By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

This is the time for thinking about what we do well, what we wished we did well, and what we need to do to move forward in our practice.  It’s where my teaching days of mythology come back and remind me that Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, has again raised his two faces. Not in a deceptive way as in “two-faced” but rather in the manner that is reminiscent where I think about change and the power of transformation, about what I have already accomplished and what I want to achieve in the future. I reflect on my goals both personally and professionally and recognize that with growth comes disruption, unease, and struggle. But, that’s all good… remember, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress” (Frederick Douglass).

So, friends and colleagues, during the holiday season, please take some time to reflect, rebuild and re-energize. You are not alone in your desire to make a difference in the lives of teachers and the students they teach.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year. Be safe!

Monday, December 1, 2014

What we should do is take time – at least the next 3 years – to develop curriculum resources that teachers can select, adapt, try out, and refine together in collegial professional development settings within and across their schools (Linda Darling Hammond on the Common Core Standards, DRavich, blog, Oct. 24, 2013).

Can you think of a more effective use of time than to work with colleagues to discuss teaching and learning??

Instructional coaches are perfectly poised to create opportunities with their teaching colleagues to discuss successful instructional practices regularly and without threat of evaluation. Teachers who discuss goals, curriculum, instruction, materials, and data in a no-risk environment with each other ensure that professional conversations are taking place every day with students at the center of those conversations. The collaboration and collective problem-solving that occurs during this time creates the norm that working together is the natural evolution of teaching and learning; it is the “expected” environment in which to work. Staff members working together towards common goals: increasing student engagement, improving student outcomes, and building teacher capacity helps establish a learning environment where every student is in a classroom with a highly skilled teacher.

Following the before, during, and after (BDA) cycle of coaching and consultation on a regular basis provides ample opportunities for coaches and teachers to work together to “unpack” the Common Core State Standards that require teachers to redefine what they teach and rethink how they do it. The cycle enhances the opportunity for teachers to co-plan, rehearse, co-teach, and then debrief with their coaches so that they can accomplish their goals.

Teachers and coaches who work together regularly have ongoing opportunities to talk about their routines and classroom rituals. They talk about data, how to use it, and then make choices that meet the needs of their students. They work with a partner to talk about things that matter most… their students and their learning needs.

Please share how you work with your coach to make changes in your instructional practice.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I am frequently asked by administrators and external evaluators what I think are the most important qualities of an effective instructional coach. That’s a loaded question! Many people believe that effective coaching means that coaches can improve student scores and improve school wide data quickly and without challenges. Some people believe that effective coaching means that every teacher on that staff implements whatever the coach suggests as in “show me and I’ll do it.” Those that understand that instructional coaching is an ongoing teacher professional development/ professional learning support system and a reflective practice believe that coaches are on the side of helping teachers implement effective instructional practices in a non-evaluative, risk-free environment. These are the “enlightened” ones!

Coaches are not magicians; they have no magic wands; and they can’t spread any pixie dust throughout their building immediately resulting in higher student scores and better school profiles. If that were only the case! But what they can do is provide opportunities for teachers and administrators to plan, learn, review, revise, and work together to influence student learning and build teacher capacity.

So, here’s my top ten list:

1. Able to build strong trusting relationships
2. Exhibits deep content knowledge
3. Is a good listener
4. Committed to life-long learning
5. Models collaborative practices and collective problem solving
6. Knows adult learning theory and application in a coaching situation
7. Maintains a positive attitude towards all individuals
8. Identifies current trends in education and provides appropriate resources to support those trends
9. Skilled in questioning techniques to reinforce metacognitive reflection
10. Understands the data collection process (collection, analysis, and use of data)

 What’s on your list??

Monday, November 3, 2014

November 4 is designated as National Coach Appreciation Day. What a wonderful idea! Finally, instructional coaches are being accepted for the service and support they provide to their teaching colleagues and school administrators. This day may not be distinguished with plaques, commemorations, or certificates, but rather with the gratitude and respect that teachers freely bestow upon their coaching colleagues who help them recognize their voices and implement effective instructional practices without passing judgment or disapproval.

In 1953, Eleanor Roosevelt convinced Congress to acknowledge educators on their own special day but it wasn’t until 1980 that the day become nationally recognized. Now we celebrate National Teacher Appreciation Week in May. This is a week where we honor teachers for their dedication, diligence, persistence, knowledge, skills, and for working with our most precious commodity – our children. Our teachers are driven, devoted, and faithful in the work they do with our children. These are the same qualities shared by our instructional coaches.

