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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Don't Bench Coaching

How can schools plan personalized professional learning when funds for a coach are cut?

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How can you prepare for the coming year if you're in one of the many districts that have seen leadership positions, especially instructional coaches, cut?
More coaching positions are going on the chopping block as schools face financial limitations. Yet many districts are committed to offering coaching as a personalized form of professional learning—and it's no mystery why, considering the demands put on public schools and teachers.
Here are four strategies schools can try when they can no longer afford the coach but want the coaching to continue.

1. Connect on Twitter

When coaching positions are eliminated, teachers may feel disconnected from the latest resources, research, and professional networking that instructional coaches typically provide. One way to help teachers continue to exchange ideas is through Twitter. Resource sharing on Twitter often leads educators to create professional learning networks (PLNs) in which people who share interests form online communities. Twitter collects users' tweets under hashtags (the # symbol followed by an abbreviation) to identify discussions centered on particular topics, making it easier for teachers to find a PLN specific to their interests.
One PLN on Twitter that supports coaching in all roles is #educoach, created by instructional coach Kathy Perret, principal Shira Leibowitz, and principal Jessica Johnson. Through their weekly discussions, which any educator can join (held Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m., central time), they provide educators, including principals, with resources and support to help them assume a coaching mind-set, regardless of their formal role. As Johnson describes,
Each week we discuss a different topic, share resources, and even have book studies. Currently, we're reading Jim Knight's book High-Impact Instruction and are often joined by him in the #educoach chat. Other well-known authors—such as Steve Barkley, Todd Whitaker, and Diane Sweeney—often join our discussion. Several of us have continued our conversations outside of Twitter in Skype and Google + Hangout sessions for more in-depth conversations. (J. Johnson, personal communication, March 2013)

Getting Started in Summer

To use Twitter to build your coaching capacity, first set up your own Twitter account. Then browse for like-minded educators (or communities like #educoach) to follow by searching for keywords that reflect your interests. (See ".") The website TeachThought has a guide for teachers that gives a great explanation of how to use Twitter hashtags in education.
Establish your own Twitter presence by tweeting links to books, blogs, and research related to coaching. Generate your own tweets that provide quick tips and motivation to other coaches. This will encourage people who share your passions to follow you.
Within a PLN, read the conversation, join in, or pose specific questions about coaching plans for next year. If any of your school colleagues are open to learning together during summer, build your collective coaching capacity by joining #educoach together—or create your own online community.
Principals, when you meet with teachers toward summer's end, provide training in using tools like Twitter, Google +, or Wikispaces. Encourage teachers to lead their own professional learning by using such collaborative technology tools.

2. Construct Interactive Data Walls

Instructional coaches play a vital role in coordinating schoolwide data analysis. When coaching positions are eliminated, schools struggle to maintain such systems and to analyze data meaningfully. However, schools can take this opportunity to share responsibility for data analysis among all staff members.
At Williamsport Area High School in Pennsylvania, principals Randy Zangara and Reginald Fatherly are working with teacher leaders to develop interactive data walls. Interactive data walls provide a way to organize individual student data so trends can easily emerge. Administrators and teachers work together to create an individual data card for each student (usually on an index card) and post these where they can see them during data-team meetings.
Each card contains multiple data points, including demographic data, attendance data, disciplinary referrals, standardized test scores, and diagnostics like reading levels. The cards are coded so certain data points can be easily identified. For example, the cards of students with individualized education plans (IEPs) may be coded with an orange dot, making it easy to see at a glance how students with IEPs are progressing in a specific area.
As teachers and administrators organize and examine the data, they notice intersections of data that weren't easily evident in their online data-management tools (such as differences in pass/fail rates among sections or subgroups of learners). Because individual student cards contain multiple data points, it's easy to triangulate data to gain deeper understandings of both an individual student and patterns within and among groups.
Zangara and Fatherly retrieved such data from their districtwide data-management site and reorganized them so each student's data profile was represented on one index card. By incorporating data walls fashioned from these cards into their data-analysis meetings, they could instantly recognize emerging trends. As a team, they drilled down to individual students to try to get at the root causes of these trends. During one meeting, the team identified students who were failing their English language arts class. Deeper analysis revealed more; all the students who were failing that class had only one common characteristic—poverty.
Once they noticed this commonality, team members shifted their focus from purely academic interventions to supports that addressed students' social and emotional needs, such as providing mentors. Fatherly suggested the team might do a book study on Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen (ASCD, 2009). Teachers now had a specific purpose for their professional learning, one directly related to their students' needs.
Williamsport High teachers Melissa Turner, Jessica McMahon, and Velma Santiago found three advantages of data walls over typical electronic data-management files: (1) the co-construction of data walls leads to a deeper understanding and ownership of student data, (2) the tangible qualities allow teachers to collaboratively discover trends that would otherwise go unnoticed, and (3) the discussion of data contributes to a culture of coaching as teachers talk with one another about teaching and learning.

