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'Instructional Coaching Can Be Frustrating at Times'

(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

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


Sydney Chaffee, Cindy Garcia, Carrie Johnson, Roxanna Elden, Tatiana Esteban, Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, and Dawn Mitchell "kicked off" the five-part series in Part One. 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.

In Part Two, Laura Robb, Rita Platt, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Cindi Rigsbee, Tonya Ward Singer, and Margie Kirstein contributed their suggestions.

Today, Lisa Westman, Dr. Debbie Silver, Dr. Carol Chanter, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kristin Rouleau, and Keisha Rembert share their commentaries.

Response From Lisa Westman

Lisa Westman is a writer, speaker, and consultant who works with school systems across the country to implement student-driven differentiation, standards-based learning, and instructional-coaching programs. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and an instructional coach specializing in differentiation. She is the author of Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps to Harmonize Learning in the Classroom (Corwin). Connect with Lisa on Twitter: @lisa_westman:

"I've been teaching for 20 years; I know what I am doing ..."

"I'm a first-year teacher. ... I had no idea teaching would be this hard ..."

"We've always done it this way ..."

"I don't have time ..."

As an instructional coach, if your school is similar to the majority of schools across America, you likely hear sentiments similar to the ones listed above from teachers in your building from time to time. Upon initial review, these thoughts may leave you feeling discouraged or frustrated when trying to partner with teachers who hold such beliefs.

And, rightfully so, it can be frustrating to encounter situations like these. And that is precisely what makes effective instructional coaching an art form. In the words of Ric Charlesworth, (the former head coach of Australian Women's hockey team, The Hockeyroos), "The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled."

And acutalizing this paradox is what is behind a successful coaching relationship. And the way to do this is by really listening to what teachers say. Not just the words, but determining what is behind those words. Determine what it is that teachers need and then find a way to partner with them to meets their needs.

Coaches can accurately and objectively discern what teachers need by adhering to the partnership principles, communication beliefs, and communication habits as coined by instructional coaching guru Jim Knight. Knight outlines 10 crucial habits that effective communicators must practice. All 10 of these habits are critical strategies coaches should employ. That being said, the one that always stands out the most to me is "ask better questions."

Knight addresses the art of questioning in all of his books (my favorite book on this topic is Better Conversations) and in Unmistakable Impact, Knight outlines three steps to better questioning: 1) be curious, 2) ask open-ended opinion questions, and 3) be nonjudgmental.

So, let's look at one of the common situations a coach may find themselves in with a teacher, the "we've always done it this way." 

Think about how responding to this statement without judgment, with genuine curiosity, and by asking open-ended questions may elicit more involvement from a complacent teacher, "I see and I completely understand that. Why fix something that isn't broken? Now, tell me, what works well about the way you have always done 'x'?  In an ideal world, what could work better about 'x'?" How might this be a more successful approach than a well-intended, yet judgmental, closed-off statement like, "Well, just because you've always done something one way doesn't make it right."

Instructional coaching can be frustrating at times. It isn't always "easy" to comfort the troubled or trouble the comfortable, but through practices like the effective communication strategies Knight outlines, instructional coaching can prove to be one of the rewarding roles an educator can hold. 

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Response From Dr. Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, an author, and a speaker.  She has presented to educators, administrators, parents, and students in 49 states, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and the Middle East.  She is the author and co-author of four best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Learning; Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed; Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education; and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Building the Other Essential Skills. You can reach her at www.debbiesilver.com:

I was a 17-year veteran teacher and a newly selected teacher of the year when I received my first real teaching evaluation. Oh, I had previously been given plenty of the administrator obligatory "walk-through" observations that were nothing more than checked boxes about bulletin boards, neatness, objectives written on the board, etc. I had received rave summary reports stating how competent I was as an instructor.  But until my 17th year, I had never been given an evaluation designed to help me get better. And I didn't like that first one even a little bit.

