Research Paper By Padraic O’Donnell
(Educational Coach, UNITED STATES)
A Common Reality in Schools
As Elena Aguilar states in her book The Art of Coaching, “To understand the current reality and challenges in schools, coaches analyze larger systems at play as well as the historical context” (5). One larger system at play is that schools are not businesses though they increasingly use tactics learned from that field. However, teachers are not creating a product or selling it; students are simply learning. So, the lens which educators use for coaching is naturally different than in the business world. For ongoing professional growth, people in schools need coaching just as much as people in the business world. The role of data as quantitative measures, management strategies, and coaching are all important business-world contributions to the educational setting. In this paper, my focus will be to understand how coaching can best fit into a school setting and what lens will help coaches and school leaders build a robust coaching program.
Most educators are primarily focused on how to improve their teaching and get their students engaged. For the most part, they want to improve at teaching, but the principal and other school leaders are very often too busy to coach them, and/or don’t know how to coach them(Gates Foundation, 14). Many teachers-consider teaching as a life-long profession (or wish they could if they got the support). Many do their job because they love being around children and want to make a real impact on shaping their future and even their communities. Our focus is on establishing a coaching program to avoid certain pitfalls by understanding this general school reality as best we can.
The first, and arguably the most important, aspect of coaching is that school leaders do not make the coaching position an evaluative one whatsoever. If coaches start evaluating teachers, then the teachers view them as administration. The coach will appear as a top-down administrative figure in the school and the teachers will be unlikely to welcome a coaching relationship. (Gates Foundation, 8) The coach is there to support the teacher in preparation for their evaluation. Another aspect is that administrators are extremely busy. Their lists of responsibilities seem endless and they are forced to prioritize carefully and to delegate skillfully. The shifting trend in the business of collective leadership is beginning to happen in schools too. The top-down approach of leadership is diminishing and shared, the partnership approach is spreading. Coaching can play a significant role in this aspect of a school and a huge trend now is to train principals on how to coach teachers, instead of just the traditional approach of only evaluating them. Coaching teachers is a clear route to teacher retention and professional development. Though many principals are probably open to a coaching approach for their teachers, they do not have the time to learn how to coach or once they get the hang of it they do not have time to implement their desires because their plate is already overflowing with responsibilities (Gates Foundation, 9).
It will take a clearly outlined coaching program to achieve success for coaching in a school.
Before a principal (or group of school administrators) can begin to outline what they want their coaching program to look like, here are some of the questions a school leader may ask themselves to establish a foundation for their thinking:
- Why do I want to coach at my school? What do I want to gain?
- How do I/implement a coaching program at my school?
- How much time will I have to devote to getting it off the ground and keeping it going strong? In other words, how committed am I to this program?
- What factors around evaluating teachers fit in with coaching and what doesn’t?
- What accountability measures will I put in place to make sure teachers are growing in their professional practice?
- What kind of input do I want from the teachers on their professional development?
- What do I need to learn about coaching in general and coaching of teachers specifically?
- What does the research on coaching say about transforming a school?
- How do I provide a setting in which adults can learn and develop?
Coaching is a very promising idea for school administration and it can play a crucial role in the overall professional development of a faculty and the general school-wide goals the principal envisions. But first, the why of coaching will need to be addressed.
Lens 1: TheWhy of Educational Coaching
Coaching is only one response to a multi-layered need for a school’s improvement. Coaches cannot work miracles; however, over time, they can make a significant impact on teaching and learn at a school. Teachers often teach alone in their classrooms. With a coach, reflective teachers get to apply what they learn more deeply, frequently, and consistently (Aguilar 8). Coaches want to bring out the best in people and promote strengths and skills. Coaches view all adults as people who are capable of changing and improving their practices for the good of their students. For teachers to learn a new practice or skill they need time and repetition, approximately fifty hours, to learn it (Aguilar 8). Coaching provides this space. With coaching, teachers are given the time or space to reflect on what they are doing and how they are doing it. Coaching says it’s ok to slow down for a minute and gain a better understanding of your craft because it will benefit your teaching and your students’ learning. The coach can continue to be the voice in the building which promotes professional growth as the norm and the expectation. Coaching encourages looking at underlying beliefs, hidden assumptions, and habitual ways of being that teachers (and all of us) have. An ongoing growth conversation will help teachers move past some of the barriers they have with themselves or perhaps that they project onto their students. Coaching simply offers teachers the opportunity to become the best teacher they can be. It also promotes collective leadership which fits well with principals who are ready to open and transform their schools in that way (Aguilar 9).
