By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

And so it begins…

Along with the excitement of meeting new students comes the anxiety about working with new administrators, navigating the Common Core, preparing for the educator effectiveness process and understanding a myriad of other initiatives that are either district-wide, school-wide or statewide. So, when I talked to several teachers and coaches, I asked them what caused the most angst with opening school.

They recognize that the beginning of the school year “gathers” all the hopes and expectations of offering students and their teachers a plethora of initiatives that are designed to help improve student outcomes. Sometimes the initiatives are structural, e.g., moving teachers’ rooms around to organize specific teams of teachers with their students or creating writing labs in former classrooms where teachers can take their students so that the atmosphere is conducive to great writing. You know what I mean about walking into school and seeing more than the floors waxed and new white boards installed. Those surprises are usually not met with much hope. After all, making physical changes does not guarantee that changes in instruction will follow.

Then these teachers I asked thought for a moment and talked about how busy their days were sure to be. They began decorating their rooms several days ago and arranging the classroom furniture in ways that would encourage thinking, talking, and learning together. They reviewed their class lists and started to think about how to group students. Some had last year’s data; most did not. Without the data, they focused on what kind of work the students would do in groups rather than how to construct the groups to maximize the students’ learning.

I asked them how they would go about working with other teachers and creating a camaraderie with both students and teachers so they could think about instructional practice. They rolled their eyes and said that the one thing they rarely, if ever, have time to do is just to talk to their colleagues about classroom “stuff” and share ideas. They all loved the notion of sharing ideas and techniques. Most said they talked to each other as they passed in the hallway, went to the mailroom, or while waiting in line to duplicate some papers in the office. Most said they were not optimistic about the kinds of professional development (not learning!) that they think has been scheduled for the grade level, content area, or large group meetings they were required to attend. Notice, they said “attend” and not “participate” in these meetings.

We know that students and teachers learn from each other. Learning is social. Start this year with a commitment to work together with your colleagues to collectively problem-solve, create lessons that can be shared, communicate regularly about issues that influence student learning, and collaborate in ways that engage each other in real talk, or accountable talk. Make deliberate time to honor each voice and recognize that teaching and learning is evolutionary… it happens over time through multiple collaborative opportunities and recurrent discussions.   

While this was a very small sample of teachers and coaches (8), I believe they are the voices of the field. I believe that they are making a difference in their universe… they want to engage their students, take time to think about their thinking, be reflective in their practice,  be innovative and creative, and implement effective instructional practices. This cannot be accomplished in a silo. Talk to one another!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting ready...
Well, school opening is right around the corner. I’ll bet most teachers are feeling pretty relaxed right about now. But, before you know it, the bells will start ringing, signifying the start of another school year. Yes, another year where teachers will be told that they need to do a better job and the way to accomplish that is through the evaluation system. Teachers will be told that they need to be “fixed” and that fixing the system will translate into improved student outcomes… is this really the way to improve student outcomes?

I don’t know… I still get excited buying school supplies and thinking about all the interesting ways to connect art, life and literature. I still think a lot about how I would approach using various novels and exposing my students to a multitude of techniques that would enhance their interest and engagement. I still think about creative ways to remember every student’s name and how to start the year with a positive and promising attitude for change. Until now, I really didn’t think too much about how teachers are evaluated and how that impacts their daily existence.

Along with the excitement of this new school year, comes the shift in my thinking. My thoughts have shifted away from sharing my love of teaching literature to students into sharing ways to collectively problem-solve and focus on where successful learning takes place… in the classroom with teachers and other school leaders. My beliefs have evolved to address a myriad of ways to think about helping teachers find their voices and affirming what they know works in classrooms. I want to think about a variety of ways that reinforce teachers’ “best practices” and their quest to go from “good to great” in their classroom habits.

Wouldn’t it be great if all schools could begin the year building on the previous year’s successes and focusing on how to apply effective instructional practices rather than beginning the year blaming folks on what changes were not made? If that were the case, imagine how productive staff members would feel if they knew that being a member in a community of learning and practice meant that the entire school community would start the year collaborating about the practices that worked well the previous year and strategizing ways to make continuous  improvements that influence student learning.

