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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Instructional Coaching Conversations Must Be ‘Built on Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 08, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can instructional coaches work best with teachers, and vice versa?

Sydney Chaffee, Cindy Garcia, Carrie Johnson, Roxanna Elden, Tatiana Esteban, Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, and Dawn Mitchell “kicked off” the five-part series in Part One. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Laura Robb, Rita Platt, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Cindi Rigsbee, Tonya Ward Singer, and Margie Kirstein contributed their suggestions.

In Part Three, Lisa Westman, Dr. Debbie Silver, Dr. Carol Chanter, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kristin Rouleau, and Keisha Rembert share their commentaries.

Today’s post includes answers from Kris Allen, Stephanie Affinito, Barry Saide, Diane Sweeney, Ann Mausbach, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, and Wendy Murawski, Ph.D.

Response From Kris Allen

Kris Allen is a mentor and coach for new elementary teachers to the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado and has taught grades K-5 for the past 20 years. She seeks out leadership roles by co-teaching Intro to Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Culturally Responsive Innovative Teacher.

The Role of Relationships in Coaching Conversations

Is there anything more beautiful than seeing happy children who are collaborating with each other while engaged in rigorous content? Maybe not, but a meaningful coaching conversation can come close. An intentional coaching conversation built on relationships and authentic understanding of assets can have a lasting effect on how a teacher approaches their craft, which, in turn, can have a direct effect on student achievement and their love for learning.

I have found that people get into teaching for two reasons: either they loved school or hated it. I hated it. I don’t remember having teachers who truly believed in me. They liked me, but they didn’t believe in me. I longed to have someone believe I was capable of learning more, and so that has always been my driving force as a teacher. I wanted students to leave my classroom feeling cared for and knowing that I believed in their full potential. This same passion follows me into coaching.

Each coaching conversation with a teacher is unique and special. I don’t take for granted that the teacher I am coaching is choosing to be open and vulnerable with me and, for this, I must relinquish judgment. I am there to listen and guide their thinking. The goal is for them to come to their own realization on how to improve their practice. As I listen without judgment, I help remind them why they chose this incredible profession. Sometimes, when it gets difficult, we need someone to remind us of our why.

One of my most cherished qualities is my ability to form authentic relationships. As a coach, I am intentional in forming an authentic relationship with a teacher in order to create a space where teachers feel safe to reflect on their practice in an honest and vulnerable way. As we begin building our relationship, I model vulnerability by sharing my personal experiences. While watching them teach, I stay focused on their assets. Then during our coaching conversations, I mention those assets in a credible way. I ask questions that help them ponder their passions, relationships with students, vulnerabilities, values, and their understanding of the assets of their students. My questions are guided by my teacher-coachee, as every conversation is unique to their needs, but it’s important to ask questions to help them think deeply about their practice.

Everyone loves the easy conversations; it’s the hard ones that shake us. Yet it is in these conversations that the real leaps and bounds happen in a teacher’s journey. Knowing my teacher’s assets will help me guide that powerful conversation. These conversations need to take place because students often see themselves in a positive narrative at school only if their teachers do, too. I approach these conversations by first finding out my teacher’s perspective on the situation they want to discuss. In one such conversation, a teacher was having a difficult time with a student she perceived as frequently disengaged. What she most needed was some time to reflect on her practice.

I leveraged the relationship I had built with this teacher and my understanding of her assets to help her see that her perception of him was inconsistent with her belief systems. Through that one difficult coaching conversation, she was able to realize she hadn’t allowed herself to build an authentic relationship with him. She believed that strong connections held her classroom culture together, yet she hadn’t created a strong one with this young man. I asked questions that helped her discover she needed to release some power, and as soon as she started to do this, she started to see the many assets he possessed. Their relationship flourished, and the dynamics between them began to change. He began to open up to her and engage more in class activities. If I hadn’t built an authentic relationship with my teacher and seen her assets before this difficult conversation, I wouldn’t have known to leverage her belief system in the conversation.

I believe that creating rigorous and safe spaces for students to flourish and thrive in is at the center of every teacher’s vision for their classroom. Inspired coaching conversations can help teachers reflect on their practices and help them create these uplifting spaces.

