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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

Instructional Coaches: How Do You Evaluate Your Impact?

By Peter DeWitt — October 23, 2015 5 min read
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Teachers often have a great deal of evidence that tells them whether they are having an impact on their students. There is qualitative data...such as surveys and portfolios, and quantitative data...like test scores and other summative assessments. Schools have PLC’s and grade level meetings where teachers sit and discuss what’s going well and where there are areas that are in need of growth.

Leaders, too, have evidence that they collect to show whether they are helping teachers and students move the dial in a positive direction. Just like teachers, leaders can keep track of surveys and opinion polls, and in many states their evaluations are tied to state assessments.

It’s a little more difficult to know the impact when the position is a bit further away from the students.

Instructional coaches (IC’s) are one group that are a bit more removed from students. Don’t jump to any negative conclusions with that last sentence. What I mean is that, although they impact students in positive ways, they are a bit more separated from the consistent daily involvement that classroom teachers have with students.

Instructional coaches can have an enormous impact on the teaching and learning that happens in a school. Technology coaches help bridge the learning gap between teachers and technology. Content coaches can help teachers gain a better understanding of standards and subjects. Instructional coaches can help teachers improve their instructional practices in any subject at any time.

There are at least five reasons why schools should have instructional coaches. It’s not that all teachers are weak and need help. It’s about the idea that we all have blind spots (Otto Scharmer) and coaches can help others see their blind spots. According to this article in the New Yorker, even doctors have coaches to help them improve and see their blind spots.

Knee-Jerk Reactions

However, one situation that pops up for instructional coaches has to do with their superintendents. There are times when leaders make knee-jerk reactions.

Imagine this scenario...

Instructional coaches are hired and extensively trained. A few months later as coaches are trying to enroll teachers (meaning, getting teachers to work with them), the state ELA test scores come in and the scores are down. Suddenly, the superintendent decides that coaches should work solely with students with low test scores rather than with teachers.

This scenario happens a lot, and there are some reasons why this approach can be harmful. First and foremost, this approach prevents coaches from empowering teachers with the skills necessary to help students improve in ELA (notice how I didn’t say testing!).

Sometimes this happens because the position isn’t seen as necessary. This scenario happens a lot, and school leaders don’t always help that situation, which is why sometimes instructional coaching doesn’t work. School leaders who use IC’s as assistant principals or school informants are only setting up a bad dynamic. They’ve established a culture of fear instead of a culture of trust.

IC’s, according to instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, should work with teachers in non-evaluative ways, and they should never be put in the position where they have to break confidentiality. As an instructional coaching trainer, who works with Knight, I have found that IC’s need to take as much time gathering evidence to prove their own impact, as they do with the teachers who work with them.

Gathering evidence is a way for IC’s to show school leaders that they have a direct impact, and perhaps will prevent them from being on the receiving end of a reaction to low test scores.

What evidence can IC’s collect?

Let’s start with qualitative evidence. IC’s can begin every instructional coaching cycle, which you can read more about here, with a baseline survey, asking what the teacher is working on and where there is an area of need. The survey that can be created by the coach can focus on the “Identify” stage that Knight refers to in the article linked above. After the cycle is finished, coaches can ask teachers to fill out the post-survey providing insight into where the coach helped and what changed.

There are coaching programs around the country that do post-coaching feedback forms after the cycle is completed. The teacher involved has to answer 4 or 5 questions pertaining to how the coach helped them with the teaching and learning happening in the classroom. Post-feedback surveys can work as enormous value to coaches.

From a quantitative standpoint coaches can download these free forms offered by Jim Knight. The forms focus on teacher questions vs. student questions, negative interactions vs. positive ones, surface level questions as opposed to deep level questions, and many more. The forms help teachers and instructional coaches find a necessary focus, and I promise that there are a few in there that probably have not come to mind before but will be really helpful.

The coach can do an initial observation getting baseline data on any of those areas (which were co-constructed as goal with the teacher) and then go through the learning process with teachers where they establish effective ways to meet the goal. After the learning process is completed, coaches can do the final observation and see if the goal was met at the area was improved. The data from that observation will help coaches gain evidence of their impact.

In the End

It’s no longer enough to say something is working. We do this often because something may feel good. Many of us have sat through professional development sessions that felt good (and many that didn’t!) but it doesn’t mean that we took the information learned and did anything with it.

Instructional coaching can have enormous benefits because coaches help teachers see their blind spots. However, coaches have to be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to their position. Whether it’s naysayers who don’t believe in the position, district leaders who make knee-jerk reactions, or the reality that we all have to prove our impact, collective qualitative and quantitative evidence is a must.

Coaches need to know their impact.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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.