By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

The ASCD Express, Volume 11, issue 7 talks about mentoring for new teachers. In theory, that’s a very effective practice. But are they the only ones who need mentoring?

To me, that statement means that only novice teachers need the support to apply their new learnings. I disagree… we want all practitioners to go from good to great and to do that with the support of a skilled, experienced practitioner who understands adult learning, collaboration, collective problem-solving, and critical thinking. And, to do that in a non-evaluative environment where formative assessment and self-assessment are the norm and making mistakes is a rite of passage without fear of evaluation.

The article suggests that “… creating mentor programs to support new teachers can help them adjust to more than just procedures… and to help them become more confident” in their teaching. Wow… why wouldn’t we want to ensure that every staff member has the benefit of working with a trusted colleague?

In this article, the terms “mentor” and “coach” are actually interchangeable. Here, “mentor” is what we would call a “coach.” I, however, see them as two different roles with different responsibilities but both necessary for all learning communities, not just newly hired staff. Both share common qualities: being nonjudgmental, providing needed support, willing to work with different skill sets, and modeling reflective practice. While both are long-term relationships, coaching may be more performance driven while mentoring may be more development driven. Coaches tend to address the “needs of the day” in working with teachers and try to find ways to problem solve. Mentors tend to focus on being a facilitator and silent partner. Both need to ask essential questions so that the learning is with, not for and both need to provide timely and specific feedback for continuous improvement.

I’ve never met a teaching colleague who didn’t want to better his/her craft. What a shift in education if every teacher and administrator could work with a coach who works with a mentor to support the learning without risk of failure!

So, what do you think… should only new teachers have the benefit of a coach/mentor?

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In the January 2016 issue of Educational Leadership, author Martha Sandstead compares working as an instructional coach to “cutting watermelons.” (If you are a former English teacher, you know that using a metaphor is a powerful way to illustrate a point that may seem like such an unlikely comparison at first glance.)

Ms. Sandstead reiterates what PIIC has espoused for quite some time… establishing relationships with colleagues is developmental and situational. She uses the metaphor of cutting watermelons as a way to help instructional coaches understand that the process of cutting the watermelon is almost more important than the pieces of watermelon offered to the picnic guests… don’t try to tell the host that s/he is cutting the watermelon incorrectly; engage in a conversation and explore the reasons why the watermelon is being cut in just that way.

She continues by reminding us that coaches “…begin relationships with teachers and work with them to discover their potential and bring about change in a way that respects them as professionals and as people.” The teaching colleagues with whom the coaches work have already established many things about their professional practice. The coach’s role is to help his/her colleagues identify those practices that are strong and those that need to be strengthened. They need to meet their colleagues “where they are” and talk about practices “as they are.” Those conversations morph into the heart of teaching and learning and how teachers can meet the needs of a diverse population. Effective coaching is neither a deficit model nor a “fix-it” model; teachers do not need to be “fixed.” They need an experienced, non-evaluative ear so that they can share their ideas about practice; teachers need their voices heard and their expertise validated.

“Being a coach is not about being the expert who knows it all; it’s about immersing yourself in teachers’ classrooms so you can learn about the work they have created and who they are as professionals” says Ms. Sandstead. I couldn’t agree more! Coaches need to be active listeners, supportive colleagues, and respectful learning partners.

What I don’t quite agree with in the article is the “Coaching from the Copy Room” idea. Coaches need to make time and not find time to meet with colleagues, learn about their teaching philosophies, goals, needs, and their “wish fors” as they move ahead in their own practice. While a quick “copy room” conversation may result in a definite time for the next meeting, it shouldn’t be the place where practice is discussed. Those conversations need to be confidential and deliberate, not “off the cuff” and freelance. Coaches need to help teachers think more deeply about their practices which is much more than just a quick conversation. Quick conversations are a start but they are not the “end all” or the optimum way to engage in professional conversations.

How can developing strong relationships make a difference in your coaching?