By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coaches, indeed, have a very special role. They are not classroom peers nor are they administrators. They have one “foot” in each world, however, as they work with teachers in non-evaluative ways and work with administrators to help them understand that they are in a community of learners and must not expect coaches to breach confidentiality about their work with teachers.

Coaches need a variety of expertise… they need to have a skill set that is responsive and directive at the same time; they need to understand strategic planning and have a “game” plan for getting work accomplished; they must also be familiar with resources and tools that help shape the coaching relationship and support learning at all levels.
When asking several coaches to identify the most critical attributes for successful coaching, these five qualities emerged as high level necessities: ability to build trusting relationships, model great listening skills, “look” with a non-judgmental eye; ask meaningful questions, and create an environment conducive for relevant and specific feedback. All of these characteristics come with one important thing missing… EGO!

The coaches with whom I work have positioned themselves in ways that are supportive and collaborative with teachers and administrators. They are clear about their coaching roles and share that understanding with the staff they support. They acknowledge that this is not a “who’s right” situation. They follow the teacher’s lead when appropriate and know when to nag where necessary. They recognize that addressing individual learning needs is just as important as program fidelity or results oriented coaching. They try to be as responsive as possible, being flexible and understanding in constructing relationships that are developmental. They differentiate their support and offer “side-by-side” encouragement so that teachers can collectively problem-solve and engage in critical thinking so that changes in instruction, practice, and student learning are the expected outcomes. At the same time, they realize that some conversations are more challenging than others.

Effective instructional coaches do not “tell” teachers what to change; they regularly meet with teachers both individually and in small groups to be part of the process for change. The co-plan, co-facilitate, co-teach, and then debrief about practice. They talk about instruction in ways that build their own capacity for learning which ultimately transforms practice. 

This transformative practice works well when administrators and coaches “partner” together in ways that are non-evaluative, community oriented, participatory for all teachers (coaching is not a deficit model), and collaborative. The goals and process are transparent as are the outcomes. As coaches have explicitly stated: we help our teaching colleagues set goals and a purpose for teaching a lesson/unit/concept; we listen and collaborate as they identify strategies and techniques for effective instructional delivery; we ask some probing and clarifying questions to ensure that the content, instruction, assessment, and outcomes are aligned; we “pat and push” when we have to guide them in a different direction; we share their in-class experiences in non-evaluative ways; and we help them become reflective practitioners and recognize both the strengths and areas of need in classroom practices. Coaches listen more than talk and do not need to share everything they know about a particular idea. Coaches start and end each day asking, “What am I doing as a coach to help teachers change and improve their practice? What am I doing as a coach to help teachers improve student engagement and outcomes?” This is truly the coaches’ mantra!

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