As a newly appointed Instructional Coach, I have had some very interesting experiences thus far in my career. Some experiences with teachers have been amazing – doors wide open, eager to learn, eager to share and committed to improving their practice. At some schools I have been able to partner with highly able teachers to build capacity within the school, and at other schools I’ve been able to work closely with Administrators to create numerous job-embedded professional development opportunities that have had a positive impact on literacy programs for students. However, I wish I could say that these were representative of most of my experiences as a coach, but sadly, they are not. I have also had my share of experiences involving teachers not showing up for meetings, calling in sick for work on days that I have been scheduled to observe their classroom practice, and yes…even locking the door on me! I have had teachers tell me directly that they have “zero” areas that they need to improve on. I’ve had teachers who for a whole school year did not reply to a single email that I sent to them. I consider myself pretty open, approachable, friendly and helpful. So as a new coach, I had to scratch my head and wonder why there is a culture of fear around working with an instructional coach.
Based on my experiences in schools, I am slowly beginning to understand that instead of teachers seeing the coach as an accountability partner, an equal or a tool for greater professional and personal development, teachers see coaches as evaluators, administrators, and people who create more work for them. In the article,
Instructional Coaching: Helping Preschool Teachers Reach their Full Potential (2011),
the authors describe a teacher who was not enthusiastic about working with a coach.
As stranger who was going to come observe me? No thanks! (Skiffington, Washburn and Elliot, p. 8).
I understand that teaching can be stressful; I have put in my time in the classroom as all instructional coaches have. It seems that year after year, more and more demands are being placed on teachers, such as standardized tests, new technology, strained budgets, constant curriculum reform and increasing learning and behavioural issues in classrooms. I can understand why teachers see working with the school’s Instructional Coach as something else “to-do”.
As Jim Knight (2007) explains,
Teachers don’t necessarily resist change, they resist poorly designed change programs (p. 3), and probably programs that add more things to their already full plate.
However, being a coach and experiencing the power of coaching in my own personal and professional development, I believe that if all teachers experienced the process of coaching, more teachers would be inclined to work with a coach. There is also a growing body of research that shows how effective coaching can be for improving systems. In 2004, a CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) survey revealed that 96% of respondents agreed that coaching is an effective way to promote learning in an organization, and 93% of respondents believed that coaching is a successful way to bring learning from training into the work environment (Fieldon). A teacher profiled in Skiffington et al.’s 2011 article explains:
Some teachers are resistant to coaching. They feel like they have learned everything they could possibly learn and are doing everything they can do for children. Instead, I suggest that they approach coaching wanting to become a better teacher and wanting children to get the most from their classroom. If they do that, they will benefit tremendously from coaching. (p. 5)
The premise of this article is to explain to teachers the coaching process in hopes that they will not be afraid of their instructional coach, and instead by encouraged to work with their coaches to improve the their quality of teaching and thus the achievement of our students.
What is Instructional Coaching?
First, let’s take a look at what exactly Instructional Coaching is. As defined on the website Reading Rockets “Instructional Coach” is defined as a professional whose responsibility is to bring best practices into classrooms by working with teachers and administrators rather than with students. The Pennsylvania Institute of Instructional Coaching defines an Instructional Coach as someone whose chief professional responsibility is to bring evidence-based practices into classrooms by working with teachers and other school leaders (what is an instructional coach) Some duties of Instructional Coaches include classroom lesson modeling, classroom observations, giving supportive feedback, facilitating job-embedded professional development, gathering data, and
doing the inescapable chores of every educational profession – attending meetings and doing paperwork (Knight, 2007, p. 20).
Jill Jackson (2009), author and Instructional Coach, believes that
coaching is done WITH teachers, IN the classrooms, in the trenches ALONGSIDE those who are going to carry out the work in the classrooms.
To help further clarify the role of the coach, let’s take a look at what an Instructional Coaching is not. Most importantly, coaches are not there to evaluate teachers. Evaluation and performance management is the role of school administrators. However, coaches are also not there to be your “friend.” We are there to be “respectfully pushy” (Jim Knight, 2007, p. 4) and hold teachers accountable to their goals. Rather than criticize teacher’s practice, coaches are there to offer descriptive feedback based on data and objective observations. Coaches are most effective
when they act as critical friends, simultaneously providing support and empowering teachers to see areas where they can improve (Knight, 2007, p. 25).
Ideally, the coach and teacher would highlight together the strengths and areas for improvement. Jackson (2009) explains that really the most effective way to give encourage reflection with teachers about how their lessons went or refine practices is by having a conversation So, as Jackson believes, instructional coaching should be measured in time spent dialoguing with teachers.
Why Instructional Coaching?
