By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

We just came back from our multi-day, statewide professional learning conference with about 200 participants. They were energized, ready to share, and empowered to learn. They were passionate about instructional coaching and helping teachers reach their fullest potential. They were “stoked” as they collaborated on ways to increase student engagement and teacher commitment.

Coaches, mentors, administrators, and other school leaders engaged in a variety of breakout sessions designed around the components of effective instructional coaching. Conversations were rich as participants reflected on how they help teachers move along the continuum of instructional coaching and strengthen their school, classroom, and individual instructional practices.

What never ceases to amaze me is the depth to which coaches connect with each other to talk about promising teacher practices and share their innermost thoughts about their own practices. These very skilled and knowledgeable coaches wanted to talk to like-minded practitioners with whom they could collectively problem-solve and share a common language.

One of the many things shared was the recurring theme that effective coaching happens once strong relationships are established. Yes, we want our coaches to engage in the before, during, and after cycle of consultation (BDA) but that only happens when the relationship is ready for those deep, reflective conversations to take place. Not every teacher is ready to bare his or her “teaching soul” at the same time. This is not a requirement but rather a goal that can be realized through a time sensitive series of conversations designed to be probing and not invasive, reflective and not dismissive, expressive and not trivial.

Take your time and build strong relationships. Nag and nurture with a pat and push to keep yours and your teaching colleagues’ practices moving forward.

How do you know when your teaching colleagues are ready for deep conversations that influence student learning?

Monday, January 2, 2017

We know that students and teachers learn from each other; learning is social. We also know that our teaching colleagues have a wealth of knowledge and incredible skills that encourages collective problem-solving and creates wonderful learning opportunities for each other. What we also know is that coaching is deliberate so make the time that you work with your colleagues intentional, targeted, need-based, nonjudgmental, and data driven. Engage in real time conversations that are designed to impact teaching and learning.

How does this happen in a tightly packed schedule?

It seems that time is of the essence… it can be a friend or it can be an enemy. For instance, coaches and teachers need to work together in the time they have. “Chat and chews” are a great way to bring practitioners together to discuss problems of practice. Nothing is insurmountable when you have chocolate to share! Let this kind of time be your friend.

Trying to work with teachers only before or after school is complicated. That can be your enemy. After all, if you only work with teachers when they are rushing to get ready for the day or when they have finished a long day with their students, the net effect can be minimized. And, if you cannot plan to visit to see the implementation, there’s not much to talk about that could change practice.

Short bursts of mini professional development sessions during the day where coaches and teachers work together to facilitate learning sessions and then follow up with ongoing conversations about the learning, is an effective use of in-school time. Try it!

How is time both your friend and enemy?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

At this time of the year, I look back at what I accomplished and try to determine if my accomplishments matched my goals.  This reflection is perfect for December as we think about the inevitable… what is this year’s New Year’s resolution and how will I sustain the momentum as I move forward personally and professionally?

Looking back, I remind myself what I’ve learned about teaching, learning, and coaching… teacher quality is the most significant factor affecting student achievement; teachers who are supported by instructional coaches are more likely to implement newly learned instructional strategies; follow up support to effectively implement new learning and scaffolding encourages reflective practice and instruction; teachers want to talk to their colleagues about effective instructional strategies; collaboration and open communication make a difference in teaching and learning; teachers and coaches who collectively problem solve around problems of practice are more likely to identify effective strategies that work to address those issues; and most importantly, teachers really like to talk to other practitioners who are non-evaluative listeners with a shared vision about how to help their students grow while improving their own instructional practices.

Janus, the two-faced (in a positive way) ancient Roman god of beginnings and transitions, looks to the future and to the past. He looks after passages, creates movement, and presides over all beginnings. I think the role of the coach mirrors Janus’ role. Remember your journey and the goals you have set out to accomplish. Celebrate the small accomplishments and remember change takes time…look behind you to see how far you have come and look forward to see what rests ahead. Coaching is a journey of change and it takes courage, tenacity, diligence, some frustration, and acceptance to remain on track.

Best wishes for a wonderful and safe holiday season. Rest, relax, and rejuvenate your body and soul. All good things in the New Year!

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
          2) The school leadership team must also share the vision, goals, and objectives for school
          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?