Response From Stephanie Affinito

Stephanie Affinito is a literacy teacher educator at the University at Albany. She has a deep love for literacy coaching and supporting teachers’ reading, writing, and learning through technology:

The very idea of instructional coaching acknowledges the faulty assumptions about teacher learning that guided our professional-development efforts in the past. Rather than experts who train teachers in one-shot workshops removed from their classrooms, instructional coaches work alongside teachers, co-constructing knowledge as fellow readers, writers, thinkers, and learners. Successful coaching partnerships are built on trust, respect, and a willingness to learn together for the sake of students. Coaches bring specialized knowledge and experience to the partnership, and teachers bring specialized knowledge and unique insights about the students in their classrooms. When we fuse that expertise together, we can think in powerful ways about instruction that we could not alone. But before these partnerships can be effective, we must create a culture of teacher learning that embodies a mindset for continual growth. How? By committing to the following ideas:

  • Learning is never complete: Educators must be the lead learners in schools and deserve the same innovative and effective support they provide to students.

  • We work better together: Collaboration pushes our thinking and furthers our learning for the sake of our students.

  • Everyone plays a part: Each one of us has a voice to contribute and a right to meaningful learning experiences.

  • We learn from practice: Our work must be grounded in the students in front of us.

  • We are in charge of our own journey: We deserve personalized learning experiences that are meaningful, authentic, and immediately applicable to our own classrooms.

When we approach instructional coaching as a partnership, we blur the lines between coach and teacher and tear down the boundaries of professional learning. But forming new coaching partnerships can be challenging, and even unsettling, for some who might be unaccustomed to working in such a collaborative manner. Creating a shared and transparent vision for coaching is essential to developing trusting instructional relationships and understanding the important role each play in the coaching process. These visions should include:

  • Our Goals: Identify the focus of your collaboration. Is it to strengthen reading mini-lessons? To improve conferencing skills? To support content learning? Name the goal of your coaching partnership and make it visible.

  • Our Process: Next, discuss the kinds of practices needed to reach your goal. A series of demonstration lessons? Mindful co-teaching? Classroom observations and discussion? Clearly articulate the work you will engage in together in the classroom and discuss each of your roles and responsibilities. Ensure that the purpose and expectations are clear.

  • The Logistics: Coaching is all in the logistics. Schedule time to not only work together in the classroom but for any other groundwork needed for the lesson and to debrief and reflect after the lesson. Is classroom coverage needed? Be sure to take care of those details.

When we chart clear and visible goals for coaching relationships, we create a strong vision for coaching based on a foundation of shared learning, trust, and collegiality. These visions promote teacher learning that is personal, meaningful, and intricately tied to the students in our classrooms, conditions essential for coaching success.

Response From Barry Saide

Barry Saide is the proud principal of Roosevelt School, in Manville, N.J. Prior to becoming principal, Barry was a director of curriculum & instruction, supervisor of curriculum & instruction, and elementary classroom teacher. This is his 20th year in education:

Instructional coaching needs to focus on two things: the coaching model/approach used and the personalities of the people being coached.

Teachers involved with the instructional coaching process will want to know what model or approach is being used. Will instructional coaches model and/or co-teach lessons and participate in a debrief after with teachers? Are instructional coaches going to observe lessons and provide feedback? Will teachers video themselves and break down the film with their instructional coach? Will feedback be based off lesson-study implementation and assessed on teacher/student growth? How will those outcomes be measured? Are teachers still being scored with the traditional observation model, or is there an alternate, modified approach in play? As educators, we’re predominantly Type A personalities. We want to know the expectations so we can plan for them successfully. As instructional coaches, we need to model what we’re going to preach. We need to make sure expectations are clear, the process is streamlined, and there are benchmarks built in for check-ins and feedback loops for continual assessment of the coaching program itself.

It’s vitally important we know the personalities and mindsets of the people we’re coaching. Some teachers are linearly focused on the end goal: They just want to improve and want us to guide them in that process. For these folks, feedback should be clear, straightforward, and focused on ways to adjust instruction to meet end goals. Teachers with linear, logical, “no nonsense” mindsets aren’t interested in platitudes or a gentle approach to delivering critiques. These colleagues prefer their coach be direct and upfront. They want to know where they glow and where they need to grow.

