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'Effective Instructional Coaching Keeps Kids at the Center of the Work'

(This is the first post in a five-part series)


The new question-of-the-week is:

How can instructional coaches work best with teachers, and vice versa?


More and more schools are using instructional coaches.  Given this growth, let's explore ways how to maximize their effectiveness.

Sydney Chaffee, Cindy Garcia, Carrie Johnson, Roxanna Elden, Tatiana Esteban, Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, and Dawn Mitchell "kick off" the five-part series today. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Instructional Coaching.

Response From Sydney Chaffee

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. She is a humanities teacher and instructional coach at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Mass.:

Back when I was a new teacher, I remember thinking that if I could just get through those first couple of years, my curriculum would be set and my life would get so much easier: I'll just reuse my lessons every year! I imagined that I'd figure out the secrets to being a teacher, and three or four years in, it would be smooth sailing. Twelve years later, I'm still writing new lessons. I now know that great teaching means constantly trying new things, reflecting, and growing. That continuous cycle of learning is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. 

But this past school year tested my willingness to learn in new ways as I stepped into a hybrid role; for the first time, I was both a 9th grade teacher and an instructional coach. In my new role, I felt inadequate, underprepared, and overwhelmed. One day in October, I collapsed into a chair and told a colleague, "I feel like a first-year teacher again!" Luckily, the teachers I had the privilege of coaching were generous and patient. By the end of the year, working with them had given me the chance to develop and practice a repertoire of coaching strategies. Having sat on both sides of the table, I can share two things I've learned about cultivating productive coaching relationships. 

Coach from a place of empathy. Teaching is both intensely personal and intensely political; our work with students communicates our values, our passions, and our dreams for them and the future. Teachers want to do right by our students, so when things don't go well, we can feel anxious or ashamed. As a teacher who has cried in countless coaching sessions over lessons gone awry or students who I just couldn't figure out how to effectively support, I know the power of empathy in coaching. 

I started each of my coaching relationships this year by interviewing the teachers I'd be working with. I asked them why they became teachers and how they liked to receive feedback. During the year, I made space for and acknowledged teachers' feelings. I opened sessions with time for them to check in about how they were doing, and if big emotions came up during our time together, I was flexible about our agenda so we could grapple with them while still moving forward. I told teachers about my own missteps and what I was currently working to improve. When coaches are empathetic, it helps us build the mutual trust required to dig into complex, difficult work together. It also grounds our work in the fact that we all have room to grow. 

It's important to remember that this attention to empathy requires balance. Making space for teachers' feelings can't come at the cost of what's best for students. Given that the vast majority of U.S. teachers are white women like me, I'm mindful of the role that white fragility can play in the process of giving and receiving feedback. That's why this next lesson is so crucial, even if it may seem obvious.

Keep kids at the center. A teacher I knew once was amazing at planning; she crafted visionary documents laying out the inspiring work that would happen in her classroom. Unfortunately, the daily reality in her room was less sparkling. Students were disengaged, and they weren't doing grade-level work. This teacher needed a coach who could help her see that all of her work wasn't resulting in authentic, meaningful learning. 

Effective instructional coaching keeps kids at the center of the work. One of my colleagues makes looking at student work and data a centerpiece of each of his coaching meetings. Looking at student work keeps his coaching firmly focused on what kids are learning and doing in classrooms. After I observed one of his coaching meetings, I started asking teachers to bring student work to our meetings, too. We analyzed student-essay drafts and worked together on how to write effective feedback, then revisited the work a week later to see how it went. We looked at exit tickets to determine whether students had learned what the teacher meant for them to learn. We watched video clips of students working in small groups to figure out whether the teacher had given clear instructions. We even looked at a student's written reflection after being sent out of the classroom for a disciplinary referral, discussing what the teacher might have done differently and how she would follow up with the student to strengthen their relationship. 

Coaching, like teaching, is hard. There is no magic number of years after which all of its secret codes are unlocked. But in moments when it has felt the most challenging, turning to empathy and asking what is best for kids has opened the door to new learning—both for my teachers and for myself.  


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Response From Cindy Garcia

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog :

Instructional coaches can have a highly positive impact on a campus and student learning, but this can only happen if they have a good working relationship with teachers. Check out the following six ways that can help in the development of a strong working relationship: 

  • Build Relationships: In order to build trust, coaches and teachers have to know each other professionally. Some background information that could be shared is: education, certifications, years of experiences, type of teaching experience, favorite professional book read, latest professional learning session attended, and favorite concept to teach. This type of information can let the teacher feel more confident about the abilities of an instructional coach, and the coach gleans information about the teacher's values when it comes to professional learning. 

