By Ellen Eisenberg

By Ellen Eisenberg, Executive Director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching (TPIIC)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Susan Scott (Fierce Inc. and contributing columnist to Learning Forward) says that “honest conversations are the cornerstone to building a culture of excellence” (JSD, December 2013). She believes that the most powerful practice to transform schools comes from ongoing conversations, the dialogue that either makes or breaks what happens in schools.

As an instructional coach, honest and open communication and ongoing conversations are what makes the difference between heavy and light coaching. Of course, a coach is a resource provider and often provides articles, templates, reports, and other useful items to teachers who do not have the time to peruse google or other search engines to find the latest in research or current trends to inform practice. This, however, is not coaching if there is no follow up about using those resources. The issue is not only about which resources to use; it’s about how to transform the written word into action and then discuss how that action influences learning.

“Shoulder-to-shoulder” support makes a difference when there is conversation about the practice. That’s one of the shortcomings of consultant driven support that occurs at the introduction of the resource and not again until the resource has been used for a period of time. I don’t think it’s a very effective model to provide all the bells and whistles of wonderful resources with no one onsite to help plan how to use the resources, or to work together at the time the resources are used, or to reflect after they are used to determine how useful the resources were to help the teachers reach a specific learning goal with their students. In fact, offering this kind of support without training or sustained conversation is what Dennis Sparks calls, “educational malpractice.” (That’s why so many beautiful PowerPoint slide presentations stay hidden and unused; without talking about the context, the materials are useless.)

Talking about one’s practice makes a difference. It’s like the dress rehearsal before the grand opening. It makes such good sense for teachers to talk to each other about what they want to teach, how they want to teach “it,” how they will know if the desired outcomes are reached, and what to do in the event that the instructional goals are not met. These kinds of conversations must occur in deliberate and intentional ways. That being said, I think the conversations can occur through a blended approach… they must be face-to-face and may have an electronic component as well, e.g., virtual or written conversations. I am not convinced that the conversations can be effective via electronic communication alone although I do recognize the constraints of time and location.

If we want to make a difference in the way students learn and help them become lifelong learners, we need to ensure that every student is taught by a highly qualified teacher. That’s not just through a teacher earning a degree from a college or university. It’s through offering the teacher the ongoing support needed to ensure that every student benefits when teachers talk to each other, learn together, and regularly engage in collaborative practices. We need to offer teachers the opportunities to nourish their own professional growth through talking with other practitioners, seeing how they practice, and collectively problem solving about things that impact student growth.

It sounds like such a common sense approach to encourage teachers to talk to one another about effective instructional practices and how to help each other reach their full potential so they can help their students reach their fullest potential. But, then again, common sense is not so common, is it?


  1. This post addresses a cornerstone of the PIIC model, pointing out the importance of encouraging open, thoughtful dialogue between teachers as a way of improving practice. Our BDA model is built around this idea. The emphasis it places on follow up is critical.

  2. The key component is to convince administrators that they can find and dedicate the time to for any new PD or collaborative efforts rather than simply implementing programs based on funds received and a rush to spend them.

  3. The key to success is to convince administrators that they can find the time and the organizational structure to ensure training takes place prior to the implementation of any programs, etc. The 'American way' seems to dictate that when funding comes avaialble they money must be immediately used rather than creating a development team, provide training, and roll out a successful program.