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June 1, 2016

The Many Roles of an Instructional Coach

Instructional coaches, in their varied functions, can be valuable change agents in school. Here's how to make the most of this vital resource.

Professional Learning
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Many of the teachers who decide to leave education possess vast stores of knowledge regarding the science of teaching. Whether they're veterans or newer teachers, when they leave, some of their knowledge inevitably leaves with them.

But some teachers, instead of leaving, are finding new and professionally satisfying pathways within the education system, a move that's helping to redefine the teaching profession. As teachers put their extensive knowledge to use in these positions, they can become effective change agents for their schools and districts.

One pathway of interest is that of instructional coach. This position is defined differently from location to location—and that's its biggest challenge and greatest asset. Attempts to standardize the position can undermine its effectiveness. After all, a teacher leader who is granted contracted time to think beyond the position of teacher or to consider an issue in a different light than an administrator can customize solutions for a school, a district, and its students.

The Functions of an Instructional Coach

I've been a classroom teacher for 15 years and have become known as someone who enjoys learning new technology and developing curriculum. As a result, I've found myself as an unofficial point person for other educators who are curious about implementing alternative strategies. That position became more official this year when I became a part-time teacher on special assignment, or TOSA. I spend part of my day in the classroom and the other part brainstorming with teachers, modeling lessons, curating resources to share with departments, and developing customized curriculum for individual students or special units. In other words, I've become an instructional coach.

Now, although I've been permitted to mold this position to the needs of my school site, it's frankly difficult to pinpoint one particular definition of an instructional coach. As the following examples show, coaches' functions are as varied as the students and teachers they serve.

Mentoring

Typically, instructional coaches are there to help teachers who have been asked to seek advice on their practice or who are looking to challenge themselves by learning new strategies. Teachers generally ask me to model a lesson using new educational technology techniques, such as Kahoot! or Google Forms, or they might ask for help in developing a project-based learning (PBL) unit that folds in their upcoming topic of study.

For instance, when a language arts teacher asked for help in developing a PBL unit, I guided her as her students sponsored a 5K run to benefit a charity. Over the course of the unit, students completed tasks such as writing business letters to sponsors, making a registration website, and creating a budget. I helped the teacher develop the curriculum, pacing guides, and informal assessments. I also worked with small groups of students while she worked with other groups. I was a sounding board and an accessible peer. I never could have given her that level of support if I didn't have the hours embedded in my schedule.

In addition, my classroom is set up differently than other learning environments so that teachers can try a more 360-degree model of teaching before adjusting their own classroom layout. In particular, I use all of the walls in my classroom and don't have a front of the room, per se. My students and I can move furniture with ease, and there's no assigned seating chart. Teachers bring their classes into my room so they can co-teach with me or watch me implement a tool that they're hesitant about using. This kind of modeling goes a long way in creating enthusiasm for less traditional methods of teaching.

Running Professional Development

Many instructional coaches organize or conduct the professional development in their school or district, whether through faculty meetings, lunchtime learning sessions, or smaller department presentations. Coaches can help teams analyze data. They can hear firsthand about specific students' needs and then tailor activities or suggest resources to meet those needs. When a colleague feels clean out of options (and let's face it, we all feel that way sometimes), a coach can help customize solutions. This avoids having to bring in outside advisors who may not fully understand the school's needs.

Researching and Curating

My day as an instructional coach is often spent learning innovative instructional practices like gamification or familiarizing myself with such newly adopted technologies as 3D printers so I can advise other teachers interested in bringing these strategies or tools into their classrooms.

Some instructional coaches serve as lead curators. Curating has become a vital skill for educators, and coaches can serve an important purpose in weeding through the jungle of resources and suggesting supplemental material for every subject matter.

For example, I use MailChimp to send out newsletters with useful information and resources to departments—in one case I used a newsletter to recommend ways to integrate art into the curriculum. Also, through Weebly, I've created a simple website of resources for both teachers and parents. It contains everything from videos and articles about raising middle schoolers to enrichment and remediation activities. The website has been slowly growing throughout the school year, and both teachers and parents have been sending me more resources to add.

Publicizing

Other coaches spend some of their time helping create their school's or district's positive online footprint. This takes thinking like a publicist; it's a proactive action that helps both student enrollment and school morale. By setting up or maintaining the school Twitter feed or Instagram account, instructional coaches can play a vital role in ensuring that the public knows the great things happening on the campus and in the classrooms.

By virtue of the fact that instructional coaches work with many teachers, they have a lot of insight into the daily victories that occur in all classrooms. An administrator might not know that an amazing culminating project in Room 2 is coming up, but an instructional coach may have been privy to the planning of the unit. He or she would know that photos need to be taken and tweeted for all to see.