  • Define the Coaching Cycle: It is important for both the coach and the teacher to be on the same page as far what "coaching" means. Coaching has a negative connation because it implies that a teacher is in need of support because something is wrong. In actuality, all teachers have areas in which they can grow and develop. Discussing the coaching cycle that will be followed, i.e., initial observation/planning meeting, observation, reflective meeting, develop action plan, subsequent observation/planning meeting, etc., can also put teachers at ease because they know what is going to happen each step of the way. If teachers are feeling at ease, they are more likely to be receptive to discussing it with the coach.

  • Set Norms: It is important to set behavior norms for meetings. Having agreed upon norms makes it less likely for there to be misunderstandings or actions taken that break the trust in the coach-teacher relationship. 

  • Ask for Help & Support: The coach must provide multiple ways for the teacher to request help and support. It could be through email, text, checking in at designated times, turning in a form, or other methods. The teacher just needs to know how they can reach the coach in a time of need.

  • Ask Questions: It is not uncommon that an instructional coach did not teach at the same campus or same grade level as the teachers they are coaching. The coach needs to be vulnerable with teachers and let them know that they are not the experts. They will have questions about the campus or grade-level content that they will ask them in order to make sure the suggestions or recommendations shared are appropriate. 

  • Timely with Requests: A teacher might reach out to a coach with a request, and it is imperative that the coach responds as soon as possible to the teacher's request in order to maintain a positive relationship. When teachers make a request, it means that they are in need and they might be facing a challenge. If the coach knows they will be unable to fulfill the request quickly, then they should communicate next steps and a timeline with the teachers. In order to keep the coaching cycle going and for progress to be made, teachers should also comply with requests to allow sufficient time for their coach to brainstorm ideas for next steps. 

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Response From Carrie Johnson

Carrie Johnson has been an educator in the Salt Lake City school district since 2008. She is currently a mathematics coach at Rose Park Elementary. She has a bachelor's degree in early-childhood education and a master's degree in elementary education.  Carrie is a national-board-certified teacher (Middle Childhood Generalist). She is passionate about supporting high levels of learning in urban Title I schools.  Follow Carrie on Twitter @MathCarrie :

In 2014, I became a mathematics coach because I was eager to broaden my impact beyond my classroom.  As a classroom teacher, I was lucky to have phenomenal coaches who helped me grow my teaching skills much faster than I could have on my own.  My first year as an instructional coach felt a lot like my first year of teaching.  Unfortunately, lack of systemic support for coaching made it a "sink or swim" experience.  I learned to "swim" because I was able to reach out to fellow coaches to mentor me so that I could maximize my coaching skills and impact on student learning. Here are three things I've learned about the best ways for instructional coaches and teachers to work together.

  1. Relationships. Relationships. Relationships.

Education, without a doubt, is a relationship-driven industry.  Research confirms that teachers need to build trusting relationships with students in order to create a safe, positive, and productive learning environment.  The same is true with coaching.  The best coaches are skilled at getting to know teachers on a personal level.  They ask thoughtful questions to learn their values, interests, and what drives them as an educator.  When I was a classroom teacher, I was thrilled to have my coaches join me in the classroom because I felt safe knowing they were there to help without judgment if I made a mistake.  

  1. Develop Learning Partnerships

Mistakes can be intimidating to students and adult learners alike.  Most people can think of a time in their life when they made a mistake in front of someone and it damaged the relationship.  Recently, I had a powerful learning experience about building relationships through being a vulnerable learner with my own mistakes.  I was filming myself facilitating a mathematics task in a classroom that turned out to be too challenging for the students. This was due to my lack of planning and collaboration with the teacher.  It was my first time working in this teacher's classroom, and I was embarrassed that I modeled a task that was a complete flop.  I worried that she might question my teaching ability or wouldn't want to work with me in the future because I didn't have anything to offer.  Immediately after the lesson, I wanted to delete the video and forget about the experience.  Instead, I shared the video with the teacher and used it as an opportunity to brainstorm ideas about coming back in and trying again. This resulted in a learning partnership to develop scaffolds that would help students show success with a challenging mathematics standard.  I am grateful that my mistake led to more powerful learning for students, the teacher, and myself.

  1. It's All About Student Learning.

I hear this phrase a lot, but when it comes to coaching, it's easier said than done.  While building positive relationships is foundational, sometimes coaching can slip into a dynamic where coaches spend their time doing things to make teachers happy, but these tasks might not increase student learning.  I have been guilty of offering resources without following through on the instruction.  I am a people pleaser. This helps me naturally build positive relationships with my colleagues, but I must be vigilant about keeping my people-pleasing tendencies aimed at increasing student learning. 

I have learned that offering an interesting new resource can be a great segue into setting up a coaching cycle.  Now when teachers say, "I analyzed my data and I notice my students are struggling with ____.  Do you have a resource that will help with that?" I can respond with, "I have some resources we can choose from.  Let's set up a time to co-plan how we'd like to implement it in class together."  As we plan together, we figure out what role each of us will take during the lesson as well as what evidence of student learning we'd like to collect and analyze to plan our next steps.  This simple shift has changed my relationship with teachers and students.  Instead of viewing the coach as a resource provider and expert consultant, coaching is now a relationship of brainstorming and learning together.

