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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

Has Instructional Coaching Become a Dumping Ground?

By Peter DeWitt — August 26, 2018 5 min read
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It happens. When leaders and teachers sign contracts for new positions, there is typically a section referred to as “Duties as Assigned.” What begins as a few words on a contract takes on a whole new meaning and becomes a snowball effect for competent teachers and leaders. Meaning, if a teacher or leader is good at their job, they are often assigned more and more tasks outside of their normal role because their supervisor has faith in them...or can’t find anyone else to do it.

This is a common occurrence in all professions. My friends who work in state and federal government, retail and sales tell me that. When someone is good at their job, they are often asked to do more. When someone is not good at their job, they are often left alone. I realize that is another whole blog topic.

However, just because this is a common occurrence doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s one of the reasons why collective efficacy is necessary in schools, because “many hands make light work.” Read here for more about why collaboration is necessary...even with those who don’t seem like they want to collaborate because it builds collective efficacy.

Where this phenomena takes place often is with instructional coaches. In fact, we have instructional coaches leaving the position because there is a disconnect between what they thought the position was all about...and what the position has become all about.

In its purest form, instructional coaches should be working confidentially with a teacher, on a goal the teacher cares deeply about, which takes time and effort. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight has done a great deal of research on the topic, and his work has shown that coaching can be a very effective means of professional development.

And don’t we need more high quality and impactful professional development?

Unfortunately, in many cases instructional coaches are not allowed the courtesy of time, and sometimes they are asked to do tasks that seem more administrative. Coaches are put in the position that are usually assigned to assistant principals, which can devastate the coaching relationship because teachers see the coach as an administrator and not a coach (No. Being an administrator should not be a bad thing, which is why I wrote this blog about the dark side. However, a coach is not an administrator).

The Dumping Ground Effect
Everyone in a school is asked to do something from time to time that they don’t like to do. No one enjoys every aspect of their job. However, what happens to coaches is that they are assigned duty after duty that takes them away from working individually with teachers, which is what they were hired to do in the first place. And because the person assigning the duties to the coach is their supervisor, the coach feels like they cannot speak up.

Unfortunately, the teachers who want to work with the coach, or those teachers watching the every move of the coach, do not always understand the complexities of what is taking place. Word gets around that the coach is too busy being an administrator, and the perception of the coaching position takes a very negative hit.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog asking if these 10 words need to be banished from education. It all began as a Facebook post. I asked my “friends” to post a word that they are tired of hearing in their schools. Words like fidelity, rigor and high stakes testing were posted in the comment section.

Then, a friend sent me a private message and said, “Instructional coaching.” When asked why, the person indicated that their district used coaches as compliance officers. The coach walked around asking teachers in the same grade level why they were not pacing at the same time. Pacing is important, but we need to be careful not to look at students like they are on some assembly line of learning.

Once again, what began as a great coaching relationship became a destructive relationship because the coaches were dumped on and forced to look for things like pacing and use of materials, and were forced to forget that the coaching relationship is about the human element of helping someone grow as a teacher, and helping them believe they can take on new challenges.

When we look at research around self-efficacy, which Bandura found, Refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments,” instructional coaching can be a powerful force in raising someone’s self-efficacy. In fact, the four experiences that can raise efficacy are personal performance accomplishment, vicarious experiences (learning from others), social persuasion (feedback, etc.) and physiological conditioning, which all can be accomplished through coaching.

But only if the coach is allowed to...coach. Only if the coaching position doesn’t take a negative hit.

What We Need to Do Differently?
Leaders need to be careful not to make the coaching position a dumping ground for duties as assigned. Some of this is due to the fact that leaders and teachers are being asked to do more than ever before, but we need to constantly seek balance. Some ways we can accomplish this is by:

  • Provide clear guidelines for the instructional coaching position and stick to them
  • Take “Duties as Assigned” off the contract
  • Ensure that the coach has the opportunity to speak up to the leader when the position is taking on too many non-teacher/student centered roles. Perhaps the leader doesn’t know that this is happening
  • Allow time for the coach to work one-on-one with teachers, and keep that time sacred
  • If large numbers of teachers on the coach’s caseload is the issue, create small PLC’s with teachers who are working on the same goal and the coach checks in with them from a different elevation

In the End
Instructional coaching can be a powerful position. However, it’s becoming a dumping ground for other “duties as assigned” in many districts. Sometimes, this is due to being a side effect of so many responsibilities being dumped on schools, and we know this all rolls downhill. Other times it’s due to the fact that principals really don’t understand the coaching position, and in fact, look at it as another assistant principal in the building. And sadly, sometimes this is due to the fact that leaders don’t care what researchers like Jim Knight says, and use the position for what they want, and call it instructional coach, even though that’s not what the position really entails.

The issue is that the more leaders use coaches as compliance officers, or the more they are dumped on with other duties that take them away from working with teachers and students, the more we will lose high quality instructional coaches, water down the position, and ruin what could have a positive and lasting impact on our school communities.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

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.