Can Teacher Coaching Fix Professional Development?
Teacher coaching is an innovative and learner-centered approach to professional development for educators. It’s fast-becoming a standard alternative to lecture-based PD in schools and districts across the country. But teacher coaching wasn’t always so popular.
When I began teaching 20 years ago, professional development meant a meeting every Monday after school. The staff gathered in a big room for our mandatory “PD by Powerpoint.”
It went with the territory of being a teacher. Spending Monday afternoons daydreaming about your workload. “Man, I’m going to be up late planning tonight. Oh shoot, I forgot about those papers I need to return!”
I never saw PD as a way to improve my teaching practice. I didn’t even consider what the phrase “professional development” meant. Growing in my role as an educator? That happened through planning, teaching, and collaborating with other educators. At best, PD was a break from grading. At worst, it was a distraction.
The Development of Professional Development
Ten years ago, I noticed that professional development was changing. I began working at a new school and was expected to attend a summer workshop, called Instructional Skills. The session was run by two teachers, one of whom worked at the school.
As a veteran teacher, I didn’t expect to learn much new. But I was pleasantlysurprised. One concept that stuck is what they called “level of concern.” The idea was that classroom management wasn’t about all the tricks you have up your sleeve. Sure, writing names on the board and giving out stickers is all well and good.
But what really matters is how we respond to student needs. When their level of concern is too low, we need to raise it. Jump, shout, or assign a detention. When their level of concern is too high, we need to lower it. Give a pat on the back, grant an extension, or show a movie.
After a brief introduction of the concept, we broke into small groups. We all shared our thoughts on the topic and how we could apply it to our classrooms.
Later, we went over lesson structure. Again, a brief introduction of the concept followed by discussion. Then, we actually planned a lesson for the first week of classes. We were invited to present our lesson to the group.
Suddenly, professional development started to seem relevant. We talked about issues that mattered. It was no longer a “lecture about why you shouldn’t lecture.” The presenters were modeling the learning experiences we were being asked to create.
What is Teacher Coaching?
That year, I had the good fortune to share my classroom with one of the presenters. He invited me to stay at my desk while he taught. At my request, he sat in on a few of my classes and offered feedback.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had stumbled into my first experience with teacher coaching.
While some schools still rely on PD by powerpoint, today’s educators expect more. The key to teacher coaching is allowing teachers to take ownership of their goals. Coaches don’t set or enforce standards of performance and compliance. Instead, they take on a supportive role.
We wouldn’t expect baseball players to improve their swing by demanding a higher batting average. We wouldn’t expect home runs from listening to lectures about how to grip a bat.
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-judgmental.
Five Elements of Effective Teacher Coaching
As more schools begin to embrace teacher coaching, they also face challenges. These five elements are essential to a successful coaching initiative.
Measures of Success
Unless all five elements are aligned, the initiative will falter.
Coaching is a “bottom-up” approach to teacher performance. While it is possible for coaching to be effective in a “top-down” culture, it is more challenging.
I once coached a special-ed teacher, Ms. Ortiz, who started each class with a frustrating routine. Every student had to write down the lesson objective, essential question, and standard. Given the unique needs of her students, this could take up to half of the period.
One day she came to me, exasperated, “I don’t know how I can keep up with this pacing calendar!” I suggested she could cover a lot more material with a better opening routine.
She was receptive, and we began using a quick engaging warm-up for each period. For a few days, the students were learning math in their math class…until administration found out. I was told (quite emphatically) that the old routine was a school-wide expectation. “This is how every student begins every class. No exceptions.”
This setback not only cost instructional time, it sent a clear message. Check with admin before trying anything new. Better yet, just keep your head down and follow the rules. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
I’ve come to appreciate that schools like this are great candidates for leadership coaching. But to gain the benefits that coaching offers, they need to first develop their vision and alignment.
School culture provides the fertile soil for an effective coaching initiative. But scheduling is the sunlight that allows an initiative to thrive.
I’ll admit it, scheduling is boring. It can be easy for the importance of scheduling to get buried beneath an avalanche of vision. But making time for coaching is almost as important as creating a supportive environment.
When working with a new school, I usually meet with teachers for a brainstorming session or workshop. Then, we move into a series of coaching cycles — alternating in-class sessions with planning sessions.
Anyone responsible for school schedules may already feel their shoulders tightening. “How can I get so many teachers in a room at the same time? Who needs coverage? Who’s losing a prep?”
While this type of scheduling may not be easy, it is possible. And essential. Coaches can model in a classroom. But they can’t fulfill their full responsibilities in a classroom full of kids. They need time to plan with teachers. They need privacy for candid conversations about a teacher’s areas for growth. If that can’t happen in your schedule, your coaching initiative will be over before it begins.
Measures of Success
To be successful, teacher coaching must be aligned with a school’s measures of success. It should go without saying, but it’s amazing how often this gets overlooked.
In my experience with Ms. Ortiz, school leaders thought they valued achievement. But they were prioritizing compliance. School leaders need to be aware of how they communicate priorities.
In general, compliance should be a priority when mistakes have unacceptable consequences. A school policy against corporal punishment makes sense. If a teacher violates this policy, students can be emotionally scarred. The school and the teacher could both face legal action. No room for teacher discretion.
But where stakes are lower, school leaders should focus on results. In some schools, this means test scores. In others, it’s student engagement or parent satisfaction.
If the goals of coaching match the school’s priorities, the coach’s support will be valued by teachers. When coaching goals conflict with school priorities, the coach will be seen as a nuisance.
Another determinant of impactful coaching is the coach’s expertise. Teacher coaching is a newer model, and there is no proven formula for turning an effective teacher into a coach.
In many industries, it’s normal for effective employees to shift to supervisory roles. If you’re an amazing accountant, after a few years, you will likely become a manager. You’ll do less accounting, and spend more time getting newer accountants up-to-speed.
For whatever reason, such structures are not standard in schools. Teaching is generally considered a lifelong profession. Highly-effective teachers don’t gradually reduce their course load and cultivate talent.
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 aspects of school culture and policy I never knew existed.
To be effective, coaches need to have significant classroom experience. I’ve seen plenty of “clipboard coaches,” who walk into classrooms and start checking boxes. Often, they lack a nuanced understanding of what they are seeing. Watching a ballerina stumble is not the same thing as understanding why she stumbled. Telling her she fell doesn’t help her become more graceful.
As more schools and districts embrace coaching, good coaches are in high demand. As a result, some districts shift teachers into coaching roles with little preparation. New coaches should be trained on Adult Learning Theory and other essential coaching competencies.
Schools and districts may benefit from working with outside consultants as they develop their coaching programs. The right partnerships can help schools support teachers and develop their coaches.
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 culture doesn’t support teacher ownership, teachers will eventually internalize resistance.
Put Me in, Coach
If you’re interested in teacher coaching, the first step is reflection. Reflectiveness is essential for teachers who are preparing to work with a coach. But it’s just as important for coaches and school leaders. Coaches must reflect on their own practice. And they will need to guide teachers through the process of reflecting on their teaching.
Our free Guide to Reflective Teaching is a great place to start. It includes self-assessments, planning guides, and other resources to support teacher coaching. Complete the guide to ensure that you and your team will get the most out of your coaching efforts.