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Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden's teacher-advice book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, has long been a staple in many school districts and training programs. Her recently released novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, follows several teachers as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa (like "The Office," but set in an urban high school):

The problem with improving as a teacher is that it's always slower than we want it to be. My own pattern, for my first few years in the classroom, was this:

Step 1: Go to a professional-development session that promised to make failure not an option anymore or read a book that offers (insert number) of ways to make sure every student will (insert lofty educational goal)!!!!

Step 2: Get all pumped up. So, this is why my 4th graders aren't understanding long division! This is how I can get my high school students to stop texting under their desks! This is how to get 8-year-olds to stop leaning back and forth in the bathroom line and knocking into each other until the student in front bumps into the door! All I have to do is ...  

Step 3: Front-load many, many hours into overhauling a classroom system, or designing, printing, and cutting out a classroom currency, or making a class set of every page of my new timed-reading-prompt workbook, or teaching students a new set of classroom rules.

Step 4: Brag to at least one other person about how I have it all together now.

Step 5: Watch my plans fall apart quickly and disastrously or slowly unravel over time. I'd explain the directions, and the kids would just stare at me blank-faced, or there would be technology glitches, or the kids would have so many questions I couldn't answer that I'd just say, "Never mind. NEVER MIND!" More often, however, things just degraded over time. The new folder system just took too much willpower to keep up with. Or the 15-minute, beginning-of-class exercise just kept growing until it took 43 minutes... every day... until we just started skipping it.

Step 6: Realize everything I thought I'd figured out was mostly wrong. Get mad that I'd wasted so much time.

Now, here's what I've realized since: Every time you feel like you've figured everything out, you're mostly wrong. But mostly wrong isn't the same thing as completely wrong. 

Each time you go through the process described above, you become one real, permanent step better. 

Even if they don't change everything, many of those big, frantic, aha-moment-driven overhauls will leave you with something you can use. Maybe you can scale back a big plan into something simpler. Maybe you can turn part of a well-intentioned routine into a classroom job. Or maybe you can dig out the one little piece of this that worked and graft it onto one of your existing classroom systems.

One of the best things an instructional coach can do is help teachers get one real, permanent step better at a time—and to realize that's not such a bad goal.

The time spent trying to become a better teacher may not always pay off as quickly or as noticeably as we want it to. But it is never wasted.

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Response From Tatiana Esteban

Tatiana Esteban, M.A. Ed., has taught ELL, gifted, and SpEd students in various classroom settings since 2007. Currently, she is embarking on a new curricular adventure as a phonics interventionist at Gulliver Academy, an independent school in Miami, while continuing to grow her knowledge base in her passion of curriculum and instruction design and implementation:

I believe that the relationship between an instructional coach and a teacher is all about trust. As a coach, if you want to partner successfully with teachers, you have to work at establishing a level of trust with them in order for them to open up their classroom to you. Vice versa, as a teacher, if you want to develop a working partnership with your instructional coach, then you need to open yourself up to trusting their motives and intentions when working with you and also your own knowledge base and motivation for reaching out. Teachers can be quite territorial; coaches should not expect teachers to jump into the idea of letting someone else into their rooms and relinquish control of their domain; take baby steps. A coach can start by sitting in during department- or grade-level planning meetings, listen to what is happening in the group, go back and find some helpful resources, and then bring them to the next meeting. A simple, "Hey guys, I know last week there was some conversation around _____. I did some digging for you and came up with these resources. Take a look when you have a chance and let me know if you want to talk about it a little more" can be enough to start gaining their trust. 

As a teacher, don't expect your instructional coach to come in, wave a wand, and magically transform your classroom. Again, start small. Think of one thing you'd like support or a fresh perspective when tackling and have a conversation with your coach about it. Gauge their ideas or thoughts around that and then decide if you're ready to have them come into your room and help. Also, do not assume they are out to get you; assume they are looking for the same thing you are: a better way to service the kids or a new way to make your job easier.

 In my experience, opening the door to my reading coach and developing a strong relationship with her was one of the best things that has ever happened to me as a classroom teacher. Not only did she become a sounding board for my ideas and frustrations (she kept a comfy chair and my favorite chocolates in her office for those days), but she also became my advocate with administration and my co-teacher when necessary. Having that person in your building you can turn to for ideas, support, and/or mentoring is incredibly valuable; make the most of it! 

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Response From Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, & Dawn Mitchell

Heather Register is the reading coach at Fairforest Elementary School in Spartanburg, S.C., where she's worked for 14 years. In her time there, she has been a 3rd and 5th grade teacher. For the past four years, Heather has acted as the school's reading coach working alongside teachers to develop and implement authentic reading opportunities for students in kindergarten through 5th grade.

