers focus on their individual needs in the classroom, find resources to help bring growth in teaching and learning, and they can help teachers get to a place where they are sharing best practices with one another.

How great would faculty meetings be, if an instructional coaches could take the feedback of teachers and use it to find common themes across grade levels and among teachers, and then use the faculty meeting setting to discuss, debate and dissect practices.

Connect Colleagues with one another - So many great examples of teaching and learning are happening in classrooms in the same school, but because time together often only happens at curriculum meetings or faculty meetings, teachers across multiple grade levels don’t get a chance to learn from one another. Instructional coaches can help bridge that gap. They see what is going on in classrooms, and can help connect likeminded teachers who may be teaching in different grade levels.

Provide an important & fresh outside perspective - As teachers and leaders, we simply do not see everything that we need to in the classroom. Through videoing our practices or having a critical friend like an instructional coach, our blind spots can be opened to us, which will help foster growth and make us better practioners.

Provide Personal Learning - When teachers enter into the instructional coaching relationship, it is to focus on a goal they set for themselves. It’s the best example of teacher voice, because teachers decide which goal they want to pursue and coaches help teachers meet that goal. Sure, coaches may also include goals to help teachers recognize their blind spot, but this relationship is not about one adult telling another what to do. It is about open, honest conversations where two adults work in partnership with each other.

Non-Evaluative - Yes, believe it or not teachers can have observations that do not result in a point scale. Crazy, I know! This is about two adults working together on a goal, and the instructional coach providing effective feedback on how to meet that goal. It is not about a “gotcha” but it is about becoming a better teacher without the fear that the hammer is going to drop at any minute.

In the End

In my life, I was fortunate to have some coaches who had direct conversations when I needed them most, and helped set me on a path, to not only be better at a sport, but be better is many facets of my life. Instructional coaches can help meet that need. Recently, I worked in Worcester, Maryland with a group of teachers transitioning into the coaching role who want to do their best to help their colleagues become better at teaching. Coaches like those can have a huge impact on student learning.

Instructional coaches are not evaluators. They are not a mole for administration, and the conversations they have with teachers are confidential. Their purpose is to help work with teachers and bring them to the next level.

High quality instructional coaches enter into the partnership with teachers knowing that learning is a two-way street. Jim Knight (2007) says,

Instructional coaches who operate from the partnership principles enter relationships with teachers believing that the knowledge and expertise of teachers is as important as the knowledge and expertise of the coach."

Learning is at the heart of what instructional coaches do.

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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.