The role of the coach needs to be carefully constructed and repeatedly stated to teachers. The coach is a bridge between the principal and the teachers. She is not a teacher and she is not an administrator. Often teachers start to view the coach as an administrator, and that is why coaches need to continue to clarify what they do and why they do it.
What an educational coach does on a day-to-day basis varies, but in general, it focuses on a basic framework: observe teachers in classrooms, give written and/or verbal feedback, prepare to have coaching conversations, then have those conversations. Unfortunately, most coaches in a school setting have a pile of other duties which often takes them away from their true focus and the best purpose for them in transforming a school. The principal needs to be aware of this circumstance and help protect the coach from taking on, or being given, other responsibilities. (If there was more money allocated to education, coaches could remain focused exclusively professional development).
Why coaches do what they do is much more important to clarify than what they do. I like to tell the story that Dr. Atul Gawande shared during an ASCD conference I attended years ago(and written about in his New Yorker article). Though a prominent surgeon, he sought out his coach. This was not common practice at the time. After the operation, he was asked, by this “coach,” about his elbow positioning. From then on, he decided to drop his elbow slightly or choose a new instrument. It made a vital difference in the success of future operations. He learned something he could use for all these operations for the rest of his career (Gawande). At this education conference, he was touting the huge importance of having a coach that questioned you and gave you specific feedback. He was imploring school leaders to understand that coaching matters especially for teachers, and in his case, for matters of life and death.
Because students’ learning matters, educational coaches matter too; they can make a crucial difference as to whether or not more students learn in every classroom every day. Dr. Gawande made a deep impression on me as to the why of coaching. Basically, as professionals, we all could use another set of eyes on what we are doing and from that point see how we can improve. Soon why is: when a teacher improves their craft of teaching students learn better and more deeply. Teachers need to reflect on what they are doing and realize that their art, their practice can significantly improve. Not that its bad or needs an overhaul, but that piece by piece a teacher’s practice can make gains and the results can be amazing for the students learning. In other words, if the teacher changes something, more learning might happen and to coaches, that is exciting and feeds our purpose. This why will need to be repeated over and over with teachers in casual conversations, in professional development, and during coaching conversations.
Lens 2: The Enrollment of Teachers
Coaches and principals have to face a hard truth: not all teachers want to be coached or seem to want to improve. So the question becomes, how do we enroll teachers into our coaching program? How the coach and principal face this issue is crucial to getting the program off the ground successfully. From a principal’s perspective, as the evaluator, no teacher can opt-out of improving their teaching practice, but it may take some teachers a while to warm up to the idea of having a coach in the classroom and giving feedback to them. Presenting coaching as a form of professional development that happens over time will help garner a positive attitude to being coached. The coach should also reflect on how they can appear (and be) approachable and trustworthy. A principal will need to look for this quality in their hiring process also. Some questions to consider around ICF competency #3, creating trust and intimacy, will help enrollment of teachers. Coaches should reflect on:
- What ways can I show that I respect the work a teacher is doing?
- What strengths does this teacher have?
- How might I acknowledge the expertise they already possess?
- What makes me approachable?
- How can I express a welcoming tone to teachers?
A principal can easily modify these questions for use during the interviews of potential coaches. The educational coach guru, Jim Knight, suggests five different ways to enroll teachers that are well worth considering here(Instructional Coaching, 90-99):
- One-on-One interviews–this gives the coach a chance to explain what coaching is and what ways the coach can support the teacher in the work they already do. This is a great entry point to begin knowing what concerns each teacher has regarding his or her professional work.
