By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The energy for September is palpable… new students, new classes, new materials and best of all – new thoughts. All of us start the year extending our thinking and trying our best to make plans that make sense, are doable, and focus on how to help students grow. It’s also the time of year that instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators think about how to help teachers grow professionally. Administrators, especially, are looking for ways to engage their staff members with meaningful professional learning and not minutiae that must be presented to staff. Instructional coaches can be incredibly helpful in designing effective professional development plans that address the needs of the group and offer opportunities for staff to nourish their own professional growth.

In her book, Elena Aguilar says that “…what distinguishes effective coaching from other kinds of professional development activities is that coaching is an ongoing effort focused on developing a specific and agreed-upon set of skills or practices.” This couldn’t be truer!

Instructional coaches are in the perfect position to elicit feedback and input from staff about their past professional learning sessions and which ideas need to be expanded. In most schools, instructional coaches have the pulse of the school and have a pretty good idea of what folks want to know more about and how they can collectively problem-solve around common issues, goals, and grade level/content area points of interest. They know the kinds of skills or practices that should be shared and understand how to help staff members collaborate with each other, not just cooperate with each other. Coaches understand how collaboration creates connections that result in shared learning. And they know that learning is continual and goes beyond one staff meeting.

Coaches work one-on-one and in small groups to promote learning. They build relationships with their peers and provide ongoing support, not “drop-in” support. Be available to help teachers where there is a need. For instance, if you were a coach in the building last year, begin this year with a review of last year’s accomplishments and remind everyone about their role in making those accomplishments so successful. Collect some school wide data and design some mini professional learning sessions around the data that shows where support is needed. Partner with one of the teachers you coached and co-plan/co-facilitate some of those mini sessions. You’ll need to be creative; offering those sessions is always an issue. Some coaches I know offer those sessions before school; some offer them during school by repeating the mini sessions a few times so teachers can visit on their prep periods; and some offer time after school if possible. (Some schools have a budget for before or after school activities so explore those options.)

If you are new to the school and coaching is new, think about working with PLCs and finding some articles that address the goals of the PLCs. Established PLCs should have a mission and vision and through your support, help members share that vision. Having a shared vision brings people together, even for a short “chat and chew” session with coffee and donuts. When you bring people together and they start to talk about common interests and a joint mission, relationships begin to emerge. Those are the relationships that you want to cultivate. They are the relationships that take on individual and group ownership. Those are the folks with whom you can start a coaching relationship.

Getting into classrooms as a new coach is not the first thing that usually happens. Teachers want to improve their practices but they are not entirely comfortable with someone coming into their rooms without taking time to become acquainted first. This is not an arranged marriage and it just doesn’t happen automatically. Just saying a coach is non-evaluative is not enough for carte blanche in a classroom. Talk to the teachers; find out what they think needs to happen to help their students grow and to help the school be successful; give teachers a voice and choice about how you can help them. That’s a good start to opening the lines of communication. And as you open the doors, remember the three “Bs” of effective coaches: be trustworthy, be a good listener, and be a great learner.