By Ellen Eisenberg

By Ellen Eisenberg, Executive Director of The Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whenever I have an opportunity to talk with instructional coaches about their practice, I feel lucky. It gives me a chance to ask them about what’s going on in schools and more importantly, it gives them a space to ask me some questions or voice their concerns about their coaching habits and routines. I can offer anonymity as they discuss their innermost feelings; I offer no opinions and they don’t expect them either.

In my most recent conversations with coaches, the predominant theme that surfaced was one related to doubt and uncertainty about their coaching roles and support to teachers. “How do I know that I am helping teachers move their practice forward?” was the most frequently asked question.

As practitioners, we all have those moments of doubt where we are not quite sure our practice is going in a productive direction. As coaches, we try to give our teachers the confidence they need and assure them that they are implementing effective instructional practices so that their students will reach their fullest potential. We do that by asking questions that generate deep thinking. At the same time, we need to reflect and ask ourselves those kinds of questions as well. We need to ask ourselves how we are helping teachers take ownership of their own learning so that their students will benefit. We need to ask ourselves how we are making a difference in teacher practice and how we are helping teachers make a difference in their own classrooms.

We know that the “before” conversations provide an opportunity to have these discussions with teachers and the “after” conversations promote reflection. The content of those conversations, however, is what makes the difference. Digging into practice and talking about the overall objectives and goals of both short term and long term practice is what transforms our classroom rituals and methods of instructional delivery. It’s not just a simple, “How should I teach this content” as much as it is, “What are some of the ways I can improve student engagement and understand more about how my students learn?”

Providing that ear (remember two ears and one mouth) as well as ample opportunities for teaching colleagues to collaborate and discuss practice will help you understand more about change and how practice moves forward.

How do you know that practice is changing in your school?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In my earlier November post, I shared my thoughts about confidentiality and would love to hear your experiences with balancing a confidential relationship with your teaching colleagues and responding to your administrator when s/he indicates that a teacher is struggling and needs coaching support.

Of course, a coach cannot be insubordinate and refuse to respond to an administrator. There are, however, ways to respond to an administrator and not be disrespectful or damage confidentiality with your colleagues.

From my experiences, I think it’s more likely that an administrator doesn’t realize the importance of confidentiality or the thin line that separates a breach in confidentiality and the desire to help teachers improve their practice. That’s why it is so important for these things to happen at the onset of implementing an effective instructional coaching model:
          1) The administrator and coach must discuss their visions, expectations, and goals for school
               improvement;
          2) The school leadership team must also share the vision, goals, and objectives for school
               improvement;
          3) The administrative team and the coach must have a shared understanding of instructional
               coaching and the components of an effective model;
          4)  The administrator and coach must have a shared vision and understanding of
                confidentiality, support, and collective problem-solving;
          5) The administrator and coach must stand side-by-side and share this vision with the staff.

This shared understanding creates an atmosphere of transparency, support, collaboration, and ongoing communication that impact implementation and sustainability. Without these, neither the staff, the administrative team, nor the coach will be on the same page and that’s a recipe for disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment with instructional coaching. Remember, teachers want and need a safe environment. When everyone understands what an effective instructional model looks like and the importance of confidentiality in the relationships that coaches establish, the more likely the staff and administrative team will respect the essential components that develop a collaborative environment.

What are some of your experiences with the confidential nature of instructional coaching?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I don’t know if I worry more about confidentiality or accountability when thinking and talking about instructional coaching. It seems those two terms are intertwined yet they maintain their own individuality at the same time. For instance, it’s clear to me that a conversation between a coach and teacher is private; only the teacher can share the details with another person. But, what if the administrator asks about the coaching support? Shouldn’t that conversation be between the coach and teacher as well? Should administrators ask teachers to discuss or assess how the coach is supporting them? Where is the confidentiality there?

If the coach is held accountable and “responsible for growth” around the work s/he does with the teacher, what is confidential and who is accountable for changes in practice…the coach who maintains confidentiality and works to share effective practices with teachers or the teachers who need to integrate new learnings into their repertoire and then must demonstrate their understanding of their work with the coach so the administrators can evaluate effective instructional practices?

So accountability is troublesome… we are all accountable, individually and collectively, for student growth and school wide improvement but are we really responsible for growth or the lack of growth when there are so many variables for which we cannot claim responsibility? What if a student has been out of school for personal and family challenges and misses a tremendous amount of time? Are we responsible for that student’s performance when we cannot control his/her attendance? Teachers can give make-up work but how can the actual missed time be replaced? Can we expect a teacher to provide the work, time, and critical classroom conversations that a student misses? (Homebound instruction is not always available and doesn’t include the valuable classroom collaboration.)

The coach and teacher work together to share effective instructional practices, model and co-teach the content, reflect on the strengths of the lesson, and make changes for future instruction. Where does the accountability for student attendance and its impact on student performance enter this equation? If the student is out of school and his/her performance suffers, are the teacher and coach responsible? (Of course, there are school policies that must be followed with student attendance.) Tough call…

What are your thoughts about confidentiality and accountability?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In the June 20, 2016 Education Week Teacher section, Amy Shapiro, a math teacher wrote about her experiences teaching math and science and how those experiences changed her thinking and ultimately, her instructional practices. She came to an amazing realization: “I believe that the key to creating a classroom environment with a true symbiotic relationship between teaching and learning is writing, so next year, my students will be doing a lot of it.”

