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Critical Friends: The Benefits of Instructional Coaches

"Instructional coaches are onsite professional developers who work collaboratively with teachers, empowering them to incorporate research-based instructional methods into their classrooms." Jim Knight

Relationships matter in education. Quite honestly, they matter in every profession. Educators work many years with most of the same colleagues, and often teach sibling after sibling. Bill Daggett, the Founder and Chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) has always made relationships a focus of his presentations and core mission.

The reality is that without fostering positive relationships, we don't grow as professionals. In an interview with Daggett, he said, "ICLE looked at the nation's most rapidly improving schools in a five year initiative with Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). We found that they evaluate students and staff around four different learning criteria - and relationships are essential to those learning criteria."

If we look at our own experiences as teachers and principals, we know relationships are one of the most important things we leave with at the end of a career. We all work with colleagues who are also trusted friends. We have parents who we hear from that no longer have children in our schools. They send an e-mail or find us on Facebook in an effort to maintain a connection.

If relationships didn't matter, social networking would not be as important to our lives as it is today. People are on Facebook and Twitter to maintain connections with old friends and family but also new colleagues in their PLN. One new relationship that matters in schools is that of instructional coaches and the teachers they serve.

Instructional coaches seem to be a new phenomenon in schools. Their job is to help educators become better teachers. They observe teachers teaching, go over instructional data, and model good teaching practices. As much as this may be new for schools, the core of instructional coaching has been around for a long time.

Critical Friends
When I was a new teacher, I taught 30 first graders in a city school. I had a high quality student teaching experience, countless hours of observations, and a good network of friends to help me maintain my sanity. However, as I look back now, I could not have made it through that first few years without the help of my colleagues.

I was the general education teacher, Jo was the speech pathologist who serviced the students, and Anna was the special education teacher who worked with me. We co-taught and I learned a great deal from the two of them. I was from upstate, New York and I thought I was teaching in a huge city school in Poughkeepsie, and Anna was from the Bronx who felt otherwise. The school seemed more suburban to her.

Over the few years I worked with Jo and Anna I learned a lot. Not just about special education students but about good teaching practices that were good for all students. They watched and intervened and we met during lunch and after school. Not because we had to but because we wanted to. I became a better teacher because of their input.

Instructional coaches, when done correctly, do the same thing. Consultant, educator and leadership expert Jim Knight has done a great deal of work around instructional coaching. In his study with the University of Kansas, Knight studied the impact of instructional coaches. Knight says, "Instructional coaches are onsite professional developers who work collaboratively with teachers, empowering them to incorporate research-based instructional methods into their classrooms."

Knight says instructional coaches employ the following seven practices:
Enrolls the teacher - they conduct one-to-one interviews with each teacher prior to the experience.
Engages in collaborative planning - The coach meets with the collaborating teacher to discuss how a new teaching practice can be implemented effectively.
Models the lesson- The coach must model the lesson in the collaborating teacher's classroom while the teacher observes.
Teacher-directed post conference - Both parties must meet to discuss what the teacher observed the coach doing while modeling the lesson.
Coach observes the lesson- It's the teacher's turn to teach the lesson.
Exploring data together - The coach and teacher discuss the data gathered during mutual observations.
Providing continued support - This is a continuous relationship that needs to be fostered over the year.

In addition, according to Knight, instructional coaches are grounded in the following seven principles:
Equality - Instructional coaches and teachers are equal partners.
Choice - Teachers should have a choice regarding what and how they learn.
Voice - Professional learning should empower and respect the voices of teachers.
Dialogue - Professional learning should enable authentic dialogue.
Reflection - Reflection is an integral part of professional learning.
Praxis - Teachers should apply their learning to their real-life practice as they are learning.
Reciprocity - Instructional coaches should expect to get as much as they give.

Knight says, "A coach is a trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board, and a witness to the good. These days can be difficult for educators, with increased expectations, decreased funding, more pressure and less encouragement. Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing, and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally."

Over the years, we have sometimes called them critical friends and other times we have been blessed with great co-teachers who have helped us along the way. A partner that helps us become a better educator is an invaluable relationship. Jim Knight's research on instructional coaches really provides a framework to help school districts establish a high quality instructional coach approach. However, it also helps the co-teaching and critical friend process as well.

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