- Small group meetings–the coach approaches a core group of teachers that are most likely to be on board with school change. In those meetings explain how the coach will partner with each of them and what to expect. Then sign up the teachers who want to work with the coach. This small group’s experience will radiate out to other teachers once they talk about the beneficial experiences and positive impact it has on student achievement.
- Large group presentation–if the faculty is open overall to coaching this might be the best approach because the coach can gain momentum quickly with more buy-in from more teachers. The presentation should have learning activities revolving around the learning needs of the students and what they want to do about it. If teachers have been coached before, the coach might ask them to give a testimonial about their experience.
- Informal conversations–the coach can have a tremendous impact through informal conversations in the lunchroom or the hallway or waiting to make copies. These are golden chances to build trusting relationships and expose to what the coach knows about teaching. Building an emotional connection and care for the whole person is crucial in these brief, but powerful, interactions that can lead to more enrollment of teachers.
- Principal referral–The principal can make a big impact on who enrolls with a coach. The principal needs to approach it with a partnership view to growth for the teacher and not a punitive measure. Letting the teacher know that one aspect of the teacher’s teaching needs to improve and then saying the coach will have strategies for them will help with enrollment.
Once more teachers, particularly stronger teachers, feel the effects of coaching on their teaching practice, they will spread the word for the coach. It will not take long for a groundswell to happen if the coach is trustworthy and excels at the art of coaching.
Lens 3: Effective Educational Coaching Conversations
Coaching happens through conversations and teacher reflection. In schools, the coaching often happens before and after the coach observes a teacher teaching or reviews a video of a teacher. This is known as a coaching cycle, it consists of a pre-observation, observation, and post-observation. Coaching sessions revolve around a coaching cycle and through an initial goal-setting conversation.
PEERS Goal Setting
At the beginning of the year conduct one-on-one conversations on professional goal setting. One type of conversation can center around a PEERS goal. Often, we hear about SMART goals, but after detailed research on this issue, Jim Knight has introduced an alternative called PEERS which has proven to be highly effective for teachers in particular. It stands for: Powerful, Easy, Emotionally compelling, Reachable, and Student-focused. The main question that drives the setting of these goals is, will this goal make a real difference in students’ lives? (Impact Cycle 67). The part that makes this goal-setting process so powerful is the emotional piece. When teachers hear that aspect as important they begin to see how the coach cares about what impacts them as a professional. This goal setting can conversation has its template of questions which allows the teacher to reflect on what they want to change about their teaching(Impact Cycle, 84). Once this type of goal is established the coaching gains real momentum throughout all the following conversations because the overall agreement is already established.
Pre-Observation Coaching Session
One of the best maps for a pre-observation coaching session with a teacher is called the planning conversation. This conversation comes before the coach enters the classroom to observe, usually a day or two before the actual lesson. Through questions, the coach helps the teacher plan what they will do and why. The process starts with clarifying goals and proceeds to specifying success indicators, anticipating approaches, establishing a personal learning focus, and finally reflecting on the coaching that just happened (Costa, 41). The coach and teacher walk away knowing what they will do and look for during the lesson.
Post-Observation Coaching Session
After the lesson is observed the coach and teacher reflect upon what happened. This is also known as a reflecting conversation. The basic structure follows these steps: summarizing the impression of the lesson, analyze causal factors, construct new learning, commit to the application, and reflecting on the coaching (Costa, 67). The coach has an opportunity to share any data that was collected, such as, students on task, where the teacher circulated, scripted words (see Impact Cycle 167-188 for data collecting tools). Through careful questions, it naturally occurs to the teacher that there are certain causes to why the lesson went the way it did and the coach’s job is to explore those factors with the teacher. Once those factors are identified, the teacher can begin to construct new learning and make connections as to what they can do next. Then they can commit to applying a new strategy or other action.
