One of the most powerful ways to get better at anything is to work with a coach. I’ve frequently quoted Atul Gawande, who has written that, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Please note carefully what Dr. Gawande says: coaching “done well” has great potential. Coaching done poorly, however, might not make a lick of difference. Indeed, poor coaching could make things worse not better.
What Coaches Need to Know and Do
We have identified five essential domains (knowledge and skills) that need to be in place for instructional coaches to succeed. When any of the five domains is missing, a coach’s chances for success are significantly diminished.
1. Teaching Practices. Instructional coaches share proven practices with teachers to help teachers meet student-focused goals. For example, Lea Molzcan, an instructional coach I described in High-Impact Instruction (2013), collaborated with a teacher to help her learn how to teach clear behavioral expectations to reduce non-instructional time (e.g. students settling down to learn at the start of class, passing out papers, engaging in small conversations before working, transitioning between activities, getting ready to leave class before the end of the lesson and so forth). Non-instructional time in the teacher’s classroom went from an average of 10 minutes to 2 minutes each day. Over 172 days 8 minutes added up to the equivalent of 5 weeks more instruction.
To be effective, instructional coaches who help teachers meet goals will need a deep knowledge of a small, comprehensive set of high-leverage teaching practices they can use to help teachers succeed. I describe such an instructional framework in my book High-Impact Instruction .
2. Coaching Process. For the past six years, we have used design research to intensively study and refine the way coaches work with teachers. We have found that coaches must know how to guide teachers to (a) identify student-focused goals, (b) identify high-impact teaching practices that will enable teachers to hit the goals, (c) ensure teachers understand those practices by describing them (often using checklists) and modeling them so teachers can see them in practice, and (d) help teachers make adjustments and monitor progress toward those goals until the goals are met. The most recent description of this research is included in Focus On Teaching.
3. Working with Adults. Coaches can know a lot about teaching, but if they don’t know how to work with adults, they may struggle to succeed. Our research suggests coaches need to understand how complex it is for one adult to help another, and we have studied and validated a partnership approach coaches can take with adults which positions teachers as equal partners in all coaching conversations. My most comprehensive description of the complexities of helping and the partnership approach is included in Unmistakable Impact.
4. Communication Skills. Coaching is relational, and coaches need to know how to build relationships that make it possible for them to speak the truth so it will be heard by collaborating teachers. In particular, coaches need to be good listeners, ask good questions, build emotional connections, find common ground, build trust, and redirect destructive interactions. These skills are described in Instructional Coaching and Unmistakable Impact.
5. Leadership Skills. We have found that the coaches who lead change successfully must have two attributes. First, they must be deeply respectful and responsive to the teachers with whom they collaborate, adjusting their approach depending on the personality and needs of each teacher and his/her students. Second, they must be assertive, leading change in an organized, ambitious forceful manner. These skills are described in Instructional Coaching.
Support for Coaching Coaches
I’ve created a Coaching Coaches toolkit, and you will be able to download it on our website early next week. If you want more, you can read about my workshop on coaching coaches here. Next one is August 7 & 8.
I am so grateful to every educator who is returning to school these days to do the good work of helping students learn to read and write, to love learning, to dream, to learn how to achieve dreams. And I know the kind of commitment that goes into that good work. To change the future one day at a time, one child at a time requires tremendous energy and commitment. As I’ve written in other columns, to teach is to do the same noble work of so many other great people committed to a brighter future.
So it may seem strange to some that I write today to suggest that each of you be cautious as you commit your life to your work. The work is so important and beautiful, truly. But the work cannot be your life.
For several years now I have been deeply committed to the same goal that many of you are committed to: every child receives excellent instruction, every day in every class. And I am still committed to that goal. But what I have realized these past few weeks is that as passionately as I hold to that goal, I cannot let that goal dominate my life. My life, that is my wife, my children, family and friends, is my life. My work, as important as it might be, can never be more important than them.