Reflecting on my days as a teacher, I remember many professional development days being spent in sterile conference rooms filled with a lot of round tables and a person from a reputable publishing company giving a PowerPoint of why their newly updated, research-based reading/writing/mathematics/science program could guarantee that all students succeed – if I just follow the easy-to-use teacher’s guide and purchase all supporting materials. I remember listening intently, taking lots of notes, and leaving the session with my brand new tools. I would look at it over the weekend and enthusiastically plan my lessons. But then Monday morning would come and the lesson would fall flat and I would have no idea why. After desperately trying unsuccessfully to make it work for a few weeks, I would eventually stop trying and go back to what I was comfortable with, which not only frustrated me as a teacher but had little benefit to my students. It turns out that I was not alone in this. Research shows that traditional forms of professional development, such as the model described above, have only about a 10% implementation rate (Knight, 2007).
As Jim Knight explains in his article,
Eight Factors for Realizing Better Classroom Teaching Through Support, Feedback and Intensive, Individualized Professional Learning
the number of school districts using instructional coaches is definitely increasing because it is becoming evident that the traditional form of professional development – presentations and conferences – simply do not affect student achievement in a notable way. By offering one-on-one support, feedback, and professional learning, coaching promises to be a better way to improve instruction in schools. Indeed, preliminary research suggests that effective coaching programs make a difference – one statistic showed that when coaching was incorporated into the staff development process, 95% of teachers utilized the new skill in their classroom (Knight, 2009). Due to the fact that instructional coaching takes place where the teaching occurs – in the classroom and not in a fancy conference room- observation, learning, and experimentation can occur in real situations. As Skiffington et al. (2011) state, coaching
leads to measurable changes in teachers’ practice and improvements in children’s’ learning (p. 3).
Poorly designed professional development programs have bigger consequences than simply teachers just not implementing new skills. Knight (2007) states that,
When intervention upon intervention is served up with no attention to implementation planning, teachers begin to feel overwhelmed (p.4).
Overwhelmed teachers are a big problem for the education system, as this quickly leads to teacher burnout. Teacher “burnout” results in good, caring, qualified teachers leaving the profession. According to U.S Department of Education statistics, 8.4 percent of teachers quit the field in the 2003-2004 school year with the majority stating that they left to pursue another career or because they were dissatisfied. The National Commission on Teaching has stated that nearly a third of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone. Despite “burnout” being an unfortunate personal state for a teacher, it also has negative impacts on students’ learning. It has long been established that “burnouts” that remain in the education system provide less hands-on, active learning opportunities and fewer positive reinforcements to their students, which has a negative effects on students’ performance (Haberman, 2004). Good teaching not only has a positive impact on student achievement, but can also prevent factors related to teacher “burnout”. The less burnout we have, the more accountable teachers will feel towards students learning. Thus, as coaches we can not only positively impact teachers’ lives but also classrooms full of young learners. As an Instructional Coach, it is my duty to ensure that teacher’s professional development needs are being met in a supportive way that allows for new skills to be cultivated for both the benefit of the student and teacher, and therefore improving the educational system as a whole.
How Instructional Coaching Works
Effective instructional coaches understand the need to have a relationship with the teacher which is built on trust and honest communication. In order to build this trust, Knight (2007) recommends that Instructional Coaches take a “Partnership Approach” with teachers. He defines this approach as a
deep belief that we are no more important that those with whom we work, and that we should do everything that we can to respect that equality. (p. 24).
Specifically, a partnership approach is:
Based on the assumptions that (a) coaches and teachers are equal partners, (b) teachers should have a choice about what and how they learn, (c) teachers should reflect and apply learning to their real-life practice as they are learning, (d) professional development should enable authentic dialogue and (e) coaches should respect and enable the voices of teachers. (Knight, 2006, p.1)
Only through supportive, respectful conversations can the teacher and coach work together to improve instruction for students. Therefore, the process of coaching must follow a model that allows for a space for these conversations to happen. The following model, The Reflective Teacher Model (Douglas, 2013), attempts to implement such an approach, and incorporates the following steps:
1.) Pre-observation interview
During this session, the coach facilitates a conversation in which the teacher describes their current reality in the classroom. This in itself is valuable; the coach creates a space for the teacher to be heard as an individual and makes time to have real conversations about teaching (Knight, 2007). During this conversation, the coach is actively listening and is focused on clarifying the message of the teacher by asking meaningful questions, which may include:
What do you want to achieve?
What is happening?
How is it a problem?
Tell me more about that.
What have you tried? What were the results?
What are your students’ strengths and weaknesses?
How do you determine your lesson focus?
What changes would you like to occur as a result of our coaching sessions?
How effective (is a particular strategy) working in your classroom?
How would a visitor to your classroom perceive your teaching?
Once the current reality in the classroom has been communicated, the coach and teacher move towards setting a goal for improved instruction. The coach and the teacher determine a goal with specific success criteria and together they outline what action steps are needed to achieve that goal. This is what is referred to as collaboration,
working together as partners, reflecting and co-creating together (Knight, 2007, p. 28).
Co-created forms such as self-audit checklists and goal-setting worksheets may be useful during this step. This coaching session concludes by scheduling a set date and time for the coach to come and observe and/or videotape the teacher in action.
