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November 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 3

A Principal's Guide to Supporting Instructional Coaching

Leaders can make or break a school's coaching culture.

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Nothing halts coaching work more quickly than a neglectful or negative school leader. Our experience coaching literacy coaches and school leaders, coupled with the growing body of literature on the roles principals play in supporting coaching work (Bean et al., 2018), has taught us that behind every successful coach is a supportive principal. But what does it mean to be a supportive principal?
In schools where coaching thrives, principals intentionally establish and maintain a building-wide atmosphere that encourages the adoption of coaching mindsets, with all educators thinking and working as leaders, facilitators, designers, and advocates (Bean & Ippolito, 2016). To help principals accomplish this feat, we offer a summary of non-negotiables for supporting coaching work. Because our background is primarily in literacy, we refer to this type of coaching most often, but the following Dos and Don'ts are applicable to coaching in other disciplines as well.

To Support Coaching Work …

Do Know Coaching Standards and Roles

Every school leader should read the International Literacy Association's 2017 Standards for the Preparation of Specialized Literacy Professionals (ILA, 2018). (This is especially true for working with literacy coaches, of course, but these guidelines can be helpful in application to other subject areas as well.) Based on decades of research, these standards clearly define and distinguish the knowledge, skills, roles, and responsibilities of literacy specialists, literacy coaches, and literacy coordinators. The standards also include indicators of what effective coaches understand and are able to do, which provide the basis for job descriptions and reflection tools that principals and coaches can co-construct. Lastly, the standards point to additional research-based resources about coaching that coaches and principals may wish to explore. If principals are to communicate their vision for and faith in coaching to the entire school, then a good place to start is familiarity with the roles and responsibilities outlined in the latest professional standards.

Do Create and Continually Communicate a Shared Vision for Coaching Work

Principals must include coaches and teachers in constructing a theory of action for how coaching will support continual improvement. While states or districts sometimes specify coaching models, principals may have latitude in how coaches operate in each school. Co-construction and refinement of each school's coaching model is perhaps best achieved within a literacy leadership team structure. Such a group might, at minimum, include the principal, one or more coaches, one or more literacy specialists, and a teacher leader or special education representative.
Literacy leadership team conversations allow the principal to craft, solidify, and share an agreed-upon coaching model; articulate clear roles and responsibilities for coaches; and outline a menu of services. Coaching services might range from less-intensive relationship-building work to more-intensive classroom-based work that changes teacher practice (Bean & Ippolito, 2016).
An ideal coaching model will include time for coaches to support teacher leadership. The more opportunities that all school faculty have to serve as leaders and facilitators, the more that a culture of coaching can spread schoolwide. As several coaches shared with us, they have found that teachers are more likely to respond positively to coaching when teacher leadership was prioritized by the principal. When teachers are treated with respect for their knowledge and given opportunities alongside coaches to collaboratively analyze student work, co-create and co-facilitate meetings, and share their expertise with colleagues, the school's coaching model is strengthened.
Once a coaching model is crafted and shared, principals need to talk about that model continually—not just at the beginning of the year or when coaching is first established. They must reinforce the notion that coaching is one of the major mechanisms for everyone to improve their practice. "Have you chatted with the coach about this?" can be one of the common questions that principals ask teachers. Principals who stress communication about coaching consistently realign coaching work as student and teacher needs shift.

Do Establish a Coaching Schedule That Meets Individual and System Needs

Sometimes we limit coaching effects by focusing too much on one-on-one work with teachers (Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). Principals can more effectively build a culture of coaching by working with coaches to create schedules that allow them to engage in one-on-one, small-group, and large-group coaching activities and address both individual and system needs.
For example, a principal might help establish a routine in which coaches in the school meet once every few weeks with grade-level teams or academic departments for a one-period planning session to discuss assessment results, student grouping possibilities, or a topic of interest, such as writing instruction or disciplinary literacy. These planning sessions provide coaches with opportunities to develop a work schedule for the next several weeks, mapping out with each group which teachers might want one-on-one support and which teachers might wish to connect with the coach as a group during future common planning periods. These one-on-one and group coaching sessions can be in addition to monthly whole-faculty professional learning sessions led by the coach.
To work effectively one-on-one, coaches need time and space to plan, reflect, and problem solve with teachers and to vary the ways in which they work. Some teachers do best if the coach models a strategy for them, while others might prefer to co-plan or even co-teach a lesson. At times, coaching cycles (pre-conference, observation, post-conference) may be useful, especially for intense one-on-one work.
Coaches who lead small groups effectively can create environments in which teachers interact frequently, build trust, and share a vision for student learning—all of which encourage a larger culture of coaching relationships among colleagues. Many different approaches to small-group inquiry are possible: professional learning communities, book study, data analysis, lesson study, and peer coaching. Small- and large-group coaching venues provide opportunities for collective problem solving, sense-making, and attending to overarching school goals (for example, improving instruction for English learners). In turn, this collaboration bolsters social networks and social capital, leading to improved student learning (Leana, 2011).
Principals can facilitate all of these collaborative planning and professional learning experiences by helping to schedule the meetings and communicating the available options to teachers. Principals can also encourage coaches to post their schedules publicly (in the office or other common spaces, or even online in a shared Google Doc) so that teachers can more easily connect with coaches.

Do Meet with Coaches Regularly and Observe Teachers Frequently

To stay abreast of coaching work, principals should meet regularly with coaches and frequently observe teachers to understand how professional learning is changing classroom instruction. Coach-principal meetings shouldn't be sessions in which every grizzly detail of coach-teacher relationships is litigated. Instead, they should be broader conversations about whether and how overarching goals are being met. Which grade levels or content areas might need more or less coaching time, or different supports? What resources might the coach or teachers need to better meet student needs? What can the principal do to provide those resources?
In these conversations, principals should avoid asking coaches to report on individual teachers. Instead, they should strategically observe teachers and teams to make sense of how coaching is impacting classrooms. Google Docs and other online tools can be helpful in allowing busy principals and coaches to communicate even if they can't always meet in person. But don't allow too much time go by without these face-to-face connections. It is in these lulls that a coaching culture can drift or decline.

