By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Two interesting related questions that I’ve been asked more and more frequently are how to explain the coach’s role to a staff not familiar with instructional coaching and how to describe or publicize what coaches do and how they do “it.”

First things first… how do we define instructional coaching? Instructional coaching is a sustainable teacher professional development model designed to help teachers get better at what they do. Coaching is part of a whole-school improvement strategy that fosters collective problem-solving and offers highly targeted professional development embedded in teachers’ daily work. Instructional coaches provide professional learning opportunities for teachers and school leaders focused on classroom practices to increase student engagement, build teacher capacity and improve student learning. Especially in this era of educator effectiveness, coaches are in the perfect position to help teachers implement effective instructional practices. That is their role. Some schools have ongoing faculty meetings and share the school’s plan for school wide improvement at every meeting; some schools rely on the coach to re-negotiate their role and start talking about the new ideas for school wide change; some schools started the previous year to gather the collective wisdom of the staff and create focus groups to talk about school wide change with instructional coaching as one intervention; some schools “hit the ground running” and are changing the tires on a moving car! No matter how the coaching model and role are “rolled out” in schools, consistency in practice and language are the best ways to ensure a shared understanding of what and how coaches work with teachers and administrators.

The coach’s role needs to be shared in several ways, e.g., in print, in practice, and in perception. So, what do I mean? Coaches ought to informally gather some data from his/her colleagues and identify relevant and meaningful topics via a print or electronic assessment survey of what the school needs to improve. This organic list is generated by the staff so the teachers’ voices are clearly heard. After a list is generated, the coach needs to circulate the list and identify teachers with whom to work. Sometimes coaches ask for volunteers; sometimes they ask their friends to be their emissaries of good will and spread the good word; sometimes coaches are asked to work with all new teachers or specific grade level teachers. Remember, coaching is not a deficit model so working only with those teachers identified by the principal as needing support defeats the purpose and goal of an effective instructional coaching model. However, if the principal “assigns” the coach to work with teachers who are identified as needing help, the coach must broaden his/her scope of work to include other teachers as well. (The coach is following the principal’s directive and is including other teachers to join the process in ways that support whole school improvement.) Share with the staff ways that you can help support effective instruction. Here’s where “show and tell” are your friends!

Working one-on-one is the best way to work with teachers. However, that is not always the reality of a coaching situation. If a coach is a former staff member, s/he must elicit the support of friends and begin to co-plan and co-facilitate some small group learning. An example of small group learning is to offer mini professional learning on the use of evidence-based literacy practices or questioning techniques as topics to demonstrate collaborative practice. Coaches and teachers working together and showing how their work is planned and facilitated speaks volumes. Helping teachers strengthen their reflective practice encourages them to be innovative, especially when they know that coaches are non-evaluative. This can be accomplished through a professional learning community where vision, support, and understanding are shared. If there is a school newsletter or “Coach’s Corner,” share stories of success written by teachers who have seen changes in classroom practice and student engagement as a result of the school’s adoption of an instructional coaching model.

Building relationships take time. Coaches understand adult learning strategies and honor the teachers’ voices and choices. They demonstrate the BDA cycle of consultation, collaboration, collective problem-solving, and confidentiality. Their practical experiences, classroom habits, and coaching protocols demonstrate a clear understanding of goals, objectives and professionalism. There is a joint ownership for student and staff learning with mutual respect evident. Changing perceptions can be challenging. The best way to do that is to show how non-evaluative practices are collaborative, confidential, and critical to success. Show that changing practice creates a change in belief. You can do it!

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