A while back I wrote a friend a letter about addiction, and I wrote that I’m sure alcohol in moderation is fine, but when you drink so much that drunkeness becomes your reality, and reality seems unreal, then you know you need to stop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I know that work had become my addiction. Work was more real than my real life. Fortunately, my eyes have opened, and my family and friends are back at the heart of my life where they belong.
I know I am not the only person who has been addicted to work, and I’m not here to judge others especially since I know exactly how they feel. But I can say this. Putting the people that matter most to me at the center of my life is probably the best thing I have ever done.
Our students need committed, passionate educators. But our families need us too. We need to keep them at the heart of our lives. In truth, chances are we never will achieve our goals if we try to do them on our own anyway.
Today on gallup.com, results of a survey conducted by Shane Lopez and Preety Sidhu show that new teachers are amongst the most engaged employees when they start their careers, with 35.1% of new teachers reporting they are engaged by their work. I’m not sure that 35.1% engagement is cause for celebration. The data still show that many teachers are not engaged. Additionally, the data reveal that although teachers start out with the highest level of engagement, 35.1%, engagement dramatically drops to 27.9% for teachers with 3 – 5 years experience. After a few years, most teachers report that they are not engaged.
Why is that? What is it that is leading to such low levels of engagement? The data again are informative. Lopez and Sidhu’s survey results also show that teachers are the least likely of all occupations to say, “at work my opinions seem to count.” Think about that. Teachers are less likely to think their opinion counts than service workers, repair workers, bus drivers, construction workers, or in fact, any category of employee.
And do you think teachers are on verge of getting more voice in their professional learning? My worry is they are not. With the roll out of common core, which often involves a small team developing a curriculum and then imposing it on the rest of the staff, there is a danger that teachers will have even less voice (even though your child’s teacher already thinks her opinion counts less than does the barista who sold you a coffee today).
What would it mean if teachers were more engaged? What if, instead of 27.9% engagement, teachers were 80% engaged? What would it mean for our children and for this country?
We can give teachers a voice in what they do and we should. Maybe we should spend less time telling our teachers what to do and more time listening to what they think. After all, our teachers, the people who spend every day with our kids, know a lot about students. Certainly, it is worth taking a hard look at our schools and asking, can we do a better job of giving teachers an authentic voice in their own learning?
Given the opportunity to speak at the Learning Forward Summer Conference, I asked myself, what would be the message I would consider most important to share with a large audience of educational leaders? I decided that I should make my case that autonomy and accountability are both an important part of professional learning.
In my opinion, professional development that “holds teachers accountable” but doesn’t respect teachers as professionals and recognize their need for autonomy will not succeed. At the same time, professional development that honors teacher professionalism and autonomy but is not accountable will not succeed. Effective professional development requires autonomy and accountability. To understand what this means, we need to answer two simple questions.
What is Autonomy?
For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to answer this question. For me, when we respect teacher autonomy, we see teachers as full partners in their learning. I’ve written about partnership principles that describe what such a partnership might look like.
You can download a research article about the partnership approach here
You can read more about the partnership principles and how they apply to presenting here
Voice: If leaders and professional developers are going to honor teachers as professionals, then that begins with the simple notion that educators should have a say in what they do. Professional development that ignores the voices of teachers is dehumanizing. However, when we seek out the truth and encourage others to speak, we engage in mutually humanizing professional learning. Mr. Rogers is a great example of a person who truly wants other people to speak up and share their voice.
When professional development ignores teachers’ voices, it treats them like cogs in a machine, not people with knowledge, minds, and hearts. Also, when leaders do not encourage teachers to speak up, they cut themselves off from the very people who spend most of their time with students, who in most cases know the most about students.
Equality: The principle of equality is foundational to democracy, perhaps most clearly articulated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech, when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
Equality is about more than equal access and equity, though these are certainly important. Equality is about seeing others as of equal value to ourselves, seeing that others count as much as we do, and not seeing ourselves as better than others.