Instructional coaches are steadfast in their desire to help teachers take ownership of the learning process, committed to helping teachers find their voices, and take personal responsibility for the outcome. That doesn’t mean they control the outcome; it means they take every conversation, every face-to-face session, every individual’s needs into consideration when they establish a coach-teacher partnership. They try to help every individual reach his/her full potential by providing opportunities for teachers to ask questions, communicate freely, reflect on and in practice and make adjustments to their teaching. They also give descriptive and timely feedback to help teachers make those adjustments. Coaches are the voices of reason as well as the voices of uncertainty so teachers are encouraged to think about their thinking and their instructional decisions.

Now is the time for you to reflect on all the wonderful things you have done and are doing to support your teaching colleagues. THANK YOU for all you do to help teachers implement effective instructional practices. You are APPRECIATED for all you do. Think about all the people you have influenced with your willingness to help teachers go from good to great. YOU ARE THE BEST!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

When a group of new coaches met during a small group professional learning conference, I asked for some burning questions that they needed answered as they began their new role as instructional coaches. Hands down, the most frequently asked question revolved around the issue of confidentiality and how to answer an administrator who had good intentions but was asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what the administrator could do to support teachers, the administrator asked what happened between the coach and teacher during their planning consultation and subsequent classroom visit.

Administrators need to know what is going on in their building but must balance that with the sensitivity about confidentiality. They need to collect first-hand information about instructional delivery, classroom management, teacher needs, and student learning. This can be accomplished as they walk around the building and engage in classroom observations, teacher talks, and student focus group conversations. This data cannot be collected through conversations with the coach, even if the conversation boasts a positive description of what happened in an individual’s classroom.

So, how does a coach finesse this kind of conversation? First of all, building awareness of the coaching role as a confidential conversation between professionals is critical. The coaching model needs to be rolled out to the faculty with the coach and administrator side-by-side, each giving the other support and lending credibility about how coaching works. Next, the coach must reiterate to the teachers that the work between the coach and teacher will not be shared unless the teacher shares the conversation with the administrator absent the coach. Thirdly, the administrator must not ask the coach questions about any individual teacher’s performance, knowledge base, skill set, or instructional needs. Instead, the administrator should co-plan with the coach the kinds of professional development offered to all teachers and then make time to walk around the building to observe the level of implementation without involving the coach in the conversation.

When coaches do not directly answer administrators, they are not being insubordinate; they are being discreet, confidential, and respectful of their teaching colleagues. And, they are diplomatically reminding administrators to be visible and walk around their building.


Have you ever been asked to reveal some confidential information? How did you handle it?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Last week was a wonderful learning experience for me. The PA Institute for Instructional Coaching hosted the first of three professional learning conferences of 2014. This is a multi-day statewide conference with coaches, mentors, administrators, and other school leaders as participants. The three-day conference focused on the theme of listening as a critical element of instructional coaching and school change. Coaches need to be fully “present” and must be great listeners to help their colleagues identify areas of strength and areas of need in order to move forward with their teaching goals and school wide improvement.

Listening helps coaches give “permission” to their teaching colleagues to discuss problems of practice, to collectively problem-solve, and to help each other become critical friends. When one listens to another person without being judgmental or opinionated, the conversation is respectful, mutual, and without ego. No one is right; all points of view are respected, voice and choice are exercised, and achieving goals are the primary objectives.

Remember when you first started teaching? You were a student teacher and had the support of your cooperating teacher. How often did your cooperating teacher remind you not to talk over students, not to answer for the students, and not to ask another question until the students finished answering what you just asked? The same scenario is recognizable when instructional coaches work with teachers. Ask probing questions that give teachers the opportunity to think about their thinking and the classroom decisions that they make. Allow them time to delve into their own thinking and question their own motives for teaching specific content and for the instructional delivery of that content. Give them opportunities to reflect.

Coaches need to ask themselves questions as well: what am I doing as a coach to help teachers change and improve their practice and what am I doing as a coach to help teachers improve student engagement and outcomes? Coaches cannot answer these questions unless and until they engage in several moments of silence where they just listen and support as they guide the practice that happens in each classroom. Two ears and one mouth… listen twice as much and say half as much!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Teacher leaders are essential for school change. They are, as Marcie Craig Post (executive director of the International Reading Association) says, “galvanizers for school change, always positive, inspirational role models, getting us to think in new ways, encouraging creative and novel thinking, and challenging us to greater intellectual achievements.” That being said, coaches need broad shoulders and thick skin to be the constant cheerleaders, the nurturer, and the vocal consciousness-raising, non-judgmental voice of reason. All this in a day… that is, every day!

