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How to Know if Coaching Is Working

"I've probably invested 100 hours of coaching into her this year," Alex said, "and I don't think she's made much improvement." Alex looked exasperated. "Was that a waste? Should I keep coaching her? Can she improve?" Alex, a secondary math and science coach, was talking about his work with Sandy, a new teacher in his school. Ultimately, he was wondering whether Sandy should be released, or retained for another year.

Alex was grappling with one of the most common challenges for coaches and administrators when working with new or struggling teachers: How much coaching do you invest, and how long do you wait, to see how much growth in practice? What constitutes enough growth for a teacher receiving coaching? How do we know if coaching is "working?"

To answer these questions we need to consider the focus and goals for coaching, measurements for growth, the teacher's "coachability," the coach's duties and responsibilities, and the applicant pool for the position.

Focus and Goals for Coaching

Effective coaching is anchored in specific, measurable, time-bound goals. These goals must be anchored in a teacher's professional practice and must reflect the highest leverage strategies that can impact student learning. For example, a good goal might be something like, I use a variety of formative assessments every week and the data from those assessments guides me in revising my lesson plans. Or I develop positive relationships with students and survey results from students on their enjoyment of and learning in my class improve by 80 percent.

Coaching needs to be focused. When I asked Alex what he was coaching Sandy on in those 100 hours, he said, "Just about everything. We've talked about curriculum, we worked on writing grants, we organized the classroom, we talked about student behavior when they do experiments, we talked about how to deal with the stress and fatigue of teaching and so much more." This can be typical, I assured Alex, when we're working with new teachers. Their needs are extensive. But sometimes it can also make it hard to answer the question Is she improving?, because the goal hasn't been sharply defined. Having a goal doesn't mean you can't or don't talk about a lot of other things—it just means the coaching is directed toward one clear end.  

One way to identify goals or a focus could be to use a framework like this one, Mind the Gap, which categorizes ability into six groups. All teachers need skills, knowledge, capacity, will, emotional intelligence and cultural competence to be effective in the classroom (here's a graphic depicting this). While EI and Cultural Competence are foundational, and worthy of focus, they are harder to build than skill or knowledge. Building skill--for example, skill in using classroom routines and procedures--can help a teacher address the root cause of common student misbehavior that can trigger a teacher emotionally.

I often suggest that a teacher has 2-3 goals, depending somewhat on how much coaching they'll receive. (Ideally, a coach works with a teacher a few times a month—observing instruction and debriefing/planning/reflecting.) At least one goal should be connected to the teacher's professional practice goals and/or to school wide initiatives. Ideally, the teacher would be able to identify one goal that really matters to them—a goal around work/life balance, or classroom organization, and so on.

Measurements for Successful Coaching

When coaching is focused and has a sharply articulated goal, we can identify indicators of success. For example, if a teacher's goal is to use formative assessment to guide instruction, then a teacher can explain when and how she used formative assessment data to make decisions about instruction. Then a coach has "evidence" that "coaching is working."  The measurements for the impact of coaching, of the goal being met, need to be articulated when coaching begins. Imagine if we didn't have goals for student learning, or any idea what it would look like if we reached those? We can draw many parallels between coaching and guiding the learning of adults to teaching and guiding the learning of children. We can transfer many of the ways we think about and teach children to how we coach adults.

"Coachability"

One of the first questions I asked Alex when he described his uncertainty about Sandy was whether she was coachable. "Oh yes," he said. Good, I thought. Whether someone is coachable, how receptive they are to coaching, is a key factor in this question. Coachability is evident in someone's openness to coaching, follow through on agreements—including the agreement to meet with their coach, receptivity to feedback, ability to reflect and see their own growth areas and strengths, and willingness to take risks. Coachability assumes skill on the part of the coach, and that the coach can foster a strong and trusting relationship—it's really hard to be coachable if your coach is unskilled and judgmental and sees you as a problem to fix. But if the coach is skilled, then I hope to see a client who is willing to take a hard look at their practice and then take risks to improve it.

Coach Duties and Responsibilities  

Another factor in whether or not a teacher can improve, and a coach should keep working with them, has to do with the coach's duties. What is the coach responsible for? What else would the coach be doing if he wasn't investing 100 hours into a struggling teacher? Are there teachers who could benefit tremendously from coaching but who aren't getting it because all of the coach's energy and time is going to the most struggling teacher? There are no clear cut answers to these questions—but they do imply that the coach's job needs to be sharply defined. Schools (and districts and networks) need a clear vision for coaching, goals for a coaching program, and focused roles and responsibilities for coaches, or else the potential of coaching is weak. Many coaches are spread so thin, doing a little bit of everything, working in reactive mode to the latest crisis—and that's the problem, not the struggling teacher. If we used our resources effectively, if coaching was strategic and focused and intentional, we'd see a lot more teacher growth.

The Applicant Pool

The final consideration in Alex's case, or when trying to decide whether to retain a teacher and continue investing coaching into her, is to glance out at the pool of applicants for that teacher's position. If you think you could have a number of qualified and skilled candidates, then it might make sense to release a teacher who has struggled in spite of 100 hours of effective, focused coaching. In most places that I coach or consult, the applicant pool is shallow and I often encourage people to grow their talent rather than continuously hire new people. In Alex's case, secondary math and science teachers (even in the well-funded suburban district that he's in) are hard to come by.

As we talked through Alex's work with Sandy this year, it became clear that because he didn't guide her to concrete goals and indicators of success, it was hard to see Sandy's growth. She was all over the place in coaching because they hadn't focused on the highest leverage areas for growth. Going forward, Alex thought it would be best to using coaching time to focus on increasing the rigor in her lessons and releasing more cognitive responsibility to students--and not to finding additional grants or to organizing classroom supplies. Sandy's coachability was another clear indicator that she would benefit from coaching--she had consistently been an open learner. By the end of our conversation, Alex felt confident that as he refined his own coaching skills, Sandy could also refine her teaching practice. He wholeheartedly recommended that she continue teaching at his school.

In order to evaluate whether coaching is "working" for someone, we need to take a look at the big picture in which the coaching is happening--including at the coach's skills and the vision and purpose of the coaching program. Most of the time the conversations that I have with coaches about whether coaching is working lead us to this big picture place, and to the realization that there's a lot they need to do to refine their coaching program before determining that a teacher isn't learning. So when you ask whether coaching is working, make sure to look at the big picture.

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