Ashley Blackwelder is the STEM coordinator at Fairforest Elementary School, where she has taught for 16 years. During this time, she has served as both a classroom teacher and in a coaching role for her school, as well as a technology trainer for teachers throughout Spartanburg District 6.  Connect with Ashley and see the results of Fairforest's  collaborative, student-centered instruction by following @fesstemtosteam on Instagram.

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg, in District 6, where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project-based learning.  Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

For Coaches...

  • Clarify Your Role - Support Provider Not an Evaluator 

 As coaches, many times it can be easy for teachers and principals to see us as another administrator, and that can jeopardize our goals of supporting teachers and impacting student achievement.  Take the opportunity to be a cheerleader instead of an evaluator: We are not administrators or "bosses" in any way. We can offer support and suggestions, but we are not ultimately the ones who hold teachers accountable for doing their best jobs. Trust in our relationships with teachers is an essential foundation in accomplishing partners in our work toward student growth.  Without it, our work can become superficial at best.  Teachers are much more willing to be open and honest about their struggles and frustrations with someone who is not in a position of authority. We can learn more about them and develop closer relationships and ultimately be able to help more than we could in an administrative position, because we may be aware of things that admin is not. 

  • Maintain a Dual Purpose: Teacher Support and Student Achievement

As coaches, we want to provide support to teachers in order to positively impact student achievement so that everyone involved in our coaching cycles are growing as learners. This mission statement works to ensure that our goals are always dual purpose in that we are continually keeping both teachers and students at the forefront of our work. 

  • Share Your Practice - Both Success and Struggles

As coaches, we know the importance of modeling as an instructional strategy with students.  It is just as impactful  in our work with teachers.  If we want teachers to open up about their struggles in order to target our support, we also have to be willing to bounce ideas, admit struggles and mistakes, and grow together.  The goal is not just to commiserate and share "war stories" but to establish ourselves as a collaborative peer and to move the conversation always toward students and what they need and how we can achieve it together.   

  • Practice What You Preach - Keep an Asset View of Students and Teachers

The research on adult learners is clear ... our teachers want and deserve to be treated as professionals and to be provided with the same best practices our students do, including time, ownership,and feedback. If we know as educators that our students are all unique with different learning styles and personalities, we have to also provide our teachers with differentiated options and approaches to their own learning.  One of the biggest challenges as a coach is trying to convince teachers that a) there's no one "right" way to approach instruction, and b) their students really will benefit if they're willing to give up a little control and let the students take charge of their learning. It is hard, because many teachers find that to be VERY intimidating. It can be tempting to get frustrated with the teacher for "not listening," "not doing what I told her to do," etc., but we have to remember that teachers are dealing with the same thing that a lot of our most frustrating students are: fear. They're not trying to take the easy way out by using that same worksheet from 10 years ago; they just feel safe doing it.

  • Model a Growth Mindset - Utilize a Gradual Release Model

In order for fear to be overcome, we have to make teachers feel comfortable taking risks and even learning from failure, in the same ways we advocate they do with their students. If we can collaborate with our teachers and show them how by modeling thinking through the process, "getting in the trenches" with them, and troubleshooting as we go, we will be more effective. We are more respected if we can "remember what it was like being in the classroom." 

 

For Teachers...

  • View Your Coach as a Resource

Don't see us as someone coming in because you NEED help. That was a hard lesson for each of us to learn.  I didn't want to give any impression that I couldn't handle it ALL. That's not the purpose of a coach.  We aren't there because you can't do it without us, we are there to help support and enhance what you are already doing.  We are there as resources, who often have the luxury of time to search for information and materials and to help plan those amazing lessons you want to do.

  • Reach Out and Ask for the Support You Want

We are there to give you the time, space, and support to develop your instruction into what you want it to be. Don't wait on an offer; reach out and ask for the help you want.  If your students could benefit from differentiated grouping in a literacy unit but you could use some guidance with planning and preparing, let us know so we can differentiate our support based on what you and your students need.  Don't suffer by trying to reinvent the wheel and do everything on your own and don't let your students suffer from it, either. 

  • Collaboration Is Mutually Beneficial

The best teaching comes from a team effort; we are stronger together and we can get great ideas from each other. Plus, teaching as part of a team is a whole lot more fun. We all share the same goal of student growth and professional fulfillment.  Many times both of these can be achieved  through collaboration.  This could take many different forms through a coaching relationship ... co-planning, co-teaching, team teaching, a book study, etc.  The possibilities are endless when you see the potential in the collaboration between a teacher and a coach.

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Thanks to Sydney, Cindy, Carrie, Roxanna, Tatiana, Heather, Ashley, and Dawn for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Assessment

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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