Notice that nowhere did I mention that coaches need to be the experts in everything. This is a topic that surfaces every year… as a coach, shouldn’t I know everything so I can tell the teachers what they need to know?

Coaches are highly skilled, experienced professionals but they are not the experts. They may know more about adult learning because they work with adults but they don’t know more about content than the content specialists in the classroom. They can share many instructional strategies that support effective teaching and provide opportunities for teachers to meet regularly and on common ground. Most important, they work towards helping teachers connect with each other, co-work on shared topics of interest, and collaborate with each other to reach goals that keep students in the center and school-wide improvement up close and personal.

Dennis Sparks agrees. He says, “Leaders who pretend to know everything disempower others. As a result problem-solving abilities atrophy rather than grow.” As a coach, coming across as a “know-it-all” is arrogant and self-serving. In fact, this attitude can create more problems than collaborative solutions. The teachers who are being coached may feel quite uncomfortable and their opinions dismissed because the “expert” coach has spoken.

Coaches, administrators, teachers, mentors, and students are all members in a community of learning. We are all learners and need to help each other co-construct ways to improve student learning, build teacher capacity, and increase student engagement. We can’t do that if we are worried about who knows more or who has the right answer. We help create change by discussing ways that enhance learning and to collectively problem-solve. As coaches, we don’t tell anyone anything; we help our colleagues find their voices and work together to support our individual and school-wide goals.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Welcome back...summer is over but I bet you are like me and have thought all summer long about how to help teachers increase student engagement, build their repertoire of teaching skills, and refine your own coaching practices at the same time. Of course, this sounds much easier said than done. After all, it probably took all of June and most of July to decompress and then all of August to start thinking about effective instructional practice, the variety of ways to help teachers meet the needs of their students, and how your coaching practices need to be differentiated according to the needs of the teachers you coach.

As a coach, the most important thing you can do is to listen to teachers and help them identify their needs, wants, and hopes for change. You are not in the position to tell them what to do or to pass judgment on what they do. Your role is to help them become more reflective practitioners and to think about their thinking in ways that will help them make changes to their practice. You need to provide them with ample time to talk together and discuss how students learn. You need to ensure that there are ongoing opportunities to collaborate with one another.

As Joellen Killion states, coaches are “catalysts for change” and are “visionaries who are never content with the status quo but rather always looking for a better way.” As you listen to your teaching colleagues, remember that your role is to ask questions and help your colleagues ask questions about how to refine their practice. You are not the expert who knows the answers; you are the one who helps colleagues question what happens in classrooms and schools. You are the one who disrupts the status quo by helping colleagues understand there is always “more” to learn about instructional practice. You are there to engage teachers in conversations where students are at the center and effective instructional practice is the focus of those conversations.

Best wishes for a wonderful school year. Be strong, be committed, and be collaborative. Together with your teaching colleagues, you can make a difference in your school community.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“Principals play the key role in creating a context of culture in which adult learning flourishes” (Robbins & Alvy). With that in mind, instructional coaches need to focus on creating (or changing) a culture that advocates professional learning for all. Sometimes, the administrative team is so involved with the management of a school, they miss some wonderful opportunities to provide ongoing, relevant professional development that transfers into professional learning.

Enter the coach whose role is to stimulate thinking, engage colleagues in professional conversations, and collectively problem solve, all promoting continuous improvement. Great to move into that direction, but how?

Veteran coaches have already set the tone by working one-on-one and in groups (small group and whole school) to provide consistent and relevant professional development. If you have coached in the same building for more than a year, you have established trusting relationships that foster collaboration and open communication. You have sowed the seeds of sharing a vision and working together for the greater good; that is, colleagues working together to increase student engagement and improve student outcomes. You and your colleagues have started the process of changing the culture of your school. You are working together to ensure implementation of effective instructional practices by focusing on individual and collective whole school improvement. It is a team approach that strives to improve practice through collaboration, reflection, and a shared understanding of what works well in your setting.