Other teachers prefer a softer, less direct approach. Too much feedback will turn these teachers off. Feedback by instructional coaches will be met with reasons, rationale, and defensiveness by more sensitive colleagues. Words must be chosen carefully during coaching debriefs, and critiques should focus on 1-2 overarching noticings toward improving pedagogy and practice. End on a positive note. Make sure these staff members know they’re appreciated for their vulnerability in accepting a critical friend. Think long term with these peers to gradually move them forward instructionally at a pace they can move at.

The pace of instructional coaching can be daunting, balancing the needs of students and the current instructional output with the many different adult personalities who set the instructional tone each day. As an instructional coach, make sure to reflect on the positive conversations and deep work being done each day with teachers who are receiving your coaching. Together we all make a difference.

Response From Diane Sweeney & Ann Mausbach

Diane Sweeney is an educational consultant and author who has published several books on Student-Centered Coaching, most recently (with Ann Mausbach), Leading Student-Centered Coaching: Building Principal and Coach Partnerships (Corwin, 2018). Ann Mausbach is an associate professor of educational leadership at Creighton University. She served as a central-office leader for more than 20 years and is the author of multiple books on school leadership. Follow them on Twitter @SweeneyDiane and @amausbach:

The short answer to this question is to keep the focus of instructional coaching on student learning. Kids don’t go to school to participate in programs, they don’t go to school to behave, and they don’t go to school to score well on state tests. They go to school to learn, so it only makes sense that this should be what coaching is about. After all, if our ultimate goal is to increase student achievement, then it’s in our best interest to design coaching to do just that.

Student-Centered Coaching shifts the focus from “fixing” teachers to collaborating with them to design instruction that targets student outcomes. It is based on a collection of core practices that keep student learning at the center of coaching conversations.

The use of coaching cycles is one of the most important of the core practices for Student-Centered Coaching. Not only do cycles create the opportunity for coaches to work toward measurable goals, they reinforce the notion of building partnerships with teachers. Coaching cycles are driven by:

  • Sustained and focused work: Cycles typically last 4-6 weeks and are aligned with the curriculum.

  • Standards-based goals: Framing a coaching cycle around what we want our students to know and do creates a learning-focused vision for coaching.

  • Student-friendly learning targets: Unpacking the goal into a set of learning targets, or a success criteria, guides the teacher and coach toward clear learning objectives.

  • Student evidence: Student evidence guides the teacher and coach to determine where students are and what they need next.

  • Co-planning and co-teaching: The teacher and coach co-plan and co-teach lessons that are responsive to the students’ needs.

  • Improving instructional practice: The teacher and coach work together to implement instructional practices that are most likely to increase student outcomes.

  • A philosophy of measuring impact: Coaches collect data that summarizes teacher and student growth across the coaching cycle.

Teachers who experience Student-Centered Coaching often remark that it feels different from other experiences they’ve had with instructional coaching. No longer do they feel judged or like they have to justify their actions. But rather, they appreciate having a coach who advocates for, and works just as hard as they do, to reach their goals for student learning.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World: Make Research Resonate and Widen Your Impact. She has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer:

Instructional coaches and current teachers have much in common, and remembering this likeness is paramount to a successful working relationship.

For you instructional coaches:

Just as you were once a superstar teacher (likely a key reason you were selected to coach), the teachers you now serve each has their own spectacular strengths. Since one of your main objectives is to empower teachers to be their best self-sufficiently, you’ll want to:

- Watch and listen. If you sweep into teachers’ lives with a stack of lessons or strategies to impose upon them and you haven’t first heard about their individual endeavors, successes, and struggles, you’re like a matchmaker setting up two people you’ve never met and expecting them to marry (spoiler alert: the first date would be a disaster). The help you provide should fit each teacher’s unique situation, and you’ll never know those situations without being a keen observer.

- Identify and build upon teachers’ strengths. For example, if Teacher A is a master at classroom management, with which Teacher B struggles, you can arrange for Teacher B to visit Teacher A’s classroom (or co-teach a lesson where they combine classes) to see Teacher A at work. They can share afterwards (Teacher B noting what she learned and Teacher A noting why she did certain things) for any teachers needing to grow in this area.