For years, I had become complacent with the once-or-twice-a-year compulsory assessments handed out by previous administrators that usually depicted me as a capable, experienced educator who not only met but exceeded expectations. I loved hearing about how great I was and felt validated for those few times I knew I had been "not so great" in the classroom.

When I changed not only my school but also my district, I was hired by a principal who seemed devoted to making her newly formed K-8 school a top-of-the-line educational community.  She had a no-nonsense approach but seemed fair and competent.  I quickly came to realize she was one of the most effective educational leaders I had ever known. Things went swimmingly until my first evaluation.

Rather than wait for a hurried "run through" toward the end of the semester, my principal visited my class early in the year.  She stayed the entire class period.  After school, during our debriefing, she noted several positive things she observed during my class. Then she began to note some areas for me to work on. I was stunned.  Actual corrections?  For me?  Teacher of the Year?  What gives? I kept my cool and told myself she was just having a bad day.

A few weeks later, she was back. Again, I taught with what I thought was flair and prowess only to be given more corrections in our debriefing.  Did I realize that I called on boys almost twice as many times as girls?  Did I realize that my "wait time" was generally under 2 seconds? I was devastated.

Like the true professional that I am, I became defensive and started to wail, "I guess you think I'm in the wrong profession!  Maybe I shouldn't even be a teacher!"  She shook her head and said, "You're quite wrong about that. I think you are an incredibly accomplished educator, maybe one of the best I've seen—I just don't think you're as good yet as you are going to be."

And that was the beginning of my biggest growth as an educator in my entire career.  Rather than having an observer who made a cursory visit, checked boxes, and/or generalized with flattering platitudes, I was given the gift of real conversation about correctable behaviors that could actually help me improve my teaching. I learned to seek out her counsel on ways I could be more effective in the classroom and welcome her input on skills I wanted to work on. She appreciated my willingness to learn, and I valued her views as an observer and her candor as an evaluator.

Because of my experience with that principal, I have become a better observer and coach when I work with other teachers. I realize that change is hard, but growth is worth it. I try to be as specific as possible in my feedback and stay away from value judgments and sweeping generalizations. I try to assume we both want what is best for kids and to understand that sometimes we will disagree on the preferred approach. I try to support my suggestions with data, but I'm not above using an anecdotal story from my teaching history to illustrate a point.

Here are some general guidelines I think are important for coaches to remember:

  1. Begin the relationship with conversations about and a general understanding of the teacher's philosophy, style, goals, and history. Start work first on the areas they identify as needed. Building a confident, trusting relationship is easier when the teacher selects the place and pace they want to grow.

  2. Talk less, listen more. Many times, coaches rattle off a litany of positive statements in order to show they are interested in and approve of the colleague's work.  However, insightful questioning is often the better choice for not only demonstrating interest but also for encouraging active reflection from the teacher. Rather than offering a list of value judgments about the action (good or bad), ask the teacher questions about their work.  Encourage them to consider all that they have learned.

  3. Maintain the concept of "a work in progress." Coaches need to make excellent use of words and phrases such as "yet," "for now," and "so far" in order to heighten teacher awareness that achievement or lack of it is not permanent. If a teacher laments, "I just can't do this," a good response from the coach is, "Yet. You can't do this yet.  Let's see where you   are and go from there."  It is easy to get caught up in the frequent thought, "Oh my goodness, this teacher is only here, and they really need to be there."  But the best coaches  determine where teachers are and incrementally raise the bar  so that their colleague is steadily challenged while seeing that they are making progress.
  1. Understand that coaching adults offers unique challenges. Adults are often concerned that asking for help will make them appear weak either personally or professionally. Value their experiences by asking them to share ideas, opinions, and knowledge. Providing opportunities for teachers to demonstrate their competency helps them feel safe enough to ask questions and  confident that they will be respected.

