In recent years, I’ve come to know a number of instructional coaches and quite a few people near and far who may not own that particular title, but who function in ways that are very much like an instructional coach. This is challenging work for a variety of reasons, and while I’m grateful for the guidance provided to me by standards, the work of experts I admire, and my own learning community, what I’ve appreciated most over the years is having a small collection of coaches I call friends to problem solve with. We’ve often faced very similar challenges, and as we’ve each grown into professional roles that initially felt very foreign to us, our work has deepened and the challenges we face have become more complex.
Ultimately, I think we all want to be of service to teachers in ways that enable them to serve learners well.
For many of us though, this has looked like serving teachers–quite literally—in the beginning. I’ve said before that I’ve often felt like a waitress in the past, delivering people the “stuff” they want so they can plug it into a unit or a lesson or another hole they are trying to fill. I’ve given them strategies, resources, and tools. I’ve provided them lesson plans, templates, graphic organizers, and flow charts. I’ve shared my perspective, offered advice, and even stood in front of a few classes leading demo lessons while teachers have turned their backs to check their email or take phone calls. A few times, people have actually left the room to grab a cup of coffee while I’m in the middle of demonstrating the instructional approach they asked to see. Once, during the holidays, someone actually began shopping online.
I know that I’m not alone in that reality, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it when other coaches reach out and remind me of how much company I really do have there. Sad, but true.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way though: .it doesn’t seem to matter how often or how fervently I tell people what the vision is that we need to embrace or which particular strategies we must use for whatever absolutely important purposes we’ve defined. If the teachers I’m working with have not contributed to that vision, identified their own needs, or engaged in any kind of research to better understand their students and the interventions that might help them best, it’s almost certain that whatever I do isn’t going to change what they do.
It’s that simple.
So, I’ve made some pretty powerful shifts in how I approach strategic planning for sustainability inside of the school districts I serve:
- First, I began advocating for the identification of internal literacy coaches, and I created a strategic plan that would enable me to scaffold my way out of the position of lead coach as others were supported to assume and maintain that role indefinitely.
- Then, I began connecting these newly vetted coaches to others within and beyond the region, in order to create networked support systems.
- And together, we began implementing collegial learning models within the system that not only celebrated the varied expertise of all teachers, but positioned them to engage in inquiry with one another and to assume greater roles of leadership themselves.
None of this attends to scenarios like those I’ve described above though, I know. Ironically, addressing those issues inspired changes that were far simpler but just as powerful:
- Aligning the interests, curiosities and needs of teachers and students to the vision of the district and the work of the greater initiative has been essential.
- Adopting a gradual release coaching model helped as well.
- Changing my stance within the coaching relationship has also made a significant difference. Rather than positioning myself as an expert who will demonstrate strategies or tools of any kind, I make it clear that I am a co-learner in the process. I ask teachers to share their needs with me and the evidence used to define them. I ask them to share their thoughts about what they’d like to learn and accomplish as a result of our work together. I ask them to produce a unit or a lesson plan that they would like me to observe or co-teach with them. Then, I do the same. I share my needs as an instructional coach and the evidence that informs them. I reveal my professional curiosities and the essential questions that are driving my own learning and work. I tell them how I am hoping to improve my practice and how the opportunity we are about to embark on might enable me to accomplish this. We engage in a bit of informal peer review. Then, we approach the teacher’s plan together and determine who will be responsible for which parts of the instruction.
- When it is my turn to demonstrate something within the classroom, I hand teachers my camera and ask them to take pictures of what they find most compelling. These photos guide our debrief later, and the practice engages them fully.
- Most recently, I’ve begun sharing models like those below with everyone who plans to participate in coaching experiences with me. It helps them understand that we are ALL learners within the coaching experience: the coach, the teacher, the classroom aide, the children, and any other visitors. Most importantly, making our work transparent isn’t about showing off. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s our responsibility to enrich and expand our tiny spheres of influence so that others within and beyond the systems we serve can put a critical eye on what we are doing, offer us meaningful feedback, and build upon what’s working.
Two weeks ago, I began a long-term coaching placement inside of Heather Bitka’s kindergarten classroom in Lockport, New York. Over the next week, I’ll be sharing evidence our work together and what all of us have learned along the way. Sheri Barsottelli, a school-based coach from Depew, New York joined us for a portion of this work. Sheri is assuming the role of lead coach in her school district as I say my farewells. Having her beside me for a part of this experience was very beneficial, and I’ll be explaining more about that in future posts as well.
The graphic below demonstrates where we began together as learners. Our roles were very different, but upon reflection, it seems we were all guided by very similar questions:
Finally, as we began and continued our co-learning together, all of us began considering how we might expand our smaller spheres of influence. I intend to make our learning transparent for others within and beyond the district right here on my blog. We’ve also connected to others via Skype, and sought diverse perspectives by inviting various teachers, building leaders, parents, coaches, and friends into the process. Heather, Sheri, Kay, and I will continue reflecting on the questions above and the evidence we’ve captured over the next several days. I plan to interview the kindergarteners tomorrow. All will be condensed and shared here over the next week.
Are you an instructional coach or a teacher or aide involved in coaching experiences? I’d love to know what of all of this resonates with you, what kind of challenges you face in your work, and what you are learning through your own coaching relationships.