Effective Coaching by Design - ASCD
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May 1, 2014

Effective Coaching by Design

To engender teacher learning, coaches must help teachers set strategic, differentiated goals—and make every coaching interaction count.

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Christina was a positive, well-intentioned middle school teacher in her third year of practice in an urban school district. She'd made great progress in her first years, but she had a long way to go to build the skill set and knowledge base needed to support her students and manage the demands of the teaching profession. Christina's principal described her as "high-energy, but scattered and inconsistent…. It's hard to get Christina to focus." This teacher's experiences with professional learning reflected her struggles to meet her own worthy ambitions: In the previous year, she'd identified four professional goals and hadn't met any of them.

Coaching made a difference. After a year with a coach, Christina was more focused in her practice, and she had successfully met some of her goals. She grew in a way that made her a more consistently effective middle school educator. Let's look at how coaching made this happen.

A Strategic Beginning

Christina's increased focus started the first day she met with her coach, Jan, to determine their work together for the school year. Christina assumed the conversation would be mostly for getting to know each other and would just touch on her goals. "We only had an hour," she recalled. "By the end of that time, I felt connected to Jan, and we'd identified my professional goals…. I was worried about how much time coaching would take, but Jan moved the conversation and got into the heart of the matter."

It wasn't by chance that in Jan's first conversation with Christina she took pains to focus her and identify specific learning goals; it was by design. As director of a coaching initiative for teachers in Oakland, California, I helped Jan prepare to make this initial talk productive. A meeting with the principal of Christina's school—which we'll call Forest View—to hear his thoughts and concerns about specific teachers helped Jan know what approach to take in fostering professional development for her coachees before she met with them.

Given how little time teachers have in their school lives and the magnitude of the work they have to do, every coaching conversation, observation, and interaction must be strategic about improving teacher practice. The coaching model my coaching team implements in Oakland's struggling public schools is targeted, seeks to shift specific teacher behaviors and beliefs, and emerges from a comprehensive school transformation plan.

To see why Jan was effective in focusing Christina, let's look briefly at a few conditions that must be in place for coaching to succeed and then identify a few steps coaches can take to help teachers focus on high-leverage professional goals.

What's Behind Good Coaching?

Voluntary Engagement in Learning

Coaching looks different in every school, district, or organization. Offering a definition at the outset of a coaching relationship is essential to ensure a shared understanding of roles and expectations. I offer this definition: Coaching is a form of professional development with someone who willingly engages in reflection and learning. I emphasize the word willingly to challenge the notion—accepted by many teachers and administrators—that coaching is a tool for fixing people or enforcing a program.

Coaching is a structure through which we learn, a form of learning available to teachers at any stage in their career—and it should be optional. Adults cannot be mandated to learn. Unfortunately, coaches are sometimes deployed to work with struggling teachers who don't want coaching or to ensure that all teachers in a school follow the requirements of a mandatory "improvement" program. We have a long way to go before those working in schools can safely be vulnerable as learners—but we should keep the vision of coaching as work with someone who willingly engages in learning.

Part of a Plan

Effective coaching, as a strategy for professional learning, doesn't exist in isolation; the strongest coaching programs emerge from comprehensive professional development plans. Coaching is a strategy to deepen a skill set and a knowledge base that a community of educators has committed to learning together.

For example, a district might launch an initiative to build strategies for improving students' speaking and listening skills. A school within that district might offer professional development sessions on how to help students carry on richer academic discussions; that school's science department might explore, through an inquiry cycle, how science students need to approach academic discussions. And considering his or her students' needs, an individual teacher might focus on honing one particular aspect of academic discussions, such as debate structures, for one-on-one coaching.

Coaching that's aligned to a comprehensive professional development plan enables the learner to go deep and wide into a content area, instructional practice, or particular aspect of teaching. And it facilitates alignment between everyone responsible for building a teacher's capacity.

When Christina sat down with Jan to discuss the coming school year, certain parameters had already been established. The faculty had decided to focus intensively on reading across the curriculum for that year. Teachers had attended a week-long summer institute on teaching reading, and each department and grade level had selected annual student achievement goals. In addition, all Forest View teachers were to be evaluated with a new evaluation tool that named a set of high-leverage instructional practices. Site and district leaders had identified several elements of this evaluation tool in which teachers would receive intensive professional development, the assumption being that if teachers were going to be evaluated on certain criteria, they deserved good professional development on those skills.

Essential Coaching Steps

Set Individual Goals

Within these parameters, Jan and Christina needed to focus on a few powerful learning goals. What coaching offers that other professional learning structures often don't is the opportunity for learning to be differentiated and aligned to an individual's needs. Coaching, therefore, can be precise. Our schools are wonderfully diverse places in regards to both the students and the staff. So a differentiated approach is important to building the capacity of teachers and leaders.

With the teacher evaluation rubric and the reading goals for 7th graders in front of them, Jan and Christina followed a process to guide Christina to her professional learning goals. One of the elements of the evaluation rubric that Christina was eager to improve was developing positive relationships between students. She told Jan, "I hold high academic expectations for my students, and I just expect them to get along and treat one another respectfully. Truth is, I have no idea how to help them build those skills."

