Last spring, a major study suggested that putting literacy coaches in schools can help boost students’ reading skills by as much as 32 percent over three years. This four-year, nationwide research project affirmed what many of us who have been coached—or who are coaches—know: Instructional coaching works.
Or rather, it can work if the conditions are right.
Six years ago, I began coaching at the school where I was then teaching. I coached and taught for three years, and then became a full-time instructional coach at another middle school. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned about instructional coaching, with the hope that these insights might be helpful to those who have recently become coaches or who are considering doing so.
An alternate title for this piece could be, “If Only I Had Known.”
Coaching is really, really hard. This lesson came fast. Most coaches receive no preparation: It’s still rare to find classes to take or credentials to pursue, and not much is written about the practice. I’ve seen many strong teachers plucked out of classrooms and catapulted into coaching; but an effective teacher of children isn’t automatically effective at leading adults through learning. There are a whole slew of new skills and a pile of knowledge that coaches need. Furthermore, coaching grown-ups is often not as much fun—and not as immediately rewarding—as working with children.
Coaches need training and on-going professional development. There is so much a coach needs to know: how to observe instruction, give feedback to teachers, model and debrief lessons, facilitate meetings, and present information. Coaches also need to know a lot about how adults learn and they need to be exceptional communicators. Of course, these skills rest on top of a deep understanding of instructional strategies and content.
I had a tremendous amount to learn regarding the craft of coaching and its different approaches. I had to become much more knowledgeable about adult learning theory, change management, group dynamics, emotional intelligence, and cultural proficiency. I also had to closely examine my assumptions and beliefs about teachers (new teachers, ineffective teachers, and veteran teachers) and about how our education system can change.
I did a lot of reading, attended some trainings, and talked to every coach I met about the practice. But I probably learned the most about coaching during a year in which, while working as a coach, I had a coach. That was a profound lesson: Coaches need coaches. It is the optimal professional development.
The “why” for coaching must be made very clear by the principal. Every school could benefit from coaching, but the practice is not yet pervasive, and teachers frequently perceive coaching as something that happens when you’re new or failing. Coaches are increasingly brought into schools that are struggling, sometimes as part of an improvement plan—a situation that increases the likelihood of resistance.
Coaching should be presented by the principal as an “effectiveness builder,” not a deficit-filler. A coach’s work should be aligned with the school’s goals, and also needs to be shaped by the teacher—from what he/she wants support around. But it’s critical that the principal articulates why a coach was hired, what the coach is supposed to do, and how teachers are expected to work with the coach. When the “why” for coaching is vague, the coach’s impact will be limited.
The “what” of coaching also needs articulation. A coach’s roles and responsibilities need to be created (or co-created with the administration) and then shared with teachers and staff members. If not, coaches are likely to be asked, “What exactly do you do?” and then asked to make photocopies, sub for absent teachers, put up bulletin boards, and so on.
The reality in under-resourced schools is that coaches are often used in many ways. We may pull students for intervention or diagnostic testing, gather and analyze data, compile resources for parents, or even put up bulletin boards. But it is imperative that when a coach is working individually with a teacher that there be a clear definition of what that work is and that everyone understands when “coaching” is taking place.
So what is coaching? Essentially, coaching is a process that can move a person from where he is to where he wants to be. A coach needs to “enroll” a teacher—get him brought into the process. A teacher has to want it. This must be said because coaching cannot be mandated (principals may need to be reminded of this at times). Once the teacher has been enrolled, the coach should help her determine goals for her practice. The coach’s eyes remain on the prize, as we guide the teacher and carve out reflective moments along the way. The coach helps the teacher see where he is being effective and why and points out all the indicators that he is getting closer to his goal. Along the way, coaches provide emotional support for what is often an arduous journey.
Coaching is about listening. I often think of coaching as something that takes place primarily in conversations, perhaps about a lesson plan or an issue that arises in class or in response to a coach’s observation. I’d argue that a coach needs to be an expert at listening: It is this skill which we must excel at more than any other. We must hear what is said and not said, what is implied and unasked. From our listening, we form questions that have the potential to dramatically shift teacher beliefs, thinking, and practice.
Effective coaches aren’t over-directive. As a coach, there’s sometimes a temptation to take over and direct the ship. But we need to be very careful because ultimately we want the teachers we coach to be able to solve their own problems. Sometimes—depending on their level of knowledge, skill, and capacity—a teacher needs a coach to be instructive. But an effective coach is acutely aware of a teacher’s zone of proximal development and of the gradual release of responsibility. Our coaching is always in response to where someone is and where they want to be and not directed by our own ideas about where we think they should be.
“Without trust there can be no coaching,” write Rafael Echeverría and Julio Olalla in The Art of Ontological Coaching. While this is undeniable, it also presents a tricky conundrum that must be addressed. A principal may see the coach as part of and accountable to the administration. Yet in order for coaching to be effective, teachers need to be able to completely trust a coach and know that what is said and observed will not be repeated to the principal. A coach and teacher could share their goals with the principal and report on progress toward those goals, but that might be all. The critical factor is that everyone is very clear on what information is being shared with whom. Then it’s up to the coach to create and maintain a trusting relationship with a teacher.
Coaching can be transformative. I coach because I want to see massive improvements in the outcomes and experiences for children in our schools. As a classroom teacher, I could influence 50 kids a year. As a coach, working with teachers, my work has impacted hundreds of students. Now, I also coach principals. I like thinking about the numbers, knowing that I can possibly change the lives of thousands of students for the better.
But I also do this work because I know how desperately teachers and principals need support. I became a coach, in part, because as a teacher I had a phenomenal coach. Had it not been for her, I might have left the profession. I know that if teachers and principals are engaged in truly learner-directed professional development, they can be more effective in their jobs and feel better about them, and all kids will benefit.
I’m starting to see the impact of my coaching, and I would dare to say that in some instances it has been transformative. Our education system is deeply flawed and seriously broken in places, but it is fixable. In order to repair it, we need to pay attention to every part and every person. Coaching is a way to heal and transform our public schools.