This is critical for leading change. Edgar Schein in Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, argues that people are always judging whether or not they get the status they deserve, and when they don’t, people resist help. Schein writes:
All human relationships are about status positioning and what sociologists call “situational proprieties.” It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how high or low it might be, and we want to do what is situationally appropriate. We are either trying to get ahead or stay even, and we measure all interactions by how much we have lost or gained.
During interactions, Schein explains, leaders can take on the role of being a parent and put other adults in the role of being a child, or they can see interactions as an adult to adult conversation. If leaders see themselves as parents, to the professionals in their school or system, they usually engender resistance.
Choice: If I see teachers as equals, then I don’t make choices for them. But choice is a nuanced principle for many reasons.
Second, choice does not mean that there are no non-negotiables. In any organization dedicated to public service, there are going to be some things that have to happen. The challenge is to respect teacher autonomy and clarify non-negotiables.
Third, as Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar have explained, too many choices is no better than no choice. Sheena Iyengar gave a famous Ted Talk where she explains her research on the topic:
Reflection: Choice is essential for reflection, of course because if I just have to do what I’m told, I don’t get to do much thinking. Reflection is largely about thinking about how I will do something. Thomas Davenport in his book Thinking For a Living provides a second important reason for encouraging reflection. Davenport used surveys and interviews to study knowledge workers, people like teachers, who think for a living. He found that the defining characteristic of knowledge workers is a need for autonomy. Knowledge workers are paid to reflect, and when someone else does the thinking for them, knowledge workers resist. Davenport writes
Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.
Dialogue: Dialogue is the natural mode of discourse for partners. During dialogue, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to engage in a mutually humanizing conversation in which we use words to think together.
For me, accountability means only conducting professional learning that makes meaningful, significant improvements. When educators are accountable, their professional learning has an unmistakable impact on student learning. In this way, educators are accountable to the process and especially accountable to children, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching. Furthermore, at the individual or school level, accountability is a genuine commitment to learning and growth on the part of every educator, a recognition that to have learning students, we need learning teachers, coaches, and administrators who are also learning.
Robert Fritz has explained in The Path of Least Resistance about growth coming from a creative tension between a clear picture of current reality and a goal. Peter Senge nicely summarized Fritz’s ideas in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline
The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call creative tension: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.
Current Reality: Getting a clear picture of reality is not that easy. We misunderstand our personal reality because of habituation, confirmation bias, our inherent desire to feel competent, and other reasons. (One study, for example, found that 93% of US drivers judge themselves above average). For these reasons, real change begins with getting a clear picture of reality. This can be done in many ways.
Video recording your class: Learning Forward members can read an article about video and professional learning here
Looking at student work: Rigorously analyzing student work can also provide a clear picture of reality.
Setting a Goal: Effective goals are objective (that is you’ll be certain you have hit the goal when you hit it), measurable, and based on student learning (e.g. results on formative assessments), behavior (e.g. number of disruptions), or attitude (number of students who write about reading in their journals). A good book summarizing the power of goals is Heath & Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
Instructional Coaching: One way to combine autonomy and accountability is through instructional coaching.
You can read a column about goal setting and instructional coaching here
You can download a study of the impact of instructional coaching here
You can download an article describing what instructional coaches do here
Creating An Impact School: Another way to combine autonomy and accountability is to create an impact school.
You can download a presentation on the creating an impact school from Learning Forward 2012 here:
To sum up, teachers want to make a difference, and when their autonomy is respected and they are given the tools to make a difference, they will. Teachers like Michael Covarrubias recognize that they are the ones that can ultimately have a profound impact on students:
You can see my full conversation with Michael on The Teaching Channel
This is a column I wrote for a different blog a few years back.
I recently received an email asking a great question: ”Where can I find good Thinking Prompts for my math class?” Thinking Prompts, in case you don’t know, are provocative objects we share with students to create lively conversations in the classroom. In fact you can download a mini-manual for Thinking Prompts at this link, and read about and download other mini-coaching manuals at the Big Four Ning.