Another great resource for post-conversations is Jim Knight’s identify questions that take teachers through a reflection on a lesson to improve their teaching (Impact Cycle, 84).
- On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst lesson you’ve ever taught and 10 being the best, how would you rank that lesson?
- What pleased you about the lesson?
- What would have to change to move the lesson closer to a 10?
- What would your students be doing differently if your class was 10?
- Tell me more about what that would look like.
- How could we measure that change?
- Do you want that to be your goal?
- If you could hit that goal, would that matter to you?
- What teaching strategy can you use to hit your goal?
- What are your next steps?
For question #9, it should be addressed here that the coach may want to step out of pure coaching and into blended coaching, especially for newer teachers. They might not know of any strategies to help them move towards their goal. It is important to clarify to the teacher that you are taking off your coaching hat and putting on a consultant hat to suggest a strategy for them to use. Teachers will look to the coach for their expertise most of the time but reminding them that they need to do the problem-solving themselves is vital to empower them.
The Problem-Resolving Conversation
Often teachers will bring a problem to the coach’s attention or sometimes they just want to talk something through to be comforted or get a solution from the coach. This opportunity can allow the teacher to grow in tremendous ways if the coach approaches if well. In normal conversations, we would call this a problem-solving conversation, but coaches want the teacher to resolve this issue for themselves. The coach will ask questions to move the teacher forward from their existing state to their desired state.
When the teacher brings up the issue to the coach their existing state of the teacher is usually in the emotional part of the brain. They are in a problem state of mind and not thinking rationally or in a way to unravel the problem. The coach’s job is to help them take charge of their thinking and use the internal resources to move to the desired state they seek. The teacher comes to a solution themselves and the coach must realize that she will ask questions to help them find a solution pathway. An amazing template for this conversation comes from cognitive coaching, it’s called the PACE template. The basic structure to attain is to bring the conversation where you can say this, “You’re (name the emotion), because (content). And what you want is (name the goal). And you’re looking for a way to make that happen (pathway)” (Costa, 98). Naming the emotion for the teacher begins to move them out of the emotional part of the brain and naming the goal moves them further along a rational line of thinking (in the frontal cortex) to resolve this for themselves.
Another perspective on the emotional aspect of problem-resolving is suggested by Elena Aguilar in The Art of Coaching, simply called the cathartic approach. The first few years of teaching can be a very emotional time. These feelings need to be attended to for progress to happen or those emotions may continue to hold a teacher back and keep them from the action. If the coach consciously takes a cathartic stance these emotions can be explored and thus released. Working through emotions is cathartic and can impact real behavioral change (Aguilar, 166). Opening the room for emotions is key to this stance. A simple invitation is usually all that is needed. Here are some cathartic questions to consider(Aguilar, 167):
- “I’m noticing that you’re experiencing some feelings. Would it be OK to explore those for a few minutes?”
- “What’s coming up for you right now? Would you like to talk about your feelings?”
- “Wow. I imagine I’d have some emotions if that happened to me. What strong feelings are you experiencing about this?”
All of these coaching sessions/conversations play a role in the development of the teachers, but one of the most important factors in keeping a coaching program going in the correct direction is for the coach to partner with the principal.
Lens 4: Partnering with the Principal
Jim Knight mentions from his vast experience that there are three predictors of a successful implementation of a coaching program at a school: (1) that the coach gets continuous strong professional development, (2) that the coach has the discipline and personality appropriate for the job, and (3) that the principal becomes an instructional leader also (Instructional Coaching 22). The principal will have to realize the importance of the first two points and to make sure the coach is carefully hired and thoroughly suited for the job and then give or find her ways to professional growth as a coach. But every coach is subject to the principal’s vision, understanding of the impact of coaching, and how well they can lead teachers with their instructional growth. Some questions that the coach and principal will need to address for success as partners are:
- What is the school’s vision for the development of teachers and student achievement?
- What impact can coaching make at our school and what are its limitations?
- What learning networks do we want to create?
- If the principal is open to it, what kind of coaching can the coach offer the principal?
