By COURTNEY BROWN & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
The term “coach” often evokes memories of professional sports — like Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, or Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Both coaches are credited with winning championships and encouraging athletes such as Michael Jordan and Dan Marino to become Hall of Fame inductees. But coaching is not limited to sports — and in schools, instructional coaches act as liaisons between research and practice, helping teachers learn to improve their practices in a reflective, supportive setting. Although instructional coaches may not enjoy the same salaries or notoriety as athletic coaches, they have become a policy lever for districts to improve instructional practice.
When establishing a coaching relationship or a professional learning community within a school, there are some essential questions to address: How does coaching work in educational spaces? What is the difference between coaching adults and teaching children? What are some of the practices that coaches use to support educators? How does coaching remain flexible and effective, regardless of whether the educators you’re working with are new to the classroom, or have spent years working as teachers, counselors, and administrators? No matter the situation, there is value in educators of all levels working alongside a coach for continuous professional improvement.
Student vs. adult learners
For most instructional coaches, the biggest difference in shifting from teaching children to coaching adults is recognizing the needs of adult learners. (For more on this, check out Stephen Brookfield’s work on Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learners). As educational coaches, we want to be as cognizant of what teachers need to learn, as well as how they will learn best. Our first goal is to create a safe and supportive community with multiple opportunities for reflection.
Educators often experience feelings of isolation or uncertainty as they confront new challenges, in both physical and digital classroom spaces. Our goal is to name these challenges and equip educators with a toolkit they can use while teaching. We recognize that coaching in education can look different depending on the context, needs, and desires of the educator — it may include 1:1 coaching sessions and reflective discussions, team-building with small groups, facilitation of teacher teams, or whole school or even district-wide professional development opportunities. However, one thing is true regardless of the context: adult learners often ask, what’s in it for me? before investing their time and energy. Their time is valuable, and they need the learning experience to concretely further their professional practice. Adult learners also bring more experience and expertise to the coaching relationship. Coaches should strive to honor this knowledge, while simultaneously offering engaging, effective facilitation and reflection.
Approaching vs. prescribing
A core component of coaching work is the relationship. Whether it’s between the coach and the teacher, the coach and school administrators, or the coach and the faculty community, we prioritize the professionalism and humanity of our partners as we strive to get to know them personally. When teachers invite us into their classrooms, into their lesson plans, and into their most challenging professional situations, we know how important it is to be trustworthy, to listen with empathy, to ask questions, and respect boundaries. We are there as thought partners who can offer an outside opinion based on research and our own personal expertise.
We recognize the strengths that each of our teachers bring and create opportunities to cultivate those strengths when in professional learning settings. Similar to students, no two teachers are exactly the same, nor will their approaches to teaching be the same — but we can support them in developing a teaching strategy and style that is consistent with highly effective instructional practices as they strive to meet students’ needs. Our work is guided by five principles of practice, also known as the 5Cs:
Knowing when coaching is working
How do we know if what we're doing is working? This is one of the best and maybe most challenging questions about coaching. In the context of many standards-based state and federal reform efforts, instructional coaches are playing an increasingly important role as “professional sense makers” who develop expertise in academic content standards to help administrators and teachers translate them into classroom practices. Because it can take time for a teacher to make the changes in mindsets that enable them to adjust teaching practices, instructional changes may occur in small increments. Therefore, measuring "effectiveness" is not a one-size-fits-all task.
While coaching is often unpredictable, it’s extremely important to have a plan and clear goals, developed collaboratively between school leaders, teachers, and their coaches. By monitoring our progress toward the goals, we’re able to track leading and lagging indicators that represent changing practices. Smaller shifts — such as shifts in mindsets, the language a teacher uses, or small incremental shifts in their practice — are recognizable when a coach is deeply engaged in a teacher’s practice.
In addition to tracking the leading indicators, or small shifts in practice, we can also look at the lagging indicators or larger moves that demonstrate significant changes over time. We look at three elements to determine effective coaching practices. First, we look to determine if teachers implement what they’ve been learning, or what they’ve been talking about with their coach. It demonstrates effective coaching if after a workshop or coaching session, the teacher begins implementing a strategy or practice they learned from the experience, even if it isn’t implemented with textbook precision. Trying something new is evidence that the coaching was impactful. Second, we look to see if the teacher begins to initiate requests for further support. Teachers who are finding coaching valuable often take the initiative to request additional support, articulate future goals, and ask specific questions to refine their practice. Finally, we want to be able to connect the dots between the coaching guidance, teacher practice, and an increase in student achievement.
Similar to athletic coaches that help professional athletes thrive and take their skills and talents to new heights, instructional coaches allow teachers to apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone. Coaching supports teachers as they improve their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students, and also in their work with each other. With supportive environments and thoughtful reflection coupled with sound facilitation practices, coaching can have a significant impact on teachers' practice.