Coincidently, the day I received that email, I was talking about the very same topic with Laura Parn, an instructional coach in Lincoln, NE. Laura was looking for a video to use as a Thinking Device for her elementary students to talk about measurement. What Laura did helped me understand how I could find good Thinking Prompts.
Laura told me she sat at her computer and took a few minutes to think about things students needed to measure and convert to other forms of measurement. She said she wanted something that would be very familiar to her students, and she came up with something simple: pennies. So, she just Googled “pennies” and “video” and a bunch of options came up. In less than a minute, she found a great thinking prompt for a lesson on measurement; you can view it here.
I decided to try out her strategy on a higher-level topic, and I chose statistics. Again, in less than a minute, I found a famous, but great Thinking Device for my topic. You’ve probably seen it before, but watch it again as a way to introduce statistics in a high school algebra class. You can view it here.
So here’s my advice. If you’re looking for video Thinking Prompts, all you have to do is go on You Tube, search for your topic, poke around a bit, and you should be able to find appropriate Thinking Prompts. And if you find any great ones, we’d love to see you post them on the Big Four Ning.
By the way, a simple way to download video from You Tube, if you haven’t tried it out, is Kick You Tube.
You can also find a checklist for evaluating Thinking Prompts from my most recent book, High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching, here.
For all these reasons, I was honored when Dennis asked my to write a guest post for his blog. My column, “Six Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching,” begins as follows:
Instructional coaching has the potential to dramatically improve teaching practice and consequently student learning. But in most cases, a coach’s success is directly connected to how effectively she or he is supported (or not supported) by his or her principal. After working with hundreds of schools where coaches have succeeded and struggled, I’ve found that there are six actions principals can do that will make or break instructional coaching success.
You can read the rest of the column or subscribe to Dennis’s blog here
This is an early version of a section from my forthcoming book coming out at the end of this year.
Using a video camera to learn about your teaching is like looking into a mirror.
–Beth Sanders, Teacher, Birmingham, Alabama
Perhaps the most important reason why video is so useful for professional learning is it helps us see exactly what it looks like when we teach or our students learn. This is important because professionals often do not have a clear picture of what it looks like when they do their work. In our research conversations, teachers and coaches tell us that when they see video recordings of their lessons, they are often amazed at what they see. Often, teachers are pleased to see evidence that their lessons are working. In other cases, teachers are disappointed (and every coach told us that teachers tend to be extremely hard on themselves) by what they see. Often teachers are both pleased and disappointed. Kimberly Nguyen, a teacher in Michigan, watched two different classes she was teaching: her most and least engaged. Kim was surprised to see that she was a different teacher in each room. During our interview, Kim said
What I really noticed was that with the engaged group I am much more animated and I interact more. With the second group I really struggle with my mood and my response time is lower. In that class I think I am really boring.
People, we have learned, often have the same experience as Kimberly: they do not know what it looks like when they teach until they see the video. And, because they are unaware of what it looks like when they teach, educators often do not feel the need to change. They might be open to trying new practices, but they don’t feel compelled to change.
James Prochaska’s research into the personal experience of change provides us with some language for describing and understanding why people are so surprised by what they see in video recordings. Prochaska conducted more than 55 clinical studies of change with more than 1,000 people and concluded that the first stage of change is what he refers to as “precontemplation.” Change begins with people “pre” “contemplating” change, that is, at the start people aren’t even thinking they want to change. Prochaska writes, “G.K. Chesterton might have been describing precontemplators when he said, ‘It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.’” (p.40)
Our work with teachers, coaches, and principals has led us to similar conclusions. When we show videos of lessons to teachers, their response is often that they had no idea that the class looked the way it looked on video. Beth Sanders, a teacher in Alabama, said that watching video puts you inside the situation of your class:
It is much different being in the situation versus being outside the situation looking in. It is really important to me that I am kind of getting the full circle view of my classroom and seeing these are things that matter and these are things that could be better, and things that I can do to hopefully make things better by watching my class.