Do Keep the Focus on Student Learning

When we ask coaches to talk about their focus, we often hear answers such as, "I follow the teacher's lead," or "It depends on what the teacher needs to know." These are good starts, but decisions about focus are best made after teachers, coaches, and administrators have reviewed both the expectations for specific grades or content areas and data about what instruction is necessary for students to meet those expectations. By focusing on student needs (as opposed to exclusively focusing on teacher needs and preferences) there is a greater likelihood that coaching will better address systemic issues and lead to improved student learning (Sweeney, 2010). For example, if achievement test data indicate that students in 5th grade are having difficulties with academic vocabulary, coaches can work with both small groups and one-on-one to help teachers address this instructional need. Principals can help by asking coaches and teachers, "What do students need?" as opposed to asking, "How are teachers struggling?"

And Now, What Not to Do to Support Coaching …

Don't Conflate Supervision and Support

Principals supervise teachers, and coaches support teachers. Although it has long been acknowledged that coaching should be separate from supervising (Toll, 2006), in reality, there are plenty of instances of unintentional overlap. In some schools, coaches are asked to serve as formal or informal evaluators, which can prevent them from being viewed as colleagues who support teachers in a risk-free way. Principals need to reassure teachers that their work with coaches is confidential and not part of formal evaluations. If principals are observing in classrooms often, then there is less need to ask coaches to report about a teacher's performance. Ideally, supervision and coaching work should be clearly separated, with the principal supervising and the coach supporting.

Don't Assign Coaches to Non-Coaching Roles and Responsibilities (At Least Not Often)

Coaches cannot be effective if they aren't actively working with teachers. So, when coaches are asked on a regular basis to assume responsibilities such as scoring or administering tests or serving as substitutes, their work's effectiveness is lessened. Principals are sending a message to teachers that coaching is not a priority.
At times, it might be necessary for principals to assign coaches to non-coaching roles, especially when there is an immediate need in the school (such as covering for a sick teacher), but remember, it is difficult to determine the effects of coaching when coaches don't have time to coach.

Don't Use Coaches as "Fixers"

It is tempting to ask coaches to work only with teachers who seem to be having difficulties with instruction or classroom management. We discourage this "fixer" approach to coaching for several reasons. First, if coaches are perceived as working only with those who struggle, other teachers may not reach out to coaches for support. Second, the coaching relationship becomes less about providing support for all teachers and more about remediation, in which only "struggling" teachers are assigned to the coach.
We once met an excellent teacher who told us that she never saw the coach in her school because she didn't need any support. But then she sighed and said she would have appreciated a chance to receive feedback from the coach to improve her teaching. Principals are missing out on a chance to improve learning for all their teachers—even the excellent ones—if they do not make it clear that coaching is for everyone in the school and that coaching conversations with teachers are confidential.

Don't Skimp on Professional Learning for Coaches

Coaches are continually seeking to improve their skills with ongoing professional learning opportunities. Effective coaches will, of course, read research and attend workshops or conferences, often on their own time. However, school districts can facilitate professional learning for coaches by establishing a coaching network that gives all coaches in a district opportunities to meet and discuss common dilemmas and brainstorm solutions. Coaches in one district told us that they would not have survived their first year of coaching without being able to problem solve with fellow coaches, and that their most effective professional learning came from these networking opportunities.
Some ways to provide these learning opportunities might be for coaches to participate in self-study or collaborative inquiry, in which they bring video or audio of a coaching conversation to share with the group, with the teacher's permission, of course (Ippolito & Pomerantz, 2013/2014). If there are too few coaches in the district, it might be possible for a regional support agency to establish such a network, with occasional in-person meetings, or a robust online component. The key is for principals to recognize the need for coaches to continue to learn and to support them by providing the necessary time and resources.

A Culture of Coaching That Works for Your School

Although there are surely other Dos and Don'ts that principals or coaches might identify, these nine appear frequently across research studies and in our own work with coaches in schools. What is evident, whether we are working with a small cadre of coaches in a single district or involved in evaluating a large coaching initiative, is that coaches view the principal as critical to supporting coaching success and fostering a wider culture of coaching. As coaches have told us, they want principals who not only understand the value of coaching, but who support it as a priority for improving student learning in their school.
References

Bean, R. M., & Ippolito, J. (2016). Cultivating coaching mindsets: An action guide for literacy leaders. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Bean, R. M., Swan Dagen, A., Ippolito, J., & Kern, D. (2018). Principals' perspectives on the roles of specialized literacy professionals. The Elementary School Journal, 119(2), 327–350.

International Literacy Association. (2018). Standards for the preparation of literacy professionals 2017. Newark, DE: Author.

Ippolito, J., & Pomerantz, F. (2013/2014). Protocols as essential tools for literacy professional learning communities in the common core era. Massachusetts Reading Association Primer, 42(2), 44–55.

Leana, C. R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(4), 30–35.

Mangin, M. M., & Dunsmore, K. (2015). How the framing of instructional coaching as a lever for systemic or individual reform influences the enactment of coaching. Educational Administration Quarterly, 51(2), 179–213.

Sweeney, D. (2010). Student-centered coaching: A guide for K–8 coaches and principals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Toll, C. A. (2006). Separating coaching from supervising. Teachers Teaching Teachers, 2(4), 1–4.

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