So, what do I think about the beginning of the school year? Here’s what I think… instructional coaches are in a perfect position to “remind” staff that capitalizing on the successes is a much more valuable way to encourage success. Coaches need to start the year with a plan that continues building on previous successes and moves practice forward. They need to think about ways to help teachers participate fully in collaborative learning experiences. Remember, teachers want to implement new learning in their instruction and having the support to do that, will likely result in changes with student performance. Coaches need to understand how to build content knowledge with teachers, focus on the skills needed to become more knowledgeable, think about the ways attitudes must change to make those adjustments and then think about the teacher behaviors that will demonstrate their understanding of change and the momentum change causes. Not so easy to do but oh, so constructive if done in a non-evaluative way.

I think coaches can make certain assumptions as they start the year: 1) teachers need to understand a variety of instructional strategies before they are expected to use them; 2) implementation of new strategies requires teacher resources, i.e., coaches to help build success through practice and support; 3) meeting teachers one-on-one and in small groups to discuss classroom practice is the most effective way to support teachers as they apply their new learning; 4) work together consistently and intentionally with teachers to recognize, understand, and use new practices in order to make the practices part of their teaching repertoire; and 5) professional growth of teachers must be nourished, valued, and supported regularly in order for change to take place. Change takes time. Coaching is a practice that will help ensure that teachers have the time to think about, reflect and make adjustments to their teaching. This small start will make a very big difference in teaching and learning.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What is instructional coaching?

I've thought long and hard about how to start a blog and whether or not I had something important enough to say so that others could respond. Well, today is the first time I am writing a blog and sharing my thoughts with others. Not because what I have to say is so important but rather because what I have to say may help others change their thinking, engage in open dialogue with colleagues, and explore ways of working together without the fear and risk of the dreaded word... evaluation.

I started teaching in 1973 and retired from the only school district where I ever worked in 2009. I was incredibly lucky... I loved every minute of teaching but not everything I was required to do. My career was varied: English teacher, English Department Head, school disciplinarian, cooperating teacher, curriculum writer, etc., with a host of other responsibilities like substitute teaching when my department colleagues were absent, supporting the office during inclement weather, and engaging regularly with parents who were unsure of their child(ren)'s path to success. Through it all, I never wavered from my goal of students being at the center and ensuring I was doing the best I could do to help them reach their greatest potential. Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that I needed someone to help me grow professionally so that I could "turn around" my lessons learned to help both students and colleagues. Again, I was lucky... my husband was also a teacher who loved his role as classroom supporter, instructional leader, and colleague who helped his students grow as learners. I now know that he was my first (and only) coach. He asked the right questions, incurred my anger several times, and helped me realize that talking about practice and "rehearsing" ways to engage students would facilitate my own growth and practice.

Well, here I am struggling with the same issues I experienced in my own classroom only now I'm focusing on helping others to love the art and science of teaching as I did albeit in a very different world with very different requirements. So bear with me as I share my thoughts and welcome your thoughts and questions as well.

Belief for today... So many thoughts, so many blogs, so many opinions about instructional coaching. So what is instructional coaching? Many think instructional coaching is when a colleague or administrator gives advice, an opinion, or a suggestion about how to teach a specific concept, book, mathematical equation, etc. You get my drift... when a teacher asks for help (or not), someone comes into the room or meets the teacher in the hallway or in the teachers' lounge and some question is answered. Sometimes, a "conversation" happens when a colleague comes to the classroom door and asks, "How are things? Is there anything I can get/do for you today?" This is not coaching, not even peer coaching. It's not even mentoring of teachers although I've seen this happen, especially where release time is an issue.

For me, instructional coaching happens when two people meet regularly to talk about the practice of teaching and learning. This can also happen in small groups; the difference between these two types of collaborations is that the conversations becomes more "global" in nature with a small group and not about a specific person's interactions with students and with the learning that takes place. In both scenarios, the conversations need to become routine; they need to become habits of the mind, practice, and belief. When the conversations occur one-on-one, however, they become more deliberate and more focused on an individual's customs and traditions that translate into classroom practice. Think about tennis lessons... does an individual "get" as much from a group lesson as a one-on-one with the tennis instructor?

Enough for one day... stay tuned and I'll continue to share my perceptions, views and reflections about instructional coaching.