Being a Change Agent

Another way instructional coaches are changing the landscape of learning is by collaborating with other instructional coaches. Consider the San Gabriel Valley Instructional Coaches Consortium in California's Arcadia Unified School District. This group of coaches formed a coalition to better support one another as they define and implement this vital position.

Lorie Felippa, an Arcadia teacher on special assignment, shared some insights into how this position can strengthen schools and districts.

Lorie is a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year and now a district instructional coach. Lorie believes that instructional coaches serve teachers in a way that administrators cannot. She explains,

TOSAs don't evaluate teachers. We're teachers just like them. Through a partnership based on trust and respect, my role is to offer support and encouragement to help teachers reach their fullest potential, thus having an impact on student achievement. Teachers can be more vulnerable with TOSAs about challenges they face with curriculum, instructional strategies, classroom management, and so on. TOSAs can model best practices in a way that teachers can relate to, rather than in a more formal way by an administrator.

Some Advice for Administrators

Having someone on your side—someone in the trenches—helps create a tighter community of instructors, and this inevitably trickles down to the learners themselves.

Administrators play an important role in helping this relationship develop. Lorie encourages administrators to invite teachers on special assignment to present at site faculty meetings or conduct after-school mini-professional development sessions based on site needs and interests. This way, administrators can honor the "teachers teaching teachers" model of lifelong learning.

Lorie points out that administrators can have a huge impact on student learning by providing release time during the day, along with a substitute to lead their classes, for teachers looking to collaborate with a TOSA. A simple half-day of grade-level collaboration with a moderating TOSA can go a long way toward improving instruction. Lorie encourages administrators to give the team time to work on special projects or curriculum planning to develop an engaging and rigorous unit of study that can have a long-term effect on student learning.

Instructional coaches can only be change agents when they have the support of their administration.

Some Advice for Instructional Coaches

For those of you who are already serving your school or district as an instructional coach, here are 10 pointers to make the most of your position:

1. Reach out to teachers equitably, but don't be surprised if some don't respond. Keep reaching out to all, but feed the hungry. Don't take offense if not everyone is receptive.

2. Help identify the strengths that all individuals bring to a staff. Help administrators recognize that every teacher brings something unique. This is vital to the morale of the school and district and might also help teachers of all styles become more receptive to your support.

3. Encourage teachers to leverage their strengths into leadership roles, providing multiple opportunities for many different kinds of teachers. Think about how to bring in a wide variety of teachers' voices to the professional development you design. Encourage teachers to seek help from another educator at their own site who is strong in a particular strategy or tool.

4. Be consistent in how and when to share information. An audience is built through consistency. If you're publishing a newsletter of resources, do it on a reliable timeline, be it monthly or weekly. If you're offering a rotation of lunchtime learning sessions from school site to school site, make sure there's consistency in the dates you're set to be at a given site—the first Wednesday of the month at this site, the second Tuesday of the month at that site, and so on.

5. Think outside the box to research and implement more innovative, yet research-based, practices. Help district innovation "trickle up."

6. Take some items off teachers' plates to help them make room for others. If you're asking teachers to try a new tool that might take time to learn, offer to teach their toughest period for a day and give them extra preparation time. This will encourage teachers' willingness to learn.

7. Structure your role. Keep accountable for time spent. In an Edutopia article,1 José Vilson writes,

If your administrator assigns you the role of teacher leader, you can only hope that you got a list of responsibilities from the outset. If not, this step makes sense: define your role. … Teacher leaders often burn out (sometimes in flames!) when they're unclear about their roles or didn't start with an understanding of what their role entailed. In the worst scenarios, teacher leaders get asked to take on the roles of other administrators. … Know your role. Identify your strengths. Work within those, and people will respond accordingly.

8. Learn how to approach others. Check out resources that help you improve your ability to support others. Look at books like The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever, 2 which advises coaches to ask questions about people's struggles, such as, What's the real challenge here for you? How can I help? If you're saying "yes" to this, what are you saying "no" to? What was most useful to you?

9. Keep learning. Model learning. Enjoy learning.

10. Share everything.

A Vital Resource

Instructional coaches are unique stakeholders in today's schools. They don't abandon their role of teacher. On the contrary, they celebrate teachers by embracing all the elements of the profession and sharing their learning with others. Instructional coaches are a vital but underused resource in increasing student success. By supporting and empowering them, schools can jumpstart real improvement.

End Notes

1 Vilson, J. (2013, August 7). What teacher leadership looks like for the new school year. Edutopia.

2 Stanier, M. B. (2016). The coaching habit: Say less, askmore, and change the way you lead forever. Toronto, ON: Box of Crayons Press.

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