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Can Teacher Coaching Fix Professional Development?

Teaching is a tough job. Some might even say it’s less a job than a calling. Semantics aside, being a good teacher requires a unique combination of skills, including content expertise, patience, creativity, diplomacy, and world-class organization. Even teachers with the right skills regularly find themselves overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Many teachers burn out from trying to achieve artisan-quality results at factory-level outputs. Can teacher coaching play a role in improving the day-to-day experience of educators?

At one point, coaching was reserved for elite athletes, but non-athletic coaching is growing in popularity. Executive coaches support business leaders. Life coaches help anyone seeking to improve work-life balance, relationships, or even diet and fitness. So is it time that every educator has a teacher coach, or is coaching just a passing fad?

What is Teacher Coaching?

While some schools and districts still rely on PD by powerpoint, today’s educators expect more than a “lecture about why you shouldn’t lecture.” Teacher coaching is an approach to professional development in which the teacher takes ownership of their goals. Rather than setting and enforcing standards of performance and compliance, the coach takes on a supportive role.

We wouldn’t expect baseball players to improve their swing by demanding a higher batting average or listening to lectures about how to grip a bat. But this is exactly how many schools have supported teacher growth in the past.

A high-level player already knows the generic advice. To actually improve their swing, they need individualized feedback about their swing. They need ongoing guidance to address their specific areas for growth.

The same is true for teachers – even new teachers have completed coursework on the generalities of teaching. What they need is support that is specific, actionable, and non-judgemental.

What Makes for Effective Teacher Coaching?

Effective teacher coaching requires alignment across several layers within a school: school culture, school-wide systems, coaching expertise, and teacher readiness. If any of these layers are misaligned, the initiative may falter.

School Culture

Coaching is a “bottom-up” approach to teacher performance. While it is possible for coaching to be effective within a “top-down” school culture, it does require some tinkering.

I once coached a special-ed teacher who had every student copy the lesson objective, essential question, and standard into their notebook each day. This took up to half of the period given the needs of many of the students. When she asked how to better keep up with the pacing calendar, I suggested she use this time for math instruction instead.

For a few days, the students began learning math in their math class…until administration found out. I was informed (quite emphatically) that copying standard, EQ, and objective were a school-wide expectation for every student in every class. No exceptions.

This setback not only cost instructional time, it sent a clear message to the teachers: check with admin before following suggestions from coaches. I’ve since come to appreciate that schools like these are great candidates for work on vision and alignment. They may not be ready to get the full benefit of teacher coaching.

School-Wide Systems

While school culture provides the foundation for an effective coaching initiative, school-wide systems are the nuts and bolts that hold the initiative together. The two systems I rely on most in my coaching are scheduling and measures of success.

No one loves scheduling. When brainstorming with enthusiastic and innovative school leaders, it can be easy for the importance of scheduling to get buried beneath an avalanche of vision. The reality is that determining when coaching occurs is just as important to success.

I like to begin a new initiative with a brainstorming session or workshop with all the teachers in the cohort. Then, we move to a series of coaching cycles — alternating in-class sessions with planning sessions. Anyone who does scheduling for schools may already feel their shoulders tightening. “How can I get 6 teachers in a room at the same time?” “Who will be losing a prep?” I assure you, this type of scheduling may not be easy, but it is possible.

Measures of success are just as important to a coaching initiative. Schools are constantly sending messages to teachers about what they value. Some schools value high test scores. In other schools, student and parent perceptions of teachers are paramount. If a coaching initiative is designed to promote social-emotional learning, but the school pays out bonuses based on test scores, expect to encounter some resistance.

Coaching Expertise

Perhaps the biggest challenge to impactful coaching is the expertise of teacher coaches. As coaching is a relatively new professional development model, there is no widely accepted program for turning an effective classroom teacher into an effective coach.

In many industries, it’s assumed that effective employees shift to supervisory roles over time. If you’re an amazing accountant, after a few years, you will likely be promoted to accounting manager. As such, you’ll do less accounting yourself, and part of your time will be spent getting newer accountants up-to-speed.

For whatever reasons, such structures are not standard fare in our schools. Teaching is widely considered a lifelong profession – there’s no expectation that a highly-effective teacher will gradually reduce their course load and focus on cultivating talent.

First and foremost, effective coaches need to have significant classroom experience. Some may disagree, but I’ve seen plenty of “clipboard coaches,” who walk into classrooms and start checking boxes about what they like or dislike. Often, this type of coach lacks a nuanced understanding of everything behind what they are seeing. Watching a ballerina stumble is not the same thing as understanding why she stumbled and being able to help her become more graceful.

Even as an experienced teacher, with over a decade in the classroom, my transition to teacher coaching was far from easy. I was no longer able to focus on one subject area or one grade level. I also had to learn to navigate school-wide issues, like culture and systems, as discussed above.

Schools and districts looking to make coaching a pillar of their professional development strategy will need to establish a robust coach development program. Many require the support of outside consultants at first, both to support teachers and to develop their coaches.

Teacher Readiness

Last, but certainly not least, effective coaching requires that teachers are ready to be coached. Coaching is about supporting teachers in reaching their own goals. As such, to benefit from coaching, a teacher needs to have goals, or at least be willing to develop them.

Some teachers, both expert and novice, thrive on personal growth. Others are comfortable in their teaching practice, and don’t see any reason to grow or change. It is not a coach’s role to force change on a reluctant participant.

Sometimes, a teacher’s resistance to coaching is rooted in school-wide factors. If school systems and cultures are not supportive of coaching, over time, teachers may internalize resistance. If it hasn’t worked before, why should this time be any different?

Put Me in, Coach

Still deciding whether teacher coaching is right for you or your school? Do you have a coaching program in place that could use some tweaking? Our free Guide to Reflective Teaching includes self-assessments and planning guides to help you get the most out of instructional coaching.

If you are ready to benefit from the support of an instructional coach, our expert coaches will help you develop your own professional growth plan. We offer a 4-Week Level-Up and an 8-week Master Teacher Program. You can also schedule a consultation to review your goals and get advice. For more details, visit courses.roomtodiscover.com.

If you are ready to bring on-site or remote coaching to your school or district, contact us at info@roomtodiscover.com to schedule a consultation. We’ll help you design and implement a coaching program. We can also provide coaching directly to you and your team.

Get Your Free Guide to Reflective Teaching

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