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Instructional Coaching in 20 Seconds or Less

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Today's guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.


I have always wanted to be an instructional coach.

In fact, I wanted to be an instructional coach before I truly knew what an instructional coach did. Several years ago, when I first entertained the idea of pursuing an instructional coach position, a principal asked me, "If you were riding in an elevator and someone asked you what an instructional coach does, what would you say in 20 seconds or less?" As I inarticulately tried to put instructional coaching into words, I should have cut my losses and quoted Einstein instead:

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

A few years later, my school district listed an instructional coach position, and I wanted this job. I strived to have my elevator speech down pat should I once again need to describe the role in 20 seconds or less. To prepare, I studied the work of Jim Knight, the foremost expert on instructional coaching. I read and annotated three of his books (Unmistakable Impact, Instructional Coaching, and High Impact Instruction).

What became readily apparent was while I could, in fact, perfect my elevator speech, just being able to describe what a coach does is very different from actually performing the role successfully. Take, for example, the following parts of a coach's job description and my initial thoughts:
  • Coaches are responsible for forming partnerships with teachers to align their practices to research-based, high-impact, instructional strategies. So, what if a teacher has a goal that has nothing to do with high-impact instructional strategies?

  • Coaches should enroll teachers in coaching cycles which include multiple meetings. How do I make coaching cycles compelling enough for teachers to share their most coveted commodity (time) with me?

  • The single most important thing a coach needs to be successful is her principal's support. Yet, coaches must tread lightly as not to become too close to the principal or teachers may resist (Knight, Unmistakable Impact). How do I strike this balance?

Where Do I Begin?
In September 2015, I read Peter DeWitt's blog post 4 Reasons Why Instructional Coaching Won't Work. The post was timely (I had just started as a coach) and enlightening as well. Item #3 on Peter's list especially piqued my interest,  "coaches lack credibility." I had found my starting point.

I needed to gain credibility. Just because I may have been a "good" teacher didn't mean I would automatically be a good coach. Moreover, I didn't want teachers to work with me or principals to endorse me because they "should." I wanted teachers to partner with me and principals to support me because I had proven added value.

But, what is credibility exactly?
Dictionary.com defines credibility as "the quality of being believable or worthy of trust." I trust people when they are real, dependable, and humble. As a coach, I was confident I could establish credibility by remaining true to myself and by using the same strategies I had previously used with students: determine need/want, collaboratively figure out the best way to get there, and remember that our work is about them and not me. My "students" were now my coachees and my building administrators were now my students' "parents" (always wanting what is best for their staff).

I decided I would continue to be the educator I have always been. I would respond to my colleagues in a similar fashion to how I responded to my students. I would build my credibility with actions like the following:

  • Sharing my passion: "Thank you for inviting me into your classroom! I LOVE how excited your students are to vote for 'quote of the week.' I wish I would have done that in my classroom!"
  • Modeling continued learning: "You know, I am not that well-versed with complex math instruction and I am interested in learning more. Give me a few days, and I will get back to you with more information."
  • Being consistently consistent: "You have a partner in this entire process. You worry about teaching and your students' needs. Let me worry about the logistical hurdles. I promise we will figure this out together."
  • Being honest: "Hey, Building Principal!  A few teachers have asked me the same question about our new student learning objective plan. I think I need to deepen my understanding, can we chat about this part?"
  • Not taking myself too seriously: "Kudos to you for recording yourself teaching a lesson. I still cringe when I watch certain footage of myself. But, the truth is, I always learn something from the recordings. Minimally, I know what outfits I should never wear again."

A Second Chance
Last October, I was a guest moderator for #LeadupKatycast, an inspirational and informational podcast hosted by three savvy building administrators, Chris Bailey, Dr. Jake LeBlanc, and Mark McCord, from Katy, Texas. Our podcast explored a singular question: "What is the role of the instructional coach?"

Oh no, that question again.

This time I had my elevator speech ready (and it takes much less than 20 seconds):

"Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial, partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles focused on teachers' goals."

Deep breath.

Only... I didn't need the memorized script. Instead, we talked and learned from each other's experiences, successes, and struggles. And, by sharing on a larger scale, we collectively help build credibility for instructional coaching programs on the whole.

As I listened to how passionate these principals were about coaching, I was reminded of an insight my own building principal, Allison Stein, shared with me on the day I accepted my instructional coach position. Allison said:

"Remember, we are all on the same team."
It's amazing how one simple sentence can be so impactful. As a coach, viewing an organization as a team rather than a hierarchy erases so many of those initial fears.

I no longer worry about the reasons teachers seek to work with me. Because teachers always come to me with the best interest of their students at heart. Then, I help them determine and implement appropriate strategies.

I no longer worry about teachers being too busy. Sometimes teachers just are too busy, and that is ok! Teachers will reach out to me when things settle down.

Most importantly, I have stopped worrying about how teachers view my partnership with my principal. Because, as Allison said, "we are all on the same team."

On our team, we each play a different and equally important role. We win when our students succeed. Principals are the instructional visionaries and teachers execute that vision. Coaches are simply the choreographers.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

*Special thanks to my Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer for helping me to continue to define my role through exceptional training and coffee talks about praxis. To Mark McCord for the invitation to co-moderate #LeadupKaty, to Chris Bailey and Jake LeBlanc for their hospitality, humor, and promises of Texas BBQ. And, most importantly, thank you to all of the amazing teachers who have trusted me as your partner; I learn the most from all of you.

 

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