- What ways will the teachers be held accountable for their professional growth?
Whatever they decide on these big questions will filter down into the actions they take as partners in the difficult work of transforming a school.
Given the limit on a principal’s time during the school year, the coach must play a significant role in executing any plan. Some big ideas to institute would be scheduling a weekly meeting where the coach can provide reflections on how the school is progressing. The coach can provide brief written strategies so the principal stays abreast of best practices and knows what to look for on their walkthrough observations. The coach needs to be able to move quickly in response to a principal’s teacher concerns and use the coaching cycle method to address a teacher’s growth.
To support individual work, several avenues of learning networks can be established. The most noted and wide-spread avenue is professional learning communities (PLC’s) (see DuFour, 25-29). PLC’s provide teachers with a small-group experience with their peers to empower the teachers’ voice and action in the community at large. When teachers, or teacher leaders, know they have a voice in what happens at a school level and a clear impact on decision-making, they grow as professionals and, in the end, the students’ learning benefits. The coach always wants to keep their focus on teaching and learning and having a principal in partnership makes for the best outcome for all. In an ideal setting, the coach’s role in PLC’s would be to establish them through facilitating them at first and then release that responsibility to teacher leaders over time. Then, it is a good idea to follow up with coaching the leaders regularly using a success rubric to make sure the PLC process is going strong.
Along with individual coaching and small group collaboration guided by the coach, the principal’s year-long professional development plan will need to include the coach’s expertise to carry out. The professional development sessions at the end of the summer and carried on throughout the year need to maintain a steady focus and be limited in scope. Refer to Mike Schmoker’s book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning to find out why this limiting approach holds so much merit to student learning. Once a single focus is decided, the entire year of professional development sessions can be scheduled around it and outlined for implementation. One highly effective suggestion is to implement an instructional playbook, where teachers choose the best strategies to use school-wide and revisit the effectiveness of them (Impact Cycle, 191-228). When the whole faculty sees the streamlined connection between individual coaching, PLC collaborative work, and whole faculty PD, the school will be better equipped to improve student learning.
For an educational coaching program to be more robust, the school leaders are encouraged to address these four lenses: (1) the why of educational coaching, (2) the enrollment of teachers, (3) the structure of coaching conversations, and (4) the partnership between the coach and the principal. An educational coach can be on solid ground about her role as a coach in her school knowing that the principal and teachers understand what coaching is and her part in school improvement. In partnering with the principal on the overarching professional development goals of the school, more teachers will enroll for coaching and see the successes they cause through their individual and collaborative, intentional action.
As educators, we serve and work towards setting up the best possible circumstances (often under difficult and financially limited situations) to meet students’ needs and enhance students’ learning. Since the whole child is educated, our coaching must always have that as the bottom line. If coaches support teachers, then teachers will improve and the students will learn better. With a robust coaching program established at a school for teachers, I wonder where educational coaching can go from here. Will coaching become more prevalent in education and morph into a more holistic approach in which coaches provide their services to not only teachers, but school leaders, or even students? What if everyone in the school building was coached? Imagine how quickly the school could transform itself into what it wants to become.
Aguilar, Elena, The Art of Coaching, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, Sand Francisco, 2013.
Costa, Arthur, and Garmston, Robert. Cognitive Coaching Foundation Training Learning Guide 11th Edition, Thinking Collaborative LLC, 2017.
DuFour, Richard, and Eaker, Robert, Professional Learning Communities at Work, Bloomington, Solution Tree Press, 1998.
Gawande, Atul. Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches, Should You? https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/personal-best, The New Yorker, Annuls of Medicine, September 26th, 2011.
Knight, Jim. Instructional Coaching. Thousand Oaks, Corwin Press, 2007.
Knight, Jim. The Impact Cycle. Thousand Oaks, Corwin Press, 2018.
Schmoker, Mike. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Alexandria, ASCD Publishing, 2018.
Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ View on Professional Development,https://s3.amazonaws.com/edtech-production/reports/Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, December 2014, pp.1-20.