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November 27, 2019
Vol. 15
No. 6

How School Leaders Create the Conditions for Effective Coaching

Douglas McGregor, an MIT management professor, described organizational culture in terms of Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X says that workers have to be monitored before they will do what they're supposed to be doing, rewarded for doing a good job, and punished when they make mistakes or underperform. Theory Y rests on an entirely different set of beliefs about people: that almost all of us are doing the best we know how to do; that we are motivated to feel competent and, therefore, want to improve; and that we learn best from experience, reflection, and collaboration with colleagues.
Theory Y beliefs engender a respectful, learning-centered, and trusting culture that is foundational for all improvement efforts, not only coaching. Establishing such a culture is a leadership responsibility, and, without it, there is likely to be little meaningful coaching—or any other kind of collegial work.
At the same time, a coaching culture is wasted unless leaders design and implement positive conditions for coaching. We focus on ways school leaders can establish the four conditions that help coaches transform leading, teaching, and schooling:
  1. A strong model of high-quality instruction
  2. A strong model of coaching
  3. A strong model to build capacity for coaching
  4. A strong system of logistics

A Strong Model of High-Quality Instruction

When we work with districts on their plans for coaching, our first question is always, "Is there a shared understanding of what good instruction looks like in your district?" The responses vary and may include a laundry list of district professional development, a referral to the district's teacher evaluation rubric, or a blank look. Very rarely do we get the answer we would like to hear: "Yes, we have worked to clarify our definition of high-quality instruction, which is now the focus of all our professional learning efforts, and is aligned across key district documents, including but not limited to our teacher evaluation model, our intervention model, and our strategic plan."
Providing educators with a model for what we believe to be the very best instruction for all students should be our moral imperative, and anything that doesn't fall under that definition should be let go. If everyone is working on the same pedagogy, it becomes possible to collect data about what is working and adjust quickly by providing supports where needed. Further, having a shared vision for high-quality instruction shifts coaches from being the person to whom teachers should pay attention because they were good teachers, to being the person who helps teachers achieve the district's definition of good instruction. In the first case, the teacher is subservient to the expert. In the second case, the coach is in service to the teacher.

A Strong Model of Coaching

In many districts, the model for coaching does not go beyond hiring successful teachers as coaches and asking them to help teachers improve. This is, of course, not wrong, but it is incomplete. We ask district leaders, teachers, and coaches to answer the question: "Under what circumstances would coaching work?" This question quickly generates a long list of ideas, such as: when coaches get good training and don't have to invent everything from scratch; when teachers don't feel that there's a stigma attached to coaching; when there are regular times to meet so that coaches aren't seen as a drain on teachers' precious time; when principals are supportive, and so on. This type of list can form the backbone of a robust coaching model.
Districts should create specific job descriptions for coaches that can drive not only the hiring and selection of coaches, but the focus of coaches' work. These descriptions can support coaches in concentrating efforts on high-leverage activities, such as observation cycles in classrooms and analyzing student work with teams of teachers, rather than being spread thin conducting operational duties such as coordinating testing, substitute teaching, and bus duty. We have seen how coach job descriptions also provide clarification for principals and teachers on the nuts and bolts of coaches' work.

A Strong Model to Build Capacity for Coaches

Coach preparation should encompass not only the fundamentals of coaching (observing, listening, questioning, providing feedback), but more nuanced roles for coaches like coaching teams, designing and leading professional development, analyzing data, and navigating resistance. Coaches should participate in ongoing, high-quality professional learning addressing curriculum and instruction, adult learning, evidence-based decision making, and strategic communication.
In several districts, we've seen the benefits of coach professional learning communities—with coaches sharing problems of practice and discussing evidence on how their work is contributing to positive change. Further, professional learning for coaches should model the principles of coaching and adult learning, encouraging learning-by-doing, reflection, and growth. To continue to build capacity for coaches, we suggest system leaders reflect on who coaches the instructional coaches and how coaches are being coached.
We believe teachers and leaders can benefit from training on coaching, as well. Not only would it help build understanding of, and thus investment in, coaching; these skills—listening, asking good questions, and giving and receiving feedback—also serve teachers and school leaders.

A Strong System of Logistics

Coaches and leaders must work together to create structures and guidelines that enable coaches to be effective. As instructional leaders, principals make a difference in designing schedules and calendars with designated time for coaches to facilitate trainings for teams of teachers. Other logistics, such as union contracts and the coach's role in educator evaluation systems affect coaches' work and will need ongoing problem solving and support from school leaders.

A Coach-Forward Principal in Action

To create a picture of what these four conditions could look like in operation, we share the example of principal Ramirez*. She starts off the year, as she does every year, by introducing the school's instructional coach.
"You all know Diana, who has been an integral part of the school's instructional improvement work for four years now. I know I say this every year, but I think it's important to repeat: I had a coach for my first two years as a principal. He saved my life a couple of times and made me much better at my job. I still call him. Having a coach is a gift and Diana is a gifted coach."
"Our instructional focus continues to be classroom formative assessment and we intend to build on the work we did last year on learning intentions and success criteria. I've asked Diana to lead several professional learning activities in support of that goal, including some collaborative lesson design as well as individual coaching. She will give you more information about that later this morning, but first let me explain how the schedule for coaching is going to work this year …"
Through these and other remarks during the year, the teachers at West Elementary are very clear that principal Ramirez sees Diana as central to the work of the school, is a fan of coaching in general and of Diana in particular; and has built a schedule that puts coaching front and center. Everyone knows that Diana is there to help lead the targeted work of professional learning in the school and not as a generic support for teachers.
At West, Diana is part of the instructional leadership team. She collects data on student performance and on classroom instruction, not to share information about individual students or individual teachers, but to aggregate information that helps the team decide what exactly the focus of their next PLC or professional development day should be. Additionally, principal Ramirez updates Diana on any shifts from central office so that Diana can incorporate those into her thinking and side-by-side work with teachers. As a partnership, principal Ramirez and Diana work on creating coherence for teachers about instructional expectations.
Principals play a key role in creating conditions for coaching, including a strong instructional model, robust coaching model, quality capacity building around coaching, and technical supports for coaching. As revealed by the leadership moves of principal Ramirez, this takes knowledge, tactics, and time. We need to prepare and support principals so that they are ready to foster a positive coaching culture and the right conditions for coaching. When leaders set up supportive conditions for coaching, coaches get to be the superheroes of instructional improvement.
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