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Two Teachers' Perspectives on Instructional Coaching

Heather Harding is director of policy and public understanding at the Charles Schusterman Family Foundation. Heather began her career in education with Teach For America, starting as a teacher before working her way up to senior leadership. Heather will talk about her experience as an education reformer and charter school parent, and why she's found herself evolving into a reform moderate and an accountability hawk.

In my last blog post, I made the argument for helping the public understand that teaching is complex and intellectually demanding work. This is undergirded by my belief that great teachers are amazing, smart, adaptive people who are constantly learning, growing, and developing their skills. Teacher Fellow Spencer Russell makes this case here about the journey of teacher development. Spencer—along with Cicely Woodard—were among the practitioners I met recently who are the epitome of lifelong learners whose deep commitment to students shines through. They reminded me that we have to always listen to the actual folks who make the magic happen.

Recently, Learning Forward documented the D.C. Public Schools LEAP program that leverages coaching and professional learning communities to support standards-aligned instruction. It got me to thinking about the two teachers I talked to last year from my own children's school, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Freedom Community Charter School, who were serving as instructional coaches. I learned so much from Ms. Maribel Wan's and Rene Hayden's reflections on coaching and teacher leadership, I wanted to check back in. The research on coaching continues to be promising in that it provides a boost to student learning. These are two teachers whose love of students and love of teaching has afforded them a way of supporting both students and adults in their schools.

Below is a Q&A with these two instructional coaches:

How did your year of coaching go? Highlights? Challenges? 

Maribel: The year went well, with an immense amount of growth from my teachers. Teachers were motivated and excited with their students' learning. Time is always a challenge in prioritizing tasks, especially with a grade-level team completely new to the school.   

Rene: I would say that the first year of coaching was definitely a "growth experience" for both the school's instructional leadership team and myself. I think the highlights of my coaching per se were seeing my colleagues try new approaches to teaching and seeing their worth, particularly around inquiry-based teaching methods. I also ran a pretty decent professional learning community on instruction through games, which was followed up with direct application in the classroom, and I think that it was fairly rewarding, at least for a few colleagues. Challenges were...from our initial orientation around coaching (as directive), and the oddness of moving from colleague to a position as coach that was defined as authoritative. I don't think the directive model of coaching did us many favors, and may have resulted in the recalcitrance or apathy of a few colleagues. This did make me think a bit about what I need to change, since, really, who am I to be claiming to have better ideas or practices than my colleagues? It made me think more centrally about the coaching interaction.

What will you do differently this year?  

Maribel: This year I'm working with a different grade level, so that is exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing our youngest students in action.   

Rene: I am going to re-center my coaching practice on learning to be a much better listener.

What has been the best support/training for you? 

Maribel: Coaching is great because I have an incredibly supportive team to work with. We are always discussing and reflecting on our practice and thinking of ways to improve our impact with teachers and students.   

Rene: My colleagues on the instructional leadership team, including our director of teaching and learning, for sure. I would never have been able to do the little that I did without them, and even better, they've helped me to think about coaching and policy and its implementation in better ways. Also, Jim Knight's books. He doesn't have a lot of radically new things to say (that I can see), but he writes in a very engaging, clear, and pragmatic way. His coaching philosophy is grounded in a deep humility and respect for others (maybe even to a fault). 

How sustainable is the coaching role? What do you think you'll be doing in five years? 

Maribel: Coaching is sustainable when the administration and teachers value it. I couldn't imagine working as a coach in a school where the culture was against it. Five years...I have no idea what role I will have but hopefully still working in education.  

Rene: I think the scholarship agrees that coaching has a very significant impact on teacher practice. I do think it is sustainable as long as loads don't increase to such a degree that the minimum requirements of effective coaching can be met. I think organizations need to be clear and prioritize allocating space, time, and responsibility in a way that allows coaches to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Heather Harding

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