- Help teachers take charge of their own professional growth. You don’t want to be a gatekeeper to all the strategies and research findings that helped you become the expert you are. Introduce teachers to the study summaries you track, your go-to online reads (like this blog!), how you use Twitter to keep learning, etc.

- Help teachers assume coaching roles, like speaking to policymakers or writing a newspaper op-ed. When you lead teachers to opportunities to share their expertise beyond their schools, you help these teachers feel affirmed, battle burnout, reflect on (and thus improve) their practice, and enhance the field to help others. My latest book covers ways educators can share their expertise, and many are highly practical for busy teachers: For example, add your name to a database NPR uses to call on teaching experts for its stories, present at an online conference (from the comfort of your own home, perhaps with a PowerPoint presentation you already built to help colleagues), invite a local news station to film a special lesson, etc.

For you current teachers:

Your instructional coach was once a superstar teacher (likely a key reason he/she was selected to coach),and surely has something to offer you. Be open to what he has to share and do not view him as some sort of affront to your merit as a teacher.

That being said, unless you have worked closely in the past, your coach will not know your strengths (areas in which you can help colleagues) unless you share them. Invite your coach to watch you teach, share a lesson you put together, describe how you are applying strategies from a particular book, etc.

Also be forthcoming about your weaknesses, as well as any schoolwide obstacles that impact your classroom. Your coach is there to help you be your best. View him/her as someone who is there to make your job easier and to make you (and your students) more successful.

Response From Wendy Murawski, Ph.D.

Wendy Murawski, Ph.D., is the executive director & Eisner Endowed Chair of the Center for Teaching & Learning at California State University, Northridge. Author/editor of 11 books on inclusive education, Dr. Murawski is also CEO of the educational consulting company, 2 TEACH LLC (www.2TeachLLC.com):

One technique that would create embedded job development and have a stronger impact on teacher change is through co-teaching (Murawski & Lochner, 2018). When professionals collaborate, students benefit. Instructional coaches arrive to classes with wonderful expertise, but teachers may also at times find them threatening, disconnected, or at worst, belittling. When coaches are seen not as an expert coming in to tell a teacher what to do, but rather a colleague coming in to collaborate, teachers will be more open and less resistant. Using the content or pedagogical expertise of the coach and the student and class expertise of the teacher, both educators are able to co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess (Murawski, 2010). This type of collaboration leads to more buy-in, more continuous improvement, and hopefully, the adoption and consistent implementation of best practice, evidence-based strategies in the class.

Instructional coaches can begin this practice by meeting with all teachers and letting them know that coaches value the expertise the teachers bring to the collaboration as well. They can encourage teachers to create mini-descriptions of their classes and students: What is going well? What isn’t working? What works with particular students and why? That way, when instructional coach and teacher meet to determine their shared goals, responsibilities, and tasks, the teacher has something concrete to contribute as well. When planning for the actual instruction, both educators should be actively engaged in the lesson, rather than the instructional coach merely modeling a skill for the teacher to observe. This allows the teacher to be a part of the instruction and not feel marginalized by having to watch someone else teach his or her class, as if he or she is not capable.

Educators can use Team Teaching, whereby they instruct by sharing the stage, or One Teach-One Support, whereby the coach models the instruction as the teacher supports the learners, or even Parallel Teaching, wherein both educators have their own half of the class and try to use the technique simultaneously (Murawski, 2010). Whatever approach is selected, educators need to debrief and co-assess how successful they were on whatever benchmarks they have selected. That data will enable educators to determine what needs to be changed, if anything, and will also allow the instructional coach to see how the pedagogical technique plays out with this teacher’s actual class. Both teacher and coach can determine what worked, what needed “tweaking,” if differentiation was needed and what that would look like, and for how long they wanted to continue to practice that particular technique or skill.

Murawski, W.W. & Lochner, W.W. (2018). Beyond co-teaching basics: A data-driven, no-fail model for continuous improvement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Murawski, W.W. (2010). Collaborative teaching in elementary schools: Making the co-teaching marriage work! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Thanks to Kris, Stephanie, Barry, Diane, Ann, Jenny, and Wendy for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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