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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

Why Can’t Instructional Coaches Reinvent Themselves?

By Peter DeWitt — August 28, 2016 5 min read
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We always tell students to learn from their mistakes but it seems that we don’t give the same courtesy to instructional coaches.

When I was a new teacher I did a lot of things wrong. I yelled at times when a soft voice would have been just as good, and less destructive. I didn’t cover the curriculum to the depths that I could have, and I certainly didn’t always change up my teaching strategies. Fortunately, I understood where I went wrong and learned from it, which helped me gain more positive experiences in the future.

The same sort of personal and professional learning cycle happened to me when I was a school principal. I didn’t always say the right thing to students, parents or teachers. There were times when my focus wasn’t on the things it should have been. Luckily, I was surrounded by district and building leaders who I could lean on for help, and the teachers I worked with wanted me to be successful, so I rose to the challenge, and made less harmful mistakes.

After spending the last two years working as an instructional coaching consultant with coaching expert Jim Knight, I have seen my share of coaching programs that needed to improve, like I did as a new teacher and leader. There were certain issues holding them back which includes not seeing or understanding their biggest issues, and how the rest of their school community perceived them.

Coaches seem as though they aren’t allowed to reinvent themselves like I could as a teacher or a leader. Actually, they aren’t given the same courtesy to reinvent themselves like we all need as teachers and leaders.

Why is that?

Is it because they are seen as administrators when they’re not? Even if they are seen in administration circles, why do we have to have an “Us” and “Them” attitude (read here why we have to stop saying leadership is going to the dark side), and yes, I’m talking about leaders having that mindset as well.

We all have made huge mistakes in the classroom, and coaching programs may have made huge mistakes as well, but that doesn’t mean we throw it away. It means that we have to work collectively on making it stronger. Perhaps coaching programs may start off with the right intentions but get caught up in compliance measures that come down from the state or district. Or they choose the wrong coaches who take on their new found status and become an egomaniac. These should be fixable issues, but they often destroy the reputation of the coaching program.

Let the Reinvention Begin!
Coach programs, which include coaches and the leaders supporting them, should take some steps to reinvent themselves so they can be a more productive and impactful part of the school community. They need to understand whether they focus on authentic learning or compliant learning on the part of students and adults. Here are 5 Steps to consider when reinventing their coaching programs.

Accept responsibility for past mistakes - If coaching became more about compliance than about authentic learning on the part of the coach and the teacher, which Knight focuses on when he writes/speaks about the partnership principles and the idea that there should always be reciprocal learning, those in the coaching program need to accept the mistakes that were made, and work with teachers to find a better path. Perhaps coaches and leaders can do a survey to ask teachers where coaching went wrong and what their needs may be as they move forward. Just beware that some of the feedback may not feel good, but it’s important to learn from it and move on.

More partnership coaching and less top-down coaching - Coaches need to work in partnership with teachers. There are times when a leader may want/push/"voluntell” a teacher into coaching, but most times the teachers and coaches should want to work together and work in partnership. Clearly, this will take work on the part of both parties and coaches and teachers need to establish some ground rules (Knight) before they can get to this point.

Work with one high flying teacher on a full coaching cycle - Too often coaching is seen as something to be done to teachers in need of growth rather than something that can be utilized by all teachers. This is unfortunate because even Oscar winning actors/actresses have acting coaches, and we should have the same philosophy that everyone can benefit from a coach. It would be beneficial for coaches if they could get one of the best and most respected teachers in the school to work with them on a coaching cycle. This way it will be an authentic learning experience and show the rest of the staff that coaches work with all kinds of teachers.

Take on co-constructed PD - Best case scenario is that the coach is encouraged by the school leader to run professional development during faculty meetings. Other times the coach may offer before or afterschool PD to staff. Regardless of how it is approached, the coach needs to complete a needs assessment with teachers to see what they should cover. Is it teacher questioning? Student engagement? Teacher talk vs. students talk? Classroom management? True PD can give teachers a voice during times they need it the most. It also helps to build collective teacher efficacy (read this blog by Jenni Donohoo on the topic), which is something John Hattie’s research has found to have an effect size of 1.57.

Keep conversations confidential - If a teacher is floundering in the classroom the leader should already know it because they are in classrooms every day...or every day they can. The coach should not be used to spy on teachers. Leaders need to do their job which will go a long way to helping the coach do their job which is to have a confidential partnership with the teacher they’re working with. As soon as the coach gives information to a school leader, or is put in the position where they are asked to give information, the coaching program is at risk of failure.

In the End
Those are just some of the steps coaches and leaders can take, and there are many, many more as well. It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t throw coaching out because there were mistakes made. We always tell students to learn from their mistakes but it seems that we don’t give the same courtesy to instructional coaches.

Clearly, it would be best for those creating the coaching programs to do their studying, understand the pitfalls, and not make the mistakes that were mentioned above. However, sometimes mistakes happen, and we have to learn from them.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter 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.