Part of this “makeover” is to work with the administrative team to ensure that everyone understands the coach’s responsibility in helping to transform the culture of the school as it changes from working in isolation to working as a team. It’s not about the principal holding individuals accountable for working with a coach; it’s all about a principal supporting the coaching role with ample opportunities for coaches to work with colleagues, provide ongoing professional development, and encourage teachers to be innovative in their instructional practices without fear of negative evaluations. It’s all about the administrative team advocating that colleagues work together, plan together, practice together, debrief together, and then make adjustments where necessary, all in a no-risk environment. (Don’t be alarmed at the amount of “togetherness” mentioned here. While a coach and teacher are not joined at the hip, they are partners in planning, practice, and problem solving.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

So now your summer vacation has probably started and you are beginning to unwind and re-focus your attention to things that you have been delaying all year. Maybe it’s about cleaning closets, or repotting plants or even re-connecting with folks that have been absent from your regular conversations. Whatever the goal, I’m sure you still have flashbacks about the things you wanted to do in school, things you wanted to get back to but never had the time to finish. That’s the plight of the classroom teacher, coach, mentor or administrator… it’s difficult to leave everything behind when you’ve spent the entire year trying to accomplish some school wide goals and your own professional goals as well.

Put things into perspective… what did I accomplish; what is incomplete and why; and what did I learn about accomplishing those goals? Once I answer those questions, I can put to rest the nagging doubts about the successes with my colleagues and how I will move forward. I need to reflect and refine, repurpose and re-evaluate what I want to do. And, I need to prioritize my goals so that I have a short range goal, mid-range goal, and a long range goal with appropriate, realistic strategies to accomplish them.

While you are sipping your coffee at the park, in a playground, or in your backyard, celebrate the milestones and think about how much you’ve learned regarding your teaching colleagues, administrators, and school transformation. Build on those successes and maybe even not such successes and take one step at a time. Just keep a notebook by your side to jot down thoughts that you want to remember about effective instructional practice and your coaching role!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Douglas Reeves believes that clarity and succinctness are integral to success. He indicates that, “There is evidence that schools are well served by one-page plans that are clearly focused and simple enough that every participant in the process understands his or her role in executing the plan.” So, what does this mean for instructional coaches?

Many times, instructional coaches are the liaisons between the administration and the teaching staff. They are neither classroom peers nor supervisors; they are instructional supporters and help teachers implement effective instructional practices. They help provide clarity for the school wide improvement plan and offer strategic reinforcement to implement a variety of techniques to ensure that school wide improvement and student growth are central to teaching and learning.

Instructional coaches help teachers identify instructional goals for classroom content planning and co-create professional goals to help teachers grow their skills. That suggests that coaches and teachers work together to generate both kinds of goals and actually plan ways to collect evidence that supports the level to which those goals are accomplished. That does not imply, however, that the plan must be a 1000 page document! That means that the coach and teachers collaborate to identify the goals and the strategies needed to address those goals, create a feedback loop to make necessary adjustments, and reflect continually on ways that make instruction more effective to meet the needs of a diverse population in a direct and transparent way.

Don’t create another War and Peace; work together to make a simple plan that is easily communicated and uncomplicated to follow. Be sure that each teacher’s goals strengthen his/her skill set in realistic and doable ways while helping students grow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In the 2009 Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad, Stephanie Hirsh states that “… improving professional learning for educators is a crucial step in transforming schools and improving academic achievement.” She continues by saying that we have a responsibility to ensure that teacher skills and knowledge must be strengthened so that every teacher is equipped with the tools necessary to teach “diverse learners, be knowledgeable about student learning, competent in complex core academic content, and skillful at the craft of teaching.”

Schools need to make sure that professional learning is planned and organized to engage all teachers regularly and to advance the learning of all students. This, of course, means that high-quality, sustained professional learning must be available so that all teachers are given an opportunity to nourish their own professional growth. Enter the coach!

As you prepare for the relaxing summer and reflect on your work as instructional coaches, mentors, administrators, or other school leader, take some time to think about how you have impacted student learning, encouraged teacher professional growth, and improved student and teacher engagement. Without influencing these elements in schools, student growth will not happen.

If you are like me, I’m sure you’ve had your share of advice not taken immediately or your suggestions for a different approach to student learning met with less than an enthusiastic response. When that happens, I reflect and engage in an internal monologue and think about how my intentions are shared and what my expectations are with respect to that conversation. I think back to Stephanie Hirsh’s words and remind myself that my role is to support, encourage, refine, and improve each and every coach’s and teacher’s practice so that every student is the beneficiary of a highly effective instructional practice delivered by a highly effective instructor.

Take some time and reflect on all the changes that have occurred in schools. Celebrate those changes and use this reflective process as part of the planning for next year. Build on the successes from this year and think ahead about next year’s goals keeping the focus clear and deliberate: improve professional learning for educators which will transform schools and improve academic achievement.

