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March 1, 2018

A Coach for Every Teacher

To improve instructional practices and student outcomes, every teacher—no matter their experience level—deserves a coach.

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Professional Learning
Instructional Strategies

Chris Bosserman wasn't a new teacher by any means when he stepped into his science classroom at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kansas. He had 14 years of experience teaching biology and chemistry but had left the classroom for seven years to work in the animal health industry. When he returned to teaching this past fall, he realized things weren't quite the same.

"Almost a decade had passed, and there were changes in how students behave, how standards are approached, and how technology is used. What we did then doesn't necessarily work today," he says. "I quickly discovered that I am more of a novice than an experienced teacher."

District leaders hadn't made the same assessment. Seeing the experience on his résumé, they determined he wasn't a "new" teacher and therefore didn't assign him to an instructional coach. When one of his school's coaches, Cheryl Wright, delivered the news, he asked if she would work with him outside of the district's formal program.

Wright gladly agreed. Since then, she has observed Bosserman's classroom, noting what is going well and asking questions that have prompted Bosserman to identify areas of potential growth. She has also helped him understand the district's scale for tracking student achievement.

"She has helped me transform my old-school teaching style into something more contemporary," he notes.

Framing for Growth, Not Deficit

Many districts like Bosserman's focus their coaching efforts on new and struggling teachers, often by making coaching mandatory for these educators. To be certain, these teachers benefit greatly from coaching. But in limiting the scope of their coaching offerings, districts miss out on growth opportunities for a considerable portion of the teaching workforce, including experienced teachers.

That's a mistake, says Elena Aguilar. "This traditional model of coaching is flawed. It comes from a place of seeing deficit," she explains. As a result, working with a coach is stigmatized as a fault instead of celebrated as an opportunity. Aguilar, who is the author of The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013), provides training to coaches with a different focus: everyone, throughout their whole life, yearns to grow.

She points to examples outside of education in which people work with coaches at all stages of their careers, including professional sports. "The most skilled athlete would never think about giving up his or her coach. Fire your coach? That would mean you're never at the top of your game," she says.

"You deserve to keep learning and growing," adds Aguilar. In her work consulting in schools, Aguilar has seen experienced teachers strive to be at the top of their game by adding rigor to their instruction, gaining cultural competency, or keeping up with changes to curriculum and standards. For some, however, "the idea of continually growing subsides a bit after your first year," she notes, pointing out that their professional learning may be limited to an occasional workshop or conference. This drop-off could be due to several factors, including a lack of district offerings or a teacher's mindset.

From Resistance to Rapport

Of course, being able to ask for help (if coaching is voluntary) or accept help (if it's mandatory) isn't always easy. This may be particularly true of some veteran teachers who have found success with their current practices.

"I don't think teaching is something where you can say, 'Well, I got this down. I don't need to learn anymore,' " says Jim Knight, an instructional coaching expert and research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. "But inherent in the desire to get better, you have to acknowledge that you're not perfect. Because our identity is so tightly connected with what we do, we struggle with the idea that there's room for improvement."

Knight observes that a veteran teacher's first reaction can be defensiveness, especially to a poorly designed change initiative or a deficit-minded coaching system. "Whether they're 6 or 68, tell someone they have to do something, and they're not going to want to do it."

Knight believes that successful coaching relationships begin when coaches ask teachers to choose a goal that matters to them—a problem that keeps them up at night. "The starting point with coaching is to find a goal that's emotionally compelling." For instance, Knight has worked with teachers who struggle with students who are "strategically compliant, but emotionally unengaged." They simply follow the rules, but aren't excited about learning.

Aguilar suggests that coaches invite teachers into the process, being sure to initiate the conversation from a place of compassion and curiosity. After she makes clear that her role as a coach is nonevaluative, she segues into a conversation that focuses on building a relationship. She'll say, "I really want to start with learning more about you and how you got into teaching. I'd love to hear a story from one of your years of teaching about a connection you had with a kid." Then, she listens.

"Maybe it doesn't happen the first time. Maybe it's the third or fifth or 17th time. But if you express genuine concern, they will become receptive to who you are and what you're doing there," she says.