Getting Started in Summer

You may want to host summer book studies to help staff gain a collective understanding of multiple measures of data (using books like Putting FACES on the Data by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan [Corwin, 2009]; The Data Coach's Guide to Improving Learning for All Students by Nancy Love, Katherine Stiles, Susan Mundry, and Kathryn DiRanna [Corwin, 2008]; or Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement by Victoria Bernhardt [Eye on Education, 2004]).
Over the summer, work with teacher leaders who are available to "audit" your student data, identifying the type of data you currently collect and the type that needs to be collected. (We've developed a tool that's a good starting point for this process; see "Student Data Status Checklist.")
Get updated lists of students who'll be attending your school, and, working with your district's data-management system, retrieve as much data as possible on each one from the previous school year. Start planning
  • What student data you'll collect throughout the coming school year.
  • How—and at what points during the year—the data team at your school will retrieve the data.
  • A procedure to keep individual cards updated.
As September approaches and members of your data team are available, meet to decide how you'll construct an actual data wall. Schedule meeting times throughout the year to review and discuss the data wall's contents.

3. Tap Regional Resources

Many state departments of education provide regional technical support to local school districts. In Pennsylvania, these providers are called Intermediate Units. One of us—Christina—is a professional learning coordinator for one of these units. She and a colleague are partnering with their local school districts to create regional supports for coaches and teacher leaders. Together with the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching, her unit holds monthly workshops that help coaches and teacher leaders learn how to provide instructional support to teaching colleagues.
This unit also hosts regional book studies focused on how educators in every role can contribute to a culture of coaching. This summer, they are studying Best Practices of Literacy Leaders: Keys to School Improvement by Rita Bean and Allison Swan Dagen (Guilford Press, 2009) and Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (Teachers College Press, 2012). Both books provide an excellent foundation for coaching without a coach.

Getting Started in Summer

Start by checking into what kinds of technical support your county or region makes available. To find your local technical provider, contact your state's Department of Education. Early in the summer, make a phone call and schedule a face-to-face meeting with the staff member responsible for professional learning. During this initial meeting, share the needs of your district. Ask whether other districts in your region have similar needs or are implementing professional learning strategies that you may want to replicate. Schedule follow-up meetings throughout the summer to continue strengthening your relationship with this staff member and to develop a long-term plan that supports your vision of coaching.
Before you reach out to your local technical provider, consider your district's specific needs regarding coaching and professional development. If you're in the exploratory phase, ask your regional partners to help set up a book study with other local districts, or ask what's been successful in other districts across the region and coordinate site visits to those districts.
If your district has already determined specific strategies, request job-embedded support from regional partners. This might include job-embedded coaching for principals and teacher leaders to build capacity of both individuals and the organization.

4. Use After-School Time

After attending a workshop on demands for close reading under the Common Core standards, Bonnie Bair and Cindy Gelezinsky, 3rd grade teachers from Montoursville School District in Pennsylvania, were eager to try new reading strategies with students. The two realized that Bonnie's after-school program would be the perfect place for one of them to try out a close-reading strategy while the other watched. After the lesson, they would reflect on the practice, make adjustments, and plan for the next session.
After-school programs often have more flexibility, making them the ideal venue for coaching-without-a-coach learning experiences for educators. For instance, Southeast Delco School District in Pennsylvania schedules one of its reading specialists to start later in the school day and work with teachers during the district's after-school program, tutoring struggling students and collaborating with teachers on successful instructional strategies.

Getting Started in Summer

Strategize about where coaching-like activities could fit into after-school programs in your school or district. Build extra time into your after-school schedule and arrange staff schedules so they provide the best opportunities for collaboration similar to coaching. Why not meet with those who coordinate schedules in your school to discuss possible configurations?
You may want to revise your after-school professionals' job descriptions to include specific expectations for teacher-to-teacher coaching (consulting with key workers briefly, if possible).
Summer could be a time to develop protocols to frame after-school coaching conversations. Typically, after-school teachers don't work closely together during the school day so they may not have had opportunities to develop the trusting relationships essential to coaching. Shared protocols for coaching interactions help create a safe coaching environment.
Plan what you'll say to teachers who participate in after-school programs to introduce these new expectations in a positive, transparent way. The Teacher Leader Model Standards are a great resource to begin shifting traditional teaching roles toward teacher leadership.

Supporting Coaching as a Verb

Although we know that all educators can coach, we recognize that not all educators are prepared for—or want to assume—the coaching role. It's essential that anyone serving in a coaching capacity have the skills, understanding, and support to be successful in guiding colleagues. Many districts, with good intentions, delegate coaching responsibilities to educators who don't fully understand their role or who lack necessary skills.
Successful coaches have deep knowledge of the content and grade level in which they're coaching, are excellent teachers of students, and have a solid understanding of how adults learn and change. They have the trust and respect of their colleagues and understand that their role is to empower others. Principals might use the summer to create a needs assessment that measures skills like these, which they can administer to those who take on coaching roles.
Coaching definitely offers professional opportunities that help teachers talk to one another about teaching and learning. Research shows that having such conversations within a trusting environment supports student achievement and that teachers who have high social capital—through multiple interactions among fellow teachers—show higher student achievement than those with low social capital.
To provide coaching without a coach in your school or district, you'll need to build these kinds of coaching conversations into the school culture. Shrinking budgets may take the noun of "coach" away from your situation, but with a little thoughtful planning you can keep the verb "to coach" going strong.
End Notes

1 Leanna, C. (2010). Social capital: The collective component of teacher quality. Voices in Urban Education, 27, 16–23.

Christina Steinbacher-Reed has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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