She mentions in her blog that she recognizes the importance of students learning to solve problems and to talk to one another about those solutions but more importantly … “to teach them to write about their strategies and thought processes, or they will always struggle to exhibit their mathematical understandings.”  She also reflects and realizes that she must assess her students’ strengths and needs appropriately and prepare herself to meet the changing demands of her students by examining their progress and addressing their needs in ways that will help them become successful.

Wow, where have you heard that… “using evidence-based literacy practices” in all content areas?

Writing is part of literacy. Instructional coaches remind teachers about the importance and necessity of writing across the curriculum. They help teachers collaborate so that talking about writing becomes the norm, not the exception. They help dispel the myth that writing only occurs in English class.

Remember to build in ample opportunities for teachers to work collaboratively and cooperatively around the integration of writing in every class, every day. Help them understand the significance of writing to learn; scaffold ways to help them integrate writing into their work through John Collins writing, “Do Nows,” Tickets Out/In the Door, and other strategies to increase the amount of daily writing. Help teachers work with students to talk about their writing and what they’ve learned through the writing process.

What are some of the ways you work with teachers to help them enhance their students’ writing skills?

Friday, October 7, 2016

“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.” Washington Irving

Coaching has often been symbolized as a stagecoach, depicting the journey between stations. Much the same can be said about instructional coaching; it is the journey of a scaffolded approach to teaching and learning. Instructional coaches work with their teaching colleagues to promote growth and identify ways to grow as a learner and reflective practitioner. And, it is often accompanied by some bruising; that is, the recognition that some instructional practices are not effective and need to be adjusted. Or, what I thought I did, in fact, was not what really happened.

This kind of “bruising” is critical to making changes in practice, the primary function of an instructional coach. Yes, coaches help teacher collect data; yes, coaches help teachers identify professional goals for growth; yes, coaches help teachers navigate curriculums, standards, assessment tools, and many other elements of effective instruction. But none of this is done in isolation or without ongoing dialogue.

I think most people want change but don’t want to be the first one to experience it. You know, “You go first!” Our teaching colleagues may know something must change but not know how to make those changes. So, while one bruise may supplant another, rest assured that every instructional decision creates a “shift in position” that will lead to another bruise. But, with time and continued conversations, being proactive and addressing those changes will result in fewer “bruises” and more practitioner driven resolutions!

What kind of “bruising” have you noticed in your coaching interactions? How have the practitioners with whom you work tackled their bumps and bruises?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Although coaching is situational and contextual, we all experience some common “interruptions” to the coaching cycle. Those commonalities or similarities in coaching interactions help us define trends and offer various ways to address these situations when they occur.

We call those disruptions problems of practice and we all face them in our coaching practice. To tackle these, we must make time for reflection. We must identify the challenges, the root issues, and behaviors necessary to address them while moving towards positive outcomes. Remember, however, that coaches help their teaching colleagues resolve their own issues through the art of effective questioning, not by telling their colleagues what to do. It’s all about coaches asking the right questions so that their teaching colleagues reflect and share their thinking, offering multiple opportunities to talk things through to resolution.

In a recent ASCD SmartBrief (July 14, 2016), a survey from ED PULSE found these results in answer to the question, “What is the most common problem of practice you face as a teacher leader?” Coaches, take note… the number one problem of practice is establishing relationships with colleagues and creating a collaborative culture. Interesting… coaches cannot coach unless the environment (physical and emotional) is conducive for change.  That can only happen through the development of trusting relationships.

Relationships with colleagues/collaborative culture
 20.00%
Effective use of structured meeting times
 18.63%
Navigating difficult conversations
 18.08%
Current structures to utilize leadership capabilities
 15.34%
Facilitating effective teams
 14.25%
Building trust (colleagues and administration)
 10.14%
Knowledge of adult learning/working with adults
 3.56%

What is the most common problem of practice that surfaces in your coaching interactions?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Welcome back! The new school year has begun with teachers, coaches, administrators, students, and parents asking what happened to the summer?? Now think back to last April and May when your thoughts were hovering on the impossible, “I wish I had done …” or “I wanted to do this but didn’t get around to it.” You were probably agonizing over what you didn’t do instead of celebrating the successes of your teaching colleagues.

August is the start of a new school year. (Unless, of course, you worked all summer thinking, planning, wondering, hoping, and actually getting your room ready; sound familiar?) The excitement, energy, and promise to make changes and new commitments take possession of your body and soul. You are ready to jump in with both feet and hit the ground running. You’ve learned many things last year and want to ensure that this year begins on solid footing, supporting a shared vision that builds on previous years’ accomplishments.

So, here are some words of wisdom:
                 1) Remind your teaching colleagues of the “coaching habit” and BDA process of
                     consultation; the conversations are where reality surfaces and change occurs.
                 2) Organize your work and plan your schedule of coaching support; remember, the
                      coaching process is deliberate, targeted, non-evaluative, and descriptive.
                 3) Provide feedback: “nice” is sweet, like candy, but it doesn’t change practice; make
                      sure your feedback is specific, descriptive, intentional, reflective and data driven;
                 4) Focus on a systems approach to school improvement; how can coaching help
                     schools accomplish the goals for school wide improvement;
                 5) Be productive: engage your teaching colleagues in ongoing conversations about
                     teaching and learning and move them to the next level of attainment.

What are your goals for the new year? How will you build on last year’s accomplishments?