Instructional Coaches: A Springboard, Not a Scarlet Letter - ASCD
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January 3, 2019

Instructional Coaches: A Springboard, Not a Scarlet Letter

Instructional Strategies

Teaching can often feel like something we do in private. We teach behind closed doors, not knowing what is happening in the classroom next door or down the hall. This element of mystery can lead us to feel as if we are the only struggling teacher in our school. In this culture, asking for help is taboo or worse, a sure sign that you are inexperienced or incapable (a belief that is validated when schools only assign coaches to new teachers or those needing immediate improvement). If a teacher, at any stage of their career, fears that asking for help will make them look incapable, then school culture is the barrier to coaching.

Shifting the Culture at Lincoln High

The truth is that everyone needs a coach. When he felt like he was becoming complacent in his career, author and surgeon Atul Gawande hired a coach. Having another surgeon observe and provide feedback on his work allowed Gawande to continuously grow in his profession. For him, having a coach is the key to becoming truly great at something.

Teachers can relate to the feelings of stagnation Gawande describes. We might begin our careers with plenty of support from a mentor and perhaps even an instructional coach. But after a year or two, those supports disappear. Experience continues to drive our growth until, inevitably, we hit a plateau. Just like expert surgeons, teachers need coaches to get better every year.

So, how can schools pull back the curtain on teaching and turn it into a team sport, complete with a coach for every teacher? At my school, Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, we are attempting to answer exactly that question. We are lucky to have a cohort of three instructional coaches for our staff of around 160 teachers and we are working to implement an action plan as a group.

Spotlight Strengths

The first step to creating a culture that accepts coaching for all teachers—new and veteran, struggling and thriving alike—is to take an affirmative approach. Acknowledge the strengths of the teachers within the building and use those strengths as a starting point. We asked teachers to self-report their own strengths and the strengths of their colleagues. What are you good at in the classroom? What is your hallway neighbor or lunch partner good at? This not only gives coaches a glimpse at what they are working with, it also gives teachers a chance to positively recognize other teachers. Acknowledging that the building is full of capable and competent educators goes a long way in shifting the culture toward accepting coaching.

Team Up for Growth

Once a collection of strengths has been identified, now you can focus on weaknesses. Where would you like to improve? Many schools and districts already require some level of goal setting at the beginning of each school year. If possible, administrators and instructional coaches can work together to organize goals by theme or intended outcome. Then, coaches can plan learning sessions, group observations, and book studies based on the themes and intentionally invite teachers who are working toward those goals. Not only will this cast the coaching net to a broader pool, but it also can lead to responsive professional development on a larger scale. When coaches provide support in the self-identified areas for growth, we honor the expertise of the teacher and position ourselves as a springboard for growth rather than a scarlet letter.

Be Flexible

Finally, part of every school leaders' responsibility in building staff capacity includes making coaching accessible. Teachers already have an enormous amount of responsibilities. As a coach, I frequently hear that teachers do not have time for one more meeting. As a coach and a teacher who has received coaching, I know the value of the partnership. However, if a teacher feels that it is a burden, then it is a burden until proven otherwise. Coaches can lighten the load by allowing teachers to set the terms at the beginning of your coaching relationship. When, where, and how often will you meet? Will you observe in person or on videotape? Coaches should be prepared to provide options and compromise.

Spread the Word

When the vocal teacher leaders within a staff have a positive experience with coaching, they will become your greatest asset as they spread the word that coaching works, it is worth the time, and everyone needs a coach. At Lincoln High, we've seen our culture shift toward coaching in many ways. We've been particularly successful with our professional learning community (PLC) learning walks. New and veteran teachers who are working toward common instructional goals join together to visit teachers who have identified this goal as one of their teaching strengths. The instructional coaches in our building act as tour guides and facilitators as our teachers observe model classrooms, discuss methods, and reflect on their learning together. This process was slow to start, but as teachers share what they have gained from PLC learning walks, the practice is becoming popular across our building. Teachers feel honored to share their strengths and are more willing to be vulnerable as they work with colleagues to grow in targeted areas. Our culture of coaching is spreading.

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