Watching yourself on video feels similar to the unsettling experience of hearing a recording of your voice for the first time—to the power of ten. There are many reasons why people are precontemplative, why they have so little awareness of what it looks like when they do the work that they do. Three main reasons are the complexity of teaching, habituation, and confirmation bias.
The Complexity of Teaching. Anyone who spends a short period of time in a classroom, will quickly realize one big reason why teachers sometimes have an incomplete understanding of everything that occurs in their classroom: teachers have too much to think about while teaching to also be able to step back and oversee everything happening in their class. In one introduction to teaching, the authors write that “teachers make somewhere between 800 and 1,500 decisions every day” (Kauchak & Eggen in Introduction to Teaching: Becoming a Professional, 2005, Chap. 2, p. 55). Teachers must think about delivering material, monitoring student learning and behavior, setting up activities, maintaining engagement, all while keeping an eye on the clock, and so for most of us, it is extremely difficult to step back and take in everything that is happening in the class while teaching.
Habituation. A second reason why many professionals struggle to get a clear picture of reality is a phenomenon psychologists refer to as habituation, the fact that we lose our sensitivity to just about anything we experience repeatedly. Through habituation we can become desensitized to any experience, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. This means that what at one time would have been impossible not to see can eventually become practically invisible.
When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences. First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work, how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college. Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students. Teachers can also getting a much better understanding of how they treat students, becoming more aware, for example, of the positive ways they encourage students or the negative ways they let emotions interfere with fluent corrections.
Confirmation Bias. Another reason why we may not get a clear picture of reality in the classroom is confirmation bias. In DecisiveHeath and Heath describe that confirmation bias is our natural tendency to seek data that supports our assumptions:
Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief… Researchers have found this result again and again. When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions (Heath & Heath, 2013, p.11).
This tendency to seek out support for our beliefs can keep us from getting a clear picture of reality. Thus, for example, we might take correct answers of four students as evidence that all students are learning, or we might take a students’ failure to learn as evidence that the student lacks motivation rather than a prompt to change teaching.
Our tendency to seek out data that confirms our biases is further increased by the anxiety we feel when we realize students are learning and we don’t know what to do. We might be especially inclined to find proof that we are not at fault if students aren’t learning and we don’t know what to do to turn their learning around. The power of video is that it cuts through habituation, confirmation bias and the complexity of teaching to show a real picture of what is happening.
In instructional coaching the practice of coaching occurs within confidential relationships. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, when coaches deal with what matters to teachers, they are privileged to see and hear information most others will not see and hear. To share that private information with others is a violation of a person’s privacy. Second, coaching is much more productive when collaborating teachers are open about their ideas, thoughts, and fears. For many teachers, knowing that instructional coaching conversations are confidential makes it easier for them to talk about what really matters. Third, when we ensure that instructional coaching is confidential, we increase the chances that teachers will choose to work with a coach.
However, not everything a coach does, can or should be confidential. For example, instructional coaches need to keep principals informed of whom they are working with and what they are working on. Instructional coaches working with the Kansas Coaching Project discriminate between what should and should not be shared by saying that coaches do not share data or evaluative information. We communicate clearly to teachers that instructional coaching is nonjudgmental. Coaches are partners helping teachers learn new practices, not evaluators. Indeed, in most cases instructional coaches have no administrative training on how to evaluate teachers, so it would not be appropriate for them to evaluate teachers anyway.
In some schools confidentiality is not an issue. In especially positive, safe settings, teachers may be more than comfortable having their coach share any information. Indeed, Michael Fullan (2008) identifies transparency as one of his six secrets of change, stating that “when transparency is consistently evident, it creates an aura of ‘positive pressure’ – pressure that is experienced as fair and reasonable, pressure that is actionable in that it points to solutions, and pressure that ultimately is inescapable” (p. 14).