  2. Be thoughtful and kind. It is impossible to help students by alienating their teacher. Model the respect and courtesy to them you want to see in their relationships with their students. Learn to treasure the shared goals between the coach and the teacher and enjoy the opportunity of having another adult in the room.

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Response From Dr. Carol Chanter

Dr. Carol Chanter, senior vice president, professional learning services, Scholastic Education, has more than 30 years of experience in general and special education, educational leadership, and K-12 literacy. Carol leads the company's professional-development consulting-services business, supporting best practices in product usage and ongoing research-based professional development:

"What teachers know, do, and care about" writes John Hattie (2003) "is very powerful in the learning equation." In other words, the more knowledgeable and skillful teachers are about responsive instruction, targeted assessment, collaborative conversations, and decisionmaking, the more likely their students will succeed. 

Since excellent teaching fosters student achievement, we want to do all we can to provide teachers, coaches, and school leaders with exemplary and sustained professional support, and a partnership for coaching is an essential and powerful component. 

The research is clear: The sustained professional learning that coaching enables is a game changer. Students demonstrated noteworthy gains in their learning when they worked with teachers who had received more than 14 hours of professional learning. And when teachers received 30 or more hours of professional learning over the course of a year, their students made proportionally larger gains (Zarrow, 2014). 

Regie Routman writes (2018), in a "trusting school culture, coaching experiences with colleagues have the potential to greatly improve teaching, especially when we have a school-wide coaching model that includes collaborating, planning, and/or co-teaching." The coaches are not supervisors but peers who support the self-directed learning of each other. 

So how do we create cultures in which coaching partnerships thrive? First, school leaders can demonstrate commitment to resources by protecting coaches' time from noncoaching duties such as lunch duty, substitute-teaching duty, hall duty, etc. In addition, school leaders can support time for teachers and coaches to review evidence of student learning outcomes from coaching sessions, reflect on lessons, and generate next steps.

Second, thriving partnerships require a set of expert skills. This expertise is modeled by the school leader and includes clearly communicated roles, generative thinking, strategic relationship development, and effective adult communication, along with empowerment of others through their continuous development of expertise.

Third, all coaching partners must agree that improvement and development of the partnership is not an event but a process over time with feedback and enhancements. Partnerships are intended to improve the effectiveness of all those involved, including school leaders, coaches, and teachers who have the most critical role related to student learning. 

Enhancing expertise in the complexity of teaching requires "time, practice, and experience" (Ambrosetti, 2010, p. 117). All members are equal in the partnership, learning from each other and developing each other's expertise.

Fourth, successful partnerships to improve student learning are characterized by "an in-depth relationship involving critical feedback and mutual support" (Washburn-Moses, 2010, p. 4). Partnerships include monitoring successive improvements in professional practice, reflection, and generation of next steps for the coach, teacher, and school leader. There must be time designated for all members to participate in continuous improvement conversations about how the coaching partnership is progressing. 

Finally, schoolwide change is hard work and requires high levels of motivation and commitment. However, when the coaching culture is developed around collaboration for continuous improvement in effectiveness and assurance of equitable learning outcomes for all learners, large-scale improvements are possible. Motivation naturally emerges from individuals believing that their contributions and inputs are impactful and valued (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). 

Yes, the teacher has the most important influence in student learning, and coaches and school leaders have equal responsibility for an individual's improvement in effectiveness, which positively impacts whole school improvement (Ippolito, 2010). The power is in the partnership! 

References can be found here.

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Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL coach. She is the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), which shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and what engages them as learners.  She is also the author of DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge), She is an 8th grade ELA teacher, a staff blogger for Edutopia, a proud member of the California Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter:@tweenteacher:

When we say we must differentiate for students, that also means we have to differentiate for teachers. Teachers are learners, too. We all are. We must give them choices of when to learn, how to learn, and what to learn. We also need our pathways of learning to be flexible to allow for them to learn in a method that works best for them. This might look like being available during a prep period, during lunch, before school, directly after school, or even holding virtual office hours at night. This might look like formal PD with a department, 1:1 meetings with individual teachers, or teaching a class to demonstrate a strategy for others to observe. This might look like face-to-face PD or an archive of screencasts that teachers can access at their leisure or to reinforce a skill.