Monday, June 2, 2014

As I reflect on instructional coaching, mentoring, and one-on-one support, I am reminded about the power of watching, listening, and sharing what our colleagues learn. Several coaches with whom I’ve been communicating talk about how much being an instructional coach means to their own teaching practice, to collaborating with their colleagues, and about changes they’ve seen in classrooms. They talk about how rewarding it is to be part of a practice that honors the teachers’ voices and recognizes the importance of ongoing teacher professional development that leads to professional learning.

Seeing is believing… take a look at the videos by accessing this link: http://piic.pacoaching.org/index.php/resources/piic-videos/199-videos. You’ll see and hear from two instructional coaches, a principal, an instructional mentor, and a regional mentor coordinator talk about their experiences in their respective positions and schools and the impact of instructional coaching on teachers, their classrooms, their instruction, and their students.

Instructional coaches make deliberate time to talk, plan, and reflect with their colleagues. They understand that planning before, visiting during class time, and debriefing after classroom visits is the process to follow when providing support to their colleagues. Watch these videos and reaffirm what you already know… instructional coaching takes time but it is time very well spent!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Last week, the PA Institute for Instructional Coaching held its last multi-day professional development and learning conference for the year. It was very well attended and instructional coaches from across the state were able to network with each other and share their insights, experiences, and new learnings.

One of the things that was abundantly clear was the need to continue sharing new information and providing ongoing opportunities for coaches to talk to one another about practice, consistency of instructional support, and how adults learn. Guess what, adults are not just “big” kids! They want to learn and collectively problem solve and they do it in ways that are different than the ways in which our children learn.

Have you ever heard of the term, “Andragogy”? This is the science of helping adults learn and refers to the learner centered method (adult as learner). Much of the work on adult learning is credited to Malcolm Knowles and based on five critical assumptions about a person’s maturation process as a learner: 1) adult learners are self-directed; 2) adult learners “collect” experiences which become resources for their learning; 3) adult learners are ready to learn; 4) adult learning is relevant with the learning focused on problem solving; and 5) adult learners are motivated to learn. (infed.org)

So, how does the theory of andragogy apply to instructional coaching? Adult learners have diverse and distinctive characteristics and to be an effective coach, recognition of these characteristics will make the difference between an instructional coach who coaches “light” and an instructional coach who helps change instructional practice. Instructional coaches must understand how adults learn and provide them with ample opportunities to learn new things, practice what they have learned, and then talk about that practice and what worked well.

When you reflect on your year as an instructional coach, think about the art and science of working with adults and your practice as a coach. Have an internal monologue and answer these questions: Where do you need to nourish your professional growth? What are you doing to help teachers improve their practice? Which of your own practices need to be strengthened, revamped, and realigned with the greater good for increased student engagement and improved student outcomes?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Several states are now requiring student teachers to take a performance-based exam. The exam is called called the edTPA. This is a test that measures the student teacher’s readiness to begin teaching. It involves videotaping and analyzing one’s own teaching style, skill set, knowledge base, and ability to engage students. Central to that are the actual lesson plans, the assessments that are aligned with the instruction, and the daily feedback that teachers give to their students.

The practice of videotaping and analysis can be very powerful. It is certainly a reflective practice and done effectively, helps the teacher really focus on what worked well and what areas of support are needed. What makes me nervous, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be a focused attempt to have the student teacher work with a colleague or instructional coach to discuss the practices on the videotape and share ideas with his/her colleagues about the instruction.

In the April issue of the Journal of Staff Development (JSD), authors Fahey and Ippolito indicate three concepts for adult learning to take place and ultimately influence students: 1) Educators need a learning practice as well as a teaching practice; 2) Adult learning practice changes over time; and 3) How adults’ learning practice changes makes a difference in their teaching practice. So, if the videotaped lesson is the mode by which schools will determine teacher candidate readiness, where does the collaboration take place to ensure that teaching and learning are discussed and necessary adjustments are made to help teachers teach more effectively?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014



One of the most valuable practices an instructional coach can help teachers implement is the process of reflection. It’s really not just reporting about action, ideas, or plans; it’s all about making thinking and actions visible and then discussing why and how those actions, ideas, and plans worked. It’s all about the deliberate and intentional conversations that must occur when talking about teaching and learning.

The difference between reporting and reflecting is easy to understand: reporting means to give an account, write a summary, or provide an explanation for some transaction that has taken place. Most reports repeat what happened in some detail or make some announcement; there is no analysis, only the details without any interpretation. On the other hand, a reflection is a thought provoking, meditative process that involves serious thinking, introspection, immersion, and engagement in some action. It is an analysis and commentary of an encounter with the primary purpose of interpreting what happened, determining if the action was appropriate, and making necessary adjustments to make the next encounter more successful.