To create settings where such transparency is possible may require baby steps. In a culture where there is not a great deal of trust, confidential instructional coaching can be the default mode, but over time, if teachers agree, more information can be shared. The greater the lack of trust initially, the more important confidentiality usually is. What is most important is that principals and coaches clearly delineate what they will and will not discuss, communicate that policy across the school, act consistently with the policy. Perceived betrayal of trust can severely damage an instructional coaching relationship. For example, when a teacher says something to a coach that she think will be kept privately by the coach, and then discovers that what she said was shared with others, it may be impossible for the coach to ever win back the teacher’s trust.
This is a column from a few years back for another blog:
One of the most frequent comments I hear when I talk with people about school change is that instructional coaches will only be effective if they ensure that teachers implement new practices with fidelity. This is an easily justified goal. If teachers don’t teach innovations with fidelity, the thinking is, they won’t get results. So we need to make sure teachers do it (whatever it might be) the way it is supposed to be done. I think, however, that it is worth while to ask, “what is fidelity” before we totally adopt this way of thinking.
There are some thorny issues that we need to think about with respect to the topic of fidelity. Of course, if instructional coaching is going to be effective, coaches need to partner with teachers to provide the supports that empower teachers to implement new practices in a way that gets results. But we make a big mistake, I think, if we assume this means that teachers must mindlessly follow a script.
Lucy West, who is an author in a book I edited, Coaching: Approaches and Practices, suggests that instructional coaches, rather than encouraging fidelity, which she describes a “dictum to follow a script,” should strive for mindful engagement of the curriculum with teachers.
I agree completely for a number of reasons, but I’ll mention two here. First, asking teachers to implement exactly what a script says, exactly as the script says, treats teachers like workers on an assembly line rather than professionals. This means, I suspect, that an overemphasis on fidelity likely leads to low quality instruction where teachers do every task on a checklist but do not teach with passion, or love, or even in a manner that involves reflection.
The second issue, though, is more troubling. I just don’t think it is likely that a heavy emphasis on fidelity is practically effective. As Thomas Davenport has shown in Thinking For a Living when professionals (whom he calls knowledge workers) such as teachers are not given the opportunity to reflect and think for themselves, they resist change. Simply put: what knowledge workers do is think for a living; if someone else (researchers, administrators, policy makers) does the thinking for teachers, teachers will resist.
Now I’m not saying everything is up for grabs, or that a teacher can say, “OK, this year, no more reading and writing, this year it is all hockey.” That is ridiculous. I’m also not saying instructional coaches shouldn’t worry about high quality implementation, or understanding the teaching practices they share. In fact, I believe just the opposite.
Instructional coaches need to deeply understand the materials they share, and they should be highly skilled at finding precise and easy-to-understand explanations for those practices. However, when they explain, model, observe, and explore data, instructional coaches need to present that information in a way that allows teachers to do the thinking. For example, when explaining teaching practices, instructional coaches can say, “Here’s what the research says. However, do we need to adapt this at all so it will work for you and your students? What do you think about this approach?” 95% of the time, when instructional coaches ask for teachers’ opinions, the teachers say, “let’s do it the way you describe it.” When coaches tell teachers what to do without honoring their thoughts and voices, however, the first thought if not word for the teachers is, “I want to change it.”
There are several key lessons here.
First, instructional coaches have to deeply understand the teaching practices they share.
Second, instructional coaches have to find precise language to describe in easy-to-understand language how a new teaching practice will look in a teacher’s classroom.
Third, rather than telling teachers how to do it (encouraging mindless fidelity) instructioncal coaches should engage teachers in reflective conversations about how they think teaching practices might work in their classrooms (mindful engagement).
By treating teachers like professionals–by letting them do at least some of the thinking–instructional coaches have a much better chance of enabling high-quality teaching and better student learning–and isn’t that the whole point?