Transitioning from Coaching Light to Coaching Heavy

I began shifting away from light coaching about three months into my first coaching experience. Doing so was frightening. I was afraid that insisting on evidence-based goals, using formative assessment to inform our work, and saying no to requests that were not aligned to students’ needs (which was our purpose) would increase levels of resistance and decrease teachers’ willingness to engage as equal members in a collaborative relationship.

None of this happened as we transitioned toward heavier coaching. In fact, moving in that direction seemed to have the opposite effect.

Don’t get me wrong: it was hard not to want to simply ingratiate myself to folks. It was hard not to hope that passion and charisma and endless attention to a thousand different kinds of requests could be enough to motivate true change. After all, many people seemed more than happy with this approach. I learned very quickly that it wouldn’t serve anyone well in the long run, though. Experience has me concurring with Jim Knight’s assertion that heavy coaching is effective coaching. This often feels very uncomfortable though. It also requires coaches to commit to on-going self-assessment, research, and learning.

There are a few changes I’ve made as I’ve transitioned toward this model, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on the ways in which they influence motivation to participate in coaching as well as real instructional change. Here are some of the larger realizations I have taken away:

  • First, I find that using formative assessment (captured during guided practice rather than with a test) engages teachers further in the coaching experience and ensures that what we learn together is sustained. It also gives us far better information about students as learners and allows us to shift practice immediately.
  • I’ve learned that when we value teachers’ practice, their students, and the learning that is happening inside of their classrooms, evidence-based conversation is something that happens naturally and notions around what data are and how we use it shift in purposeful ways. Not all of the time…but certainly more often.
  • Adopting a gradual release model and exposing teachers to how coaching cycles would unfold from the outset  has provided a structure that seems to ease the fear of the unknown.
  • Putting common protocols in place for each phase of the work is establishing a level of equity and reinforces our common purposes as well.
  • It’s important for us to assess the effectiveness of our work as coaches and the influence it may or may not have on student performance. Learning how to do that as well as we can is important.

One thing that has been particularly rewarding for me is to sit in conversation with different stakeholders who were a part of this work, reflecting on where we came from and what all of the challenges and successes have been. We have been planning to share our perspectives on the first year of this middle level literacy coaching initiative at the New York State English Council conference in Saratoga later this month. Planning has provided great opportunities to celebrate all we have accomplished and all we are eager to do in light of what we are learning along the way. If you are going to be there, please consider stopping by. I can promise you a very real conversation about our very real experiences, and we would love to include you in it.

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