Making time to sit quietly and think about your actions and then discussing those actions with an instructional coach is liberating and cathartic. It gives an individual the “permission” to talk about practice and discuss ways to make that practice even more effective. It is an internal monologue at first followed by a deliberate conversation with like-minded practitioners who can give focused advice. It’s an authentic way for practitioners to practice with each other without the anxiety of an evaluation.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In the March 27, 2014 issue of EdWeek, bloggers Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers talk about the usefulness of the observation process schools use to ostensibly improve teacher practice. They state what I think we all know, “There is little evidence that the observation methods we currently employ improve student achievement.”
 
This is another one of the “no brainer” kind of common sense approach… how can an observation without pre-planning or debriefing be effective? What makes us think that just because an administrator observes what is going on in a classroom, at a given moment, is anything more than a snapshot in time? Why do we think that a momentary (or class period) observation will naturally yield a dialogue between two people which will then result in changes in classroom instruction, climate, or content?

Berkowicz and Myers offer a great alternative… “a purposeful coaching model” whereby a process for communication and collective problem solving is intentionally planned, deliberately executed, and determinedly reflective. They realize that the coaching process is ongoing, specific, descriptive, and timely and uses the co-constructivist approach and collaborative thinking to identify areas of strength and areas of need. They understand that coaching is a non-evaluative practice that depends on open communication and the willingness to explore thinking in ways that may be alien at first but welcomed when implemented regularly. When teachers recognize that their voices are honored, their practice becomes much different. 

Instructional coaching holds the key to great change…it is one of the most effective ways to talk about practice and make changes to that practice. Coaches are on the side of helping teachers identify effective instructional practices and then implement those practices in ways that stimulate thinking, raise expectations, and acknowledge the potential for learning.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Last week, our instructional mentors engaged in their own professional development sessions for two days and collaborated, collectively problem-solved, and created ongoing professional learning opportunities for the coaches with whom they work.

As we discussed a variety of ways to help coaches work more regularly one-on-one with their teachers and to refine their work, what stood out for me were the questions and ensuing discussions about reflecting on their practice as mentors and on their reflections about the coaches reaching their goals. Everyone agreed that the coaches are poised to help teachers set appropriate goals and make time to reflect with teachers to determine if those goals were met. So, the question I have is, “Do coaches set goals and write reflections about their work with teachers?”

Reflection and learning from experience are critical for staying accountable and maintaining and developing skills and knowledge. As Donald Schon writes, “Reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning” (The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals Think in Action, 1983).

Coaches may not have much time to think about their thinking, their actions, and their interactions with their colleagues. However, that's the only way reflection works; coaches really need to think about their own goals and how they work with teachers, the kinds of work they do with teachers, and why they are establishing non-evaluative relationships with the teachers they coach. At the same time, coaches must be great listeners and resist the temptation to “tell teachers what to do.” They need to reflect on their own work as coaches with their colleagues and help their colleagues reflect on their own practice as well.

Although we support the notion of non-evaluative consultation, a coach must look at one’s own practice and identify ways to improve it, usually by having an internal monologue about the work. It’s a self-assessment that is essential for change to take place. Then, coaches must look at his/her work with colleagues and think about how to help those colleagues improve their practice as well. Our mentors ask themselves when reflecting: “What, So What, and Now What?” Perhaps answering these questions about your work as a coach will help make the process of reflection less cumbersome!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I recently babysat for one of my grandsons during one of our many snow and ice storms. When Mother Nature finally gave us a break, we decided to go for a walk and see how much snow had fallen. As he put on his snow boots, I casually remarked that I really liked his boots. I said it because I wanted to circumvent any possible delays in our walk with the expected, “I don’t want to wear boots.” But, as children often do, he surprised me with his response. He looked at me and said, “Yes, they are nice. What is it about these boots that you like so much?” Now, I have been known to identify my grandsons (4 of them) as geniuses but this was so unexpected. I said nothing. So, he repeated his question. “Grandmom, why do you like these boots so much?”

How amazing that at his age (5), he knows to collect evidence because saying you like something is not enough of an evaluation. He was asking me for evidence to support my assessment of his boots. Asking for this evidence has become the norm for a 5 year old!

So, how do we help our teachers and administrators understand that they need to collect the appropriate evidence to determine educator effectiveness and give them adequate time to understand the components of the evaluation process and what the steps are to move in the right direction?