In their first conversation, Jan and Christina made the connection between students' ability to treat one another kindly and respectfully and their ability to work in small groups using reciprocal teaching strategies. Christina, who was excited about the training she'd had on how reciprocal teaching improves kids' reading, wanted her goal to be improving how she taught reading strategies. Jan helped her recognize that teaching students how to resolve little conflicts in their groups, support one another when someone got stuck, and respectfully disagree with another person's ideas was a necessary first step. Christina said that their dialogue helped her realize that "7th graders don't just know how to do that stuff…. I needed to teach them that so they could use the reciprocal teaching strategies effectively."

This goal around a positive classroom culture was the first of several that Christina and Jan worked on. Christina also wanted to learn to use data to guide her lesson planning and to use formative assessments effectively. She connected all her goals to the school's broad focus on reading. The language of her goals was drawn from the indicators in the teaching evaluation tool (for instance, "I will increase from a Level 1 to a Level 3 on Standard 2.3B, Student-to-Student Interactions, so that students will demonstrate genuine respect, caring, and support for each other's learning under their own initiative and with my support").

An important guideline that coaches and teachers should use to set goals is that the goal be something the coachee has full control over. Although it's essential to work toward a student achievement goal (no instructional goal should be isolated from what students need), many variables contribute to student achievement. The goal must be grounded in an area in which a teacher can increase skills, knowledge, and capacity.

For example, a goal like, "I will raise student achievement by 80 percent" would be a weak professional practice goal. Christina's goal, "I will develop a positive classroom culture by using positive redirects 95 percent of the time," is better. Christina's professional learning goals for the year were tightly connected to student learning goals. This alignment is crucial—it enables a coach to assess the coaching's effect on student achievement and ensures that the teacher recognizes the connection between his or her own practice and students' success.

Coach and teacher must regularly reflect on the teacher's goals, look at the teacher's progress, and plan any adjustments. Sometimes this process reveals that the goal the client identified was too big—or even was the wrong goal.

Take Strategic Actions

Following their initial conversation, Jan drafted a work plan. It articulated the strategic actions Christina would take to meet her goal, actions Jan would take, and actions they'd take together. Developing such a list creates a road map for the coaching journey. The approach coaches on my team use implicitly assumes that a teacher will only reach the desired goals if both coach and educator identify a clear course of action.

Christina and Jan met weekly for one hour. They debriefed lessons Jan had observed, planned lessons together, analyzed student data to determine their next course of action, and viewed video of students meeting in literature circles to look for evidence of good student-to-student interactions. Like all effective coaching duos, they kept at the core of their conversations the reflective process by which a coach guides a coachee to think about her practice and her decisions so that the coachee can determine her next steps. All activities that a coach engages a teacher in are toward that end.

For example, Christina committed to observing a colleague who'd developed protocols for students to use during small-group discussions. With Jan's guidance, Christina watched students refer to sheets that contained sentence stems; noticed the roles students played in their groups (such as facilitator and note taker); and observed how her colleague monitored student learning while allowing students to take charge of their discussions. Inspired, she identified several actions she could take in her classroom.

Christina also chose a book she wanted to read on developing positive classroom communities. Jan previewed this book and identified the highest leverage sections for Christina to read. When they met, Jan offered prompts for reflecting on those sections and, keeping in mind Christina's goals and context, pushed her to commit to implementing certain ideas from the book. This helped Christina focus and emerge from the reading with a few concrete steps she could take.

Jan created a schedule for observations through which she gathered feedback on Christina's progress. She observed Christina for 15–20 minutes almost every week, concentrating on a goal Christina was currently working on. For example, when Christina was focused on her goal around student-to-student interactions, Jan looked for evidence of Christina fostering an environment in which students demonstrated respect, caring, and support for one another's learning. Once Jan heard a student mocking another's reading fluency while Christina stood within earshot. This led to a challenging coaching conversation. Christina had heard the student, but she'd felt uncertain about how to respond. Jan pushed Christina to get in touch with the feelings that were blocking her from taking action, which raised a host of issues related to race and gender. She helped Christina determine what she could do when she heard students disrespecting others.

Mind Your Own Growth

Professional development is also essential for coaches. Just as Christina's professional learning was strategic and designed, our coaching program intentionally plans professional growth for coaches. Professional learning for coaches includes weekly professional learning opportunities, one-on-one coaching, and a critical friends structure through which coaches support one another.

The Pieces and the Whole

A systems-thinking approach—one that looks at the big picture as well as the discrete elements like measurable goals and strategic actions—is the best strategy for implementing this kind of good coaching. Such an approach pushes educators to identify the pieces and people who are connected to a program and to consider how each affects the other. For a coach and teacher to arrive at their goals, good conditions for adult learning must be established, a comprehensive professional development plan must be in use, and coaches' learning needs must matter.

By the end of this school year, Christina had met or exceeded her professional goals. Her students had increased their reading skills greatly. Jan and Christina connected the students' improvement to Christina's efficacy in building student relationships, using reciprocal teaching strategies, and making other explicit instructional changes. Her students' achievement reflected the growth Christina made in her own learning.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).

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