by Elena Aguilar
Last spring, a major study suggested that putting literacy coaches in schools can help boost students’ reading skills by as much as 32 percent over three years. This four-year, nationwide research project affirmed what many of us who have been coached—or who are coaches—know: Instructional coaching works.
Or rather, it can work if the conditions are right.
Six years ago, I began coaching at the school where I was then teaching. I coached and taught for three years, and then became a full-time instructional coach at another middle school. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned about instructional coaching, with the hope that these insights might be helpful to those who have recently become coaches or who are considering doing so.
An alternate title for this piece could be, "If Only I Had Known."
Basically the author, an instructional coach states:
Coaching is really, really hard. Most coaches receive no preparation: It’s still rare to find classes to take or credentials to pursue, and not much is written about the practice. I’ve seen many strong teachers plucked out of classrooms and catapulted into coaching; but an effective teacher of children isn’t automatically effective at leading adults through learning.
Coaches need training and on-going professional development. There is so much a coach needs to know: how to observe instruction, give feedback to teachers, model and debrief lessons, facilitate meetings, and present information. Coaches also need to know a lot about how adults learn and they need to be exceptional communicators.
The "why" for coaching must be made very clear by the principal. Coaching should be presented by the principal as an "effectiveness builder," not a deficit-filler. A coach’s work should be aligned with the school’s goals, and also needs to be shaped by the teacher—from what he/she wants support around. But it’s critical that the principal articulates why a coach was hired, what the coach is supposed to do, and how teachers are expected to work with the coach. When the "why" for coaching is vague, the coach’s impact will be limited.
The "what" of coaching also needs articulation. A coach’s roles and responsibilities need to be created (or co-created with the administration) and then shared with teachers and staff members. If not, coaches are likely to be asked, "What exactly do you do?" and then asked to make photocopies, sub for absent teachers, put up bulletin boards, and so on.
The reality in under-resourced schools is that coaches are often used in many ways. We may pull students for intervention or diagnostic testing, gather and analyze data, compile resources for parents, or even put up bulletin boards. But it is imperative that when a coach is working individually with a teacher that there be a clear definition of what that work is and that everyone understands when "coaching" is taking place.
So what is coaching? Essentially, coaching is a process that can move a person from where he is to where he wants to be. A coach needs to "enroll" a teacher—get him brought into the process. A teacher has to want it. This must be said because coaching cannot be mandated (principals may need to be reminded of this at times).
Coaching is about listening.
Effective coaches aren’t over-directive.
"Without trust there can be no coaching," write Rafael Echeverría and Julio Olalla in The Art of Ontological Coaching. While this is undeniable, it also presents a tricky conundrum that must be addressed. A principal may see the coach as part of and accountable to the administration. Yet in order for coaching to be effective, teachers need to be able to completely trust a coach and know that what is said and observed will not be repeated to the principal.
Coaching can be transformative. I coach because I want to see massive improvements in the outcomes and experiences for children in our schools. As a classroom teacher, I could influence 50 kids a year. As a coach, working with teachers, my work has impacted hundreds of students. Now, I also coach principals. I like thinking about the numbers, knowing that I can possibly change the lives of thousands of students for the better.
I’m starting to see the impact of my coaching, and I would dare to say that in some instances it has been transformative. Our education system is deeply flawed and seriously broken in places, but it is fixable. In order to repair it, we need to pay attention to every part and every person. Coaching is a way to heal and transform our public schools.
Elena Aguilar has taught elementary, middle, and high school, and is currently a School Improvement Coach in the Oakland Unified School District. Her recent articles for Education Week Teacher include, "How Teachers Can Build Emotional Resilience" and "Teaching Secrets: First Days in the Elementary Classroom."
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