It’s a challenge for teachers to “unpack” the core standards and really understand how standards differ from grade to grade. They need to know what each standard means and what their students need to know in order to meet and exceed those standards. Once they know what the students need, they must identify what they need as teachers to move their students towards successful growth. All of this takes time and I didn’t even mention the educator effectiveness process or writing SLOs to name a few.

With the implementation of the core standards, the assessments, and the educator effectiveness process becoming the foci for our teachers and their schools, we miss the most important things… how do help teachers engage and prepare students so that they are college and career ready? How do we help teachers become innovative and creative without fear of being evaluated as “needing improvement” or worse “failing”? How do we help teachers become better teachers if we do not help them plan, deliver, reflect, and adjust their instructional strategies and classroom practices?

One way is for the instructional coaches and other teacher leaders to help plan ongoing professional development, provide opportunities for follow up where professional learning is demonstrated, and help teachers become reflective practitioners where they can talk about their practice and make the necessary modifications to their teaching without fear of negative evaluations. You know the adage, “Learn from your mistakes.” How can we learn from our mistakes if we are not given the chance to make those mistakes in a risk-free environment?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

In the online February 17, Professional Learning News brief from Learning Forward, a study by researchers at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University concluded that when teachers participate in professional development, students do better in assessments.  These researchers examined math and reading scores for students before and after teachers in their schools began using an online professional development program. This study took place over a two-year period, one the year prior to the adoption of a PD tool and the year the teachers began using the tool.

Although this study took place over a short period of time, I think what this confirms is what we know... teachers who regularly engage in effective professional development benefit. Having said that, let me clarify... teachers who regularly engage in ongoing professional development with the opportunity for support and follow up benefit the most. The expectation that effective professional development yields effective professional learning is what makes a difference in the classroom.

Professional learning occurs after the professional development has been provided and teachers have an opportunity to engage in professional conversations about what they learned. They need time to talk with one another and discuss what they think students need to know and how they will engage students in that process. Teachers need time to talk to their colleagues about instruction. If the professional development is online, every effort must be made to support that learning by having face-to-face conversations, both one-on-one and in small groups, to ensure that the content is understood, the goals are met, and learning is differentiated and can be adjusted to meet the needs of all involved.

Sounds easier said than done but one thing is certain…instructional coaching is the vehicle to build effective instructional practices, skills, and knowledge so that all students are in classrooms with highly effective teachers.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

During the last week, my conversations with coaches revolved around the evaluation process for coaches. This is still a relatively new concept for instructional coaches and their administrators. One key idea to keep in mind is the similarity between the confidential conversations in which coaches engage with teachers and the kinds of confidential conversations in which counselors engage with teachers and their students. In both situations, administrators are not privy to the content of the conversations nor are other teachers privy to those conversations unless there are extenuating circumstances.

This process can be challenging. For instance, what exactly should administrators know about the conversations coaches and teachers have or counselors, teachers, and students have? Of course, administrators need to know that those conversations take place even though the nature of the conversations must remain private. At which point do counselors or instructional coaches share their discussions with their administrators?

In the Pennsylvania Department of Education job description for coaches, it clearly states that the roles and responsibilities of the coach include… “Building and maintaining confidential relationships with teachers. The conversations and interactions that the coach has with teachers must always remain confidential so that a high level of trust is created and maintained between the teacher and the coach.”  So, how is this accomplished without breaching confidentiality?

First, we must help administrators understand that coach “advocates for, facilitates, and supports the work of the teacher, but never performs supervision or evaluation.”  So, the administrator needs to  know that the teacher is being supported but not ask the coach if the specific teacher was receptive to the support or the coach’s opinion about the teacher’s practice.  If the administrator engages in instructional learning visits (ILVs), s/he will be sure to see evidence of ongoing professional learning in classrooms. Second, coaches should share with administrators the kinds of support provided, e.g., various evidence-based literacy strategies, understanding and using data, student engagement strategies, etc., but not the specific teachers’ names working with the coach or the substance of that support. Thirdly, administrators can allocate time for coaches and teachers to collaborate in PLCs and then visit those PLCs to participate in the shared learning.

These are just a few ways that administrators can become part of a transparent learning environment without asking coaches to breach confidentiality and share details about conversations between and among teachers and their coaches.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I took a quick poll from some newer coaches to ask them for a few questions they had about their practice which would have been helpful if answered before they began to coach. Some said that they didn't even know the questions to ask prior to becoming a coach. They made an assumption that their colleagues would just "open their doors" and welcome them into the classrooms. Once they began talking, the rest would follow. Unfortunately, this did not happen as often as expected. Several coaches commented that if they had a chance to start anew, they would focus on building awareness of the instructional coaching model for their faculties rather than jumping in with both feet and expecting to gain access to classrooms from the very beginning.