This not only serves to help the teachers, but the hope as an instructional coach is that you are modeling methods of implementation that can work for students in the classroom as well. 

For instance, a couple of years ago, I had used a gamified program to implement the curriculum in my demo classroom. Teachers could bring their classes into my room, and I would implement different lessons and give quick and informal feedback to their students as they submitted and advanced along a pathway of lessons. The next year, we had 14 teachers utilizing similar programs in various subject areas, all in the name of rigor and engagement. I respect the fact that just hearing about the platform wasn't as effective as seeing it in action.

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Response From Kristin Rouleau

Kristin Rouleau, senior director of learning services and innovation with McREL International, works with schools, districts, and state departments of education as they navigate change and implement practices and structures to reduce variability and increase student achievement. Through consulting, coaching, and facilitation of workshops, she provides services, strategies, and technical assistance to support change efforts. Kristin earned administrative credentials at the University of Washington and holds an M.A. in curriculum and teaching from Michigan State University and a B.A. in elementary education from Western Michigan University:

Much of a teacher's effort goes into assuring that students learn the objectives of the day's lessons—and part of that means making sure everyone in the classroom understands (and even helps develop) the learning goals for the day.

The same is true for the relationship between instructional coaches and teachers, who must be on the same page about the goals and processes they're undertaking. Trying to launch a coaching relationship without first agreeing on the objectives decreases efficiency and increases the risk that mismatched expectations will lead to an unproductive coaching relationship.

You'll want to talk about how you work best, what you need from the partnership, and what you can give to it, in order to focus on bright spots, identify areas for growth, and craft next steps together.

Next, you've got to agree on exactly what the coaching will focus on. Randomness is not your friend here. Together, you need to discuss and prioritize a few key practices that you think will help more students be successful in their learning and then center everyone's implementation, observations, feedback, and learning on those practices. In general, we call this a "teaching and learning model." Having a model of practice means everyone knows what the goal is and feedback isn't left to chance—it's focused on the things you believe will most make a difference for learners.

Ultimately, the goal of such a model of practice is to "flip" teachers' attention from how teachers teach to how students learn—to view teaching not as an end but as a means. That doesn't mean a model makes teaching any easier, but it does provide focus, clarity, and unity of purpose. Shifting the conversation from planning for teaching to planning for learning can be a game changer for how teachers and coaches interact.

No instructional coaches on your district's payroll? No problem! One of the most gratifying coaching models is peer coaching (and we especially advocate triad peer coaching) so no teacher need ever go without support. In the triad model, each member takes a turn as coach, coachee, and observer, so it's a kind of alchemy: You've just turned zero coaches into three.

Regardless of the specifics of the model, mutual trust will let this relationship grow, and that takes time and effort. Seeking and offering guidance in a way that builds confidence and skills, while avoiding spirit-crushing criticism, is an art form. And keep coaching conversations separate from formal evaluation processes. This should be about professional growth and student success, not staff-performance ratings.

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Response From Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world's most renowned universities. She has recently been named Illinois' History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

I think instructional coaches can work best with teachers as collaborators. I have a colleague who is an instructional coach who uses my classroom as a test lab when she's wanted to try something out. I love it because I get to be not only more observant of her fantastic teaching ability but also of what the students respond to and their level of understanding and engagement. I think teachers need to give themselves permission to ease off throttle and let a coach model for them and be an open ear to hear how you might be better at your craft and better for your students. It's the teacher control, I know it well.

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Thanks to Lisa, Debbie, Carol, Heather, Kristin, and Keisha 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

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Best Ways to Begin the School Year

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

Look for Part Four in a few days.

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