All too often, teaching is done in isolation with inadequate support, contributing to high turnover. This is unnecessary. With the help of instructional coaches, schools can become places where dialogue and reflection about practice drive student learning. Teachers can receive better preparation and support for the rigorous complexities of the profession. A culture of “critical friends” can grow, which will elevate discussions and processes around teaching and learning in the school.
Whether serving as a full-time coach or as a teacher with a hybrid position who splits the school day between coaching and teaching, coaches are uniquely situated to be supportive partners in the classroom.
The depth in which coaches can thrive in their roles depends on some key foundations of coaching. Here are 10 that I’ve borrowed from great coaches along the way.
1. Building relationships. The quality of the relationship determines the extent to which the coaching will be received. Creating a nonjudgmental, safe space is essential to holding the vulnerability, openness, and courage it takes for transformation to happen.
2. Cultivating a growth mindset. Much research has emerged on the importance of a growth mindset in learning. Applying the philosophy that we all grow with targeted practice and support is so much more helpful to education than labeling teachers as “good” or “bad.” Through a growth mindset lens, observations and student assessments transform from evaluative classifications to growing practices that move teaching and learning from where it is to where it can be.
3. Listening. Authentically listening to individual experiences can lead to personalized and differentiated support based on needs.
4. Asking guiding questions. The heart of coaching lies in dialogue and questions. It isn’t about telling someone how to teach; it’s about creating space to pause and reflect on teaching practices in partnership. If posed in the context of classroom observations, questions both before and after a lesson can help create a climate for such reflection.
Sample questions for pre-observation:
- Is there an area you’re particularly working on growing in your teaching practice (collaborative grouping, equity in class discussions, etc.)?
- Is there anything you’d like another set of eyes on during your lesson?
- What is the biggest instructional challenge that you’re facing right now?
- What about your teaching practice are you most proud of?
Sample reflection questions for after the lesson:
- How do you think it went?
- Is there anything you might do differently?
- What are your next steps?
5. Being a thought partner. Coaching isn’t hierarchical; it’s a collaborative partnership between professionals. Having another set of eyes in the classroom, or someone to be a mirror for the countless things happening at high speed in a lesson or day can help broaden one’s perspective on how to address challenges in the classroom and illuminate next steps.
6. Enhancing reflection practices. Continuous, reflective dialogue can create a deeper dimension for looking at one’s teaching practice. Over time, these reflective strategies and tools will become internalized, and the lens through which the classroom is viewed will change. When enough people are engaged in this type of work, it can also lead to a culture of reflection and dialogue among staff.
7. Keeping an eye on the goal. Conversations around a vision can help align learning goals with instructional practices, assessment of student work, and what professional development might be needed to reach shared goals. This can help keep the focus on students and their learning experiences so that both teaching and coaching come from a student-centered approach.
8. Sharing pedagogical knowledge. Whether through sharing a menu of instructional strategies, giving feedback, demonstrating lessons, co-teaching, or co-planning lessons and unit plans, coaches can be a tremendous resource for building learning tools and assessment practices.
9. Connecting with resources. Coaches can share best practices and research, as well as make connections to helpful educational organizations that can enrich the classroom learning experience.
10. Continuing the process. Ideally, coaching is a continuous process that helps teachers grow their practice over time. Though we can certainly learn from a single feedback session, the depth to be gained from an ongoing partnership can accommodate the nuanced, multifaceted, and rigorous practice of teaching and learning.
For as much as teaching is a multifaceted, complex endeavor, coaching is as well. Through their approach, coaches have the unique opportunity to help teachers grow their practice by being supportive thought partners and extra sets of eyes and ears in the classroom.