This is extremely important. First, the coach and the administrator(s) need to discuss the vision for school wide improvement and how instructional coaching can help the school achieve the goals for improved teaching and learning. Then, this shared vision must be communicated to the rest of the leadership team and the staff. The school staff must know the expectations about instructional coaching, understand the role of the instructional coach, and recognize how instructional coaches are on the side of helping teachers implement effective instructional practices.

Coaches and administrators need to work together to build awareness that instructional coaches are not "fixers" and instructional coaching is not a deficit model where coaches are "assigned" to work with teachers who have been identified by administrators as needing help. Instructional coaches provide a differentiated support system for teachers, administrators, and students to go from "good to great." They help teachers and administrators make instructional decisions that influence learning and help build sustainable structures. They must clearly communicate that instructional coaching is a non-evaluative process that fosters collaboration, collective problem-solving, and creative solutions to school wide challenges. The sooner this vision is shared, the sooner instructional coaches can work with their faculties to reinforce the plan for improvement.



Monday, January 13, 2014

So, it seems that blogs are best when they are short, sweet, and to the point. Having said that, I will make every effort to shorten my blog entries starting with this one!

Last week, we met with ~140+ instructional coaches at our multi-day professional learning conference. While many professional development/learning sessions were offered, what stood out for me were the incredible conversations about teaching and learning. Coaches and other school leaders engaged in conversations about relevant pedagogy, teacher practice, and collective problem-solving. They talked about planning and preparation, reflection and feedback. They talked about how collaborative coaching helped identify areas of strength and need, and helped strengthen their own instructional habits. They shared stories of growth and problems of practice, each adding to one’s own repertoire of rituals.


What is abundantly clear is that instructional coaching provides a different approach to the typical professional development model for teachers and other school leaders. Instructional coaches help teachers identify goals and help them implement effective instructional practices. They help teachers create an evidentiary trail (and create one for themselves as well) of their work as they apply powerful practices that yield positive outcomes. Coaches really help teachers rehearse the classroom “lesson” in a no-risk environment where the only expectation is for teachers to get better at what they do with a little help from their friends!

Monday, January 6, 2014


Instructional coaching is intended to reinforce teachers’ and administrators’ practices in ways that support schools so that instruction is rigorous, the delivery effective, and the assessment appropriate for student learning to improve. In some cases, instructional coaching helps expand both the teachers and administrators’ knowledge base; sometimes, the coaches help teachers and administrators use what they know and provide support about more effective instructional strategies, techniques, and delivery of instruction. Whatever the reason, instructional coaching influences what students learn, increases student engagement, builds teacher capacity, and helps both students and their teachers become more successful learners.

Instructional coaching should never be a, “What do you want to do today?” type of conversation. Coaches plan, prepare, sometimes “prescribe” and most times, practice, with their teaching colleagues in ways that are non-evaluative, non-threatening, and really not reportable. That’s the good news/bad news story… coaches work with teachers to change practice and because the work and the relationships are non-evaluative, teachers and coaches are in a unique position with each other. Coaches are not supervisors; they are not substitute teachers; sometimes they are not even classroom colleagues. So what are they?

Coaches are experienced teaching professionals who can understand the process of instruction, can recognize effective instructional practices, can assess data, and can engage in ongoing conversations that ebb and flow depending on “where” the participants are at the time of the conversation. They also understand that they are not experts; they are willing participants in a collaborative process that takes much time, consistent relationships, great leadership, and lots of humor!

Receptivity and responsiveness are situational. Not every person is reflective every time and thinks about his/her thinking. Nor is every person willing to engage in thoughtful problem solving. It can be a scary thing to confess that you don’t know something or to admit that you need help. After all, teachers went to college… why do they need help in teaching their students… they have a degree that says they are ready to teach??

As a coach, I think the single most important quality is the ability to build strong, collaborative relationships. No one knows everything about content even in one’s own area of certification; no one knows every strategy or instructional technique that promises to improve student outcomes; no one knows all there is to know about his/her students or school wide community. What a coach knows, however, is the power of collaboration and the tremendous influence collective problem solving has to improve the ongoing teaching and learning that must be present in order for students, the teachers, the administrators, and their schools to be successful and help prepare our students for society. Maybe it’s instinctive or intuitive; maybe it’s just the ability to talk, learn, laugh, and share together. Whatever it is… coaches have “it” and I’m glad they do!