This step involves the coach observing the teacher in action in the classroom. Teachers often are nervous about this step, but as a coach, I can assure you that a big part of the observation is looking for what teachers are doing well. Coaches can and should always find something positive in the teacher’s lesson, which allows the teacher to build on their strengths as an educator. The purpose of this observation is not to critique the teacher, but rather support teachers with their professional development goals. During the observation, the coach will take note of both the teacher’s and students’ behaviors. Co-created tools should be used to support the observation, such as T-charts or checklists. After the lesson, both the coach and the teacher take the opportunity to reflect before meeting again. This reflection may involve the use of a self-reflection form, journal writing or examining students’ work samples, or previewing recorded footage from the classroom.
3.) Post-Observation Interview
During the post-observation coaching session, using the Partnership Approach (Knight, 2007), the coach begins by asking the teacher how they felt about the lesson in relation to their set goal. The coach would offer feedback in the context of acknowledging the teacher for what they have identified and demonstrated in their teaching. The conversation would then move towards discussing the progress that the teacher has made towards his or her set goal. It is important that coaches don’t scare teachers away by telling teachers what they have done right or what they have done wrong – both have a detrimental effect on the relationship by assuming that the coach has all of the answers and that their role is to evaluate the teacher’s performance. Furthermore,
if coaches and others are careless with their comments or suggestions about teachers’ practices in the classroom, they run the risk of offending teachers, damaging relationships, or at the very least not being heard. (Knight, 2006, p. 1).
Instead, by guiding teachers to make their own observations through examining the data and asking questions that provoke reflection, teachers are able to make authentic observations of their own practice. In a study done by Scurry (2010), it was discovered that newly qualified teachers preferred coaches who were able to give feedback in a non-threatening way, and for more experienced teachers, they wanted to ensure the coach had credibility. This study highlights the balance that coaches must find in the teacher-coach relationship – genuine, respectful communication yet able to support teachers with training and content knowledge if needed.
This coaching session would conclude after specific “take-aways” have been shared and action points have been established. However, the coaching continues. This is the time in which the coach now takes on a supportive role. This support can involve a wide range of tasks ranging from lesson modeling, co-teaching, sharing resources, shadow coaching, planning sessions, advanced training, coordinating visits of other schools and/or classrooms, action research, and follow up observations and coaching sessions. As one instructional coach describes it,
Sometimes support is just showing that things are happening even when the teachers are too close to the class to see it (Knight, 2007, p. 44).
Coaching is not a quick fix, but it can be a real fix — a powerful way to help teachers and students be more successful. When planned carefully and when the success factors are addressed, instructional coaching can begin to deliver on the promise of making a real difference in schools.- Jim Knight, 2006, p. 1.
Instructional coaches and teachers work with the same goal in mind – to provide innovative and successful learning experiences for students. Both teachers and coaches can appreciate the fact that,
good instruction is 15 to 20 times more powerful in producing student achievement than family background and income, race, gender, and other explanatory variables (Wong and Wong, 2005, p. 224).
However, what defines “good instruction” will always be evolving. There is always new research related to best practices in teaching and learning, and therefore always new professional development opportunities for teachers. Taking on new practices is not always easy, and personal change is not always easy. Loehr and Schwartz (2003) have researched personal change and believe that it requires overcoming personal habits, and in order for change to be successful, people need more than simply a will to change.
Teachers are in a particular challenging situation, as Knight (2007) highlights,
If teachers are emotionally fatigued by the pressing immediacy of their professional life, overwhelmed by innovation overload, is it any surprise if they are not quick to pick up a practice and make it routine in the classroom? (p. 5).
This is where teachers can reach out to the Instructional Coach and engage in meaningful dialogue, reflective practice and personalized professional learning in order to embrace change and have success as teachers. Instead of fearing the Instructional Coach, teachers should embrace the opportunity for time and space for healthy, respectful conversations in which both the coach and teacher leave feeling more able and committed to making a positive difference in children’s lives. If the teacher and coach relationship can work, then together we can get better at reaching all students.
Fieldon, S. (2005). Literature Review: Coaching Effectiveness – A Summary. NHS Leadership Centre: London.
J Jackson. (2009, July). Instructional Coaching [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://jackson-consulting.com/4-steps-implementing-instructional-coaching-model
Knight, J. (2006). Eight factors for realizing better classroom teaching through support, feedback and intensive, individualized professional learning . The School Administrator, Vol. 63 (Number 4).
Knight, J. (2007). Instructional Coaching. Corwin Publishing, CA.
Loehr and Schwartz. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement. Free Press, NY.
Scurry, S. (2010). Perceptions of Instructional Coaches in the Elementary School Setting and Their Impact on Teacher Self Efficacy. ProQuest LLC, Ed.D. Dissertation, University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Skiffington, Washburn, and Elliot (2011). Instructional Coaching: Helping Preschool Teachers Reach their Full Potential. Young Children Vol. 66 (Number 3).
Wong, H and Wong, R. The First Days of School. Harry Wong Publications, CA.