Monday, February 12, 2018

About That Instructional Coach

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about coaching and how a good instructional coach can make a difference for teachers and administrators. It's entirely possible you agree with that but aren't too sure what to do next or that you've had an experience with an instructional coach that wasn't all that positive but your gut tells you to rethink this proposition. Whatever brings you here. let's talk about instructional coaching.

You'd think most folks would understand instructional coaching--what it is and what a good instructional coach can accomplish. Experience tells me that's not the case.

The wonderful image to the left explains a lot of what instructional coaching is all about and one of the most important elements is non-evaluative feedback. One hopes it's on a regular basis, but that can be a challenge. But let me back up a bit.

In 2015, the incomparable Jennifer Gonzalez wrote about being an instructional coach. As she points out, there are reading coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, and technology coaches. Then there are those of us who are generalists who can and do work with classroom teachers across grade ranges and content areas. My work is about pedagogy and, where it makes sense, an effective integration of technology. Gonzalez interviewed others to get their perspectives on coaching and reports what Elena Aguilar told us in The Art of Coaching: work on the relationship AND listen more than you speak.

I know the teachers with whom I work have expertise and experience. I cannot underestimate that. My job isn't to tell them how to teach; my job is to help them gain perspective on themselves and their students so they can maximize their skills and abilities in the classroom. My job is to help teachers figure out ways to help their students use their natural curiosity to learn how to learn.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron found herself making the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach, and once that role became a full-time one, she notes she was able to mold the position to meet the needs of her site and her teachers. It's no surprise that the first function she lists is that of mentor. Again, listen more than you speak as you build that relationship. I find the teachers with whom I work often need me to help them filter the thousand-and-one things flying through their heads, and to help them brainstorm and to focus on ideas that they can make work. Unlike Ms. Wolpert-Gawron, I'm not permanently located in a district so my teachers see me once or twice a month. And though I'm available electronically, we make much more use of our face-to-face time.

One of the other roles listed by Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is that of professional development coordinator. When an instructional coach is really listening to a teacher, the coach can calibrate the professional development to meet the needs of a group of teachers or as many teachers as possible. Though we know one-size-fits-all is not ideal, our only option is often meeting with all faculty. So one of the things we need to be able to do is speak generally but engage specifically. In a word, differentiate.

What else do instructional coaches do? Again, Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is spot on: research, curate, and publicize. Most of the districts with which I work have created an email account for me so we can create an internal Google Classroom so I can share resources with teachers. And I can model how to organize and use Google Classroom at the same time! I use Edmodo for another district because that's what we started with three years ago.

I very deliberately called my company p20partners. My original goal was to work with teachers PreK through university level. I've been privileged to work with educators at the PreK through 12 levels, but still trying to break through that resistance at the university level. That's actually irrelevant because the most important part of my company name is "partners." I can't and won't tell a teacher how to do his or her job. I don't know their kids as well as they do and a few observations here or there doesn't give me deep insight into how they teach. HOWEVER, what I do know is that the teachers and administrators with whom I get to work count on me to help them think through their challenges, to come up with tools and resources to help them maximize their time with their students, to be available when they have questions or want to share out ideas via email or text, and to support them through their learning curves without judgment. And when they let me show their kids some new tools and resources to help students and teachers get a sense of the value of that tool or resource, that's just extra chocolate syrup on top for me.

Not too long ago I did a PD session with a group of teachers and we talked for quite a while about the 6 Qs: IQ, EQ, PQ, CQ, CRQ, and IMQ. The 6 Qs have a logical place in the corporate space, but it was clear that the teachers were quite thoughtful about the implications of these Qs not only for them, but for their students. They were particularly interested in the passion quotient and the courage quotient because they struggle with kids who aren't willing to persevere and they wondered if it's because they don't have the courage to fail. Teachers talked much longer than I expected; it was rich and so insightful for me. In fact, that conversation went so well, I'm planning to introduce some administrators to the concepts to see what they think and how the 6 Qs might influence how they interact with their teacher leaders.

I think a key role of an instructional coach is learner. When I have a teacher ask me about something and I get to scurry around the internet looking for resources or crowdsourcing colleagues to see what they know or have used. And then I get to play to figure out what might be best for that teacher and those students. But then I get to share that learning with others who may not even know that's a question they wanted to ask.

Whenever I learn something new, I get to think about "my" teachers and who might find what the most useful. I share with everyone, but I might send a separate note to a specific teacher because I want them to remember that even though I'm not always with them, I'm usually thinking about them and I want their very best for their students.

I always tell my teachers that our time together is not my time, but theirs: it's for their learning and growth, it's for their support and encouragement, it's for them to let me partner with them to help find some solutions or help them think through tools and resources that will meet a learning objective or help their students stretch.

Peg Grafwallner, writing for Edutopia, underscored how often the instructional coach provides that opportunity for processing. Just recently I was reminded of the one-legged interview, one of those strategies I'd forgotten--which reminded me of the conversations I often have with teachers who have forgotten effective strategies they used to use because their immediacy was crowded with all the new stuff. So the one-legged interview is called that because the conversations should last as long as you can stand on one leg. The questions are designed to invite teachers to process or to reflect. Non-judgmental; non-evaluative. A short conversation that may remind me of something or spark something for the teacher or lead to a longer conversation that invites more processing and reflection, more opportunities for me to rummage around the internet and find cool stuff.

So when you're thinking about hiring an instructional coach, either full-time or as a consultant, keep these roles in mind: mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner. Your teachers will thank you.

2 comments:

  1. This is spot on. Your teachers are lucky that you have this mindset, Elaine! Thanks for all you do.

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  2. Thank you for highlighting Instructional Coaches. Your last statement captures what an Instructional Coach would be. My district uses coaches in most schools. A resource we often use is Jim Knight from the University of Kansas. Currently, I am in a book study group using "The Impact Cycle" for deeper discussion.

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