This kind of rapport is the foundation for any coaching relationship, no matter the teacher's experience level. "A coach is somebody who is along with you for the journey—who facilitates your growth and gives you space to think and reflect," Aguilar says. "It's someone who asks good questions and does a lot of deep listening because so often what we need is somebody who will hold a listening space for us."

Honoring Teachers' Expertise

Once a coach and teacher have established trust and rapport, the instructional work can begin. The coach should see the teacher as the expert, the one who knows his or her students and content area best. "A coach should look at the teacher and think, 'This person has all the knowledge and wisdom. My job is to help them connect with that,' " says Aguilar.

Jessica Johnson, principal of Dodgeland Elementary School in Juneau, Wisconsin, coaches her teachers routinely. Even though her school has two designated coaches, Johnson believes it's important to contribute to her teachers' practice in this manner, especially as a former coach herself. She makes sure to wear two separate "hats"—one when she's coaching as a guide and one as a principal when she's evaluating performance. "I explicitly tell teachers when I'm operating with a coaching hat," she says.

Johnson delivers feedback in a way that sets teachers up as experts and, in doing so, strengthens their abilities to reflect on their practice. In one case, Johnson was coaching a veteran teacher who was using a game-like format to review content with his class. The students were arranged in groups, but when she took note of participation, Johnson noticed that the game required only one student from each group to do the bulk of the thinking.

At the end of the lesson, Johnson didn't simply tell the teacher that all students needed to participate. Instead, she asked what he noticed about student participation. On reflection, the teacher had also realized that most of the students were inactive while one group member did the work. Johnson and the teacher then talked about ways to revise the game format for greater engagement. "Usually teachers end up saying the same thing I'm thinking. But when it's their idea, it's more meaningful to them than me telling them what to try," she notes.

Johnson takes this reflective approach with all her teachers, including the all-stars in her ranks. "Sometimes it's easy to think my best teachers don't need me in their rooms," she says. "But if you want to grow your other teachers to be like your best teachers, you need to get into the minds of your best teachers."

When skilled teachers approach her to ask for coaching feedback, it may be because they have recently changed grade levels or because they're looking for help with differentiation, technology integration, or coteaching.

After observing their classrooms, Johnson taps into their expertise by asking, "Why did you make that decision? Why did you do it that way?"

"Some of my best teachers don't reflect [on their practice] because it comes naturally to them," she says. In addition to gleaning takeaways from their reflections to share with other teachers, Johnson finds that it builds her skilled teachers' abilities to think more deeply about their craft. It's a win-win for the whole staff.

A Culture of Coaching

One of the most effective ways to get teachers to embrace coaching is to establish a culture that values the practice. It takes a team effort: a school district can devote resources to hiring coaches, a principal can carve out time and space for coaching to take place, coaches can reach out to teachers, and teachers can open their classroom doors to coaches.

Arpi Lajinian serves in a hybrid role as an instructional coach and math teacher at Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan in New Jersey. The district assigns an instructional coach to teachers who are in their first, second, and third years with the district, no matter how many years they taught in other systems. Among other supports, Lajinian works with teachers through a six-session coaching cycle each year.

The program allows coaches to establish a working relationship with teachers over the course of those three years. After that, teachers can seek out a coach whenever they'd like a fresh set of eyes to observe their classroom or a space to discuss ideas. Now in its third year, the program is still a work in progress, but Lajinian hopes it will gain momentum. "We don't want teachers to see coaching as a box that needs to be checked. The end goal is for us to create a culture of everyone working with an instructional coach," she says. "Coaching is for us to go from good to great. It's celebrating what's good and trying to make it even better."

Beyond full-scale programs, there are small steps that instructional coaches can take to invite teachers to reach out. Lajinian makes herself visible by spending time in the faculty room and math department office. In meetings with colleagues, she mentions her own vulnerabilities to remind fellow educators that she, too, is a continual learner.

Cheryl Wright, the Kansas City coach who works with Bosserman, has her office in a high-traffic area. She promotes an open-door policy and keeps a jar stocked with candy. She also has a spot for teachers to leave notes for her if she's not in. "Once teachers start to get to know you, they'll come by, call, send an email, or even text you on the weekend," she says. "The disposition of many coaches is to be approachable."

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