Secret Lessons and Common Pitfalls from a Former Instructional Coach
With an influx of ESSER funds, many districts are choosing to invest in instructional coach positions. That’s not just a recent trend. From 2000 to 2015, the number of coaches in school districts doubled. It makes sense - multiple research studies point to strong evidence for increased quality of instruction and improvements in student achievement as a result of instructional coaching. In fact, a meta-analysis of 60 randomized controlled trials that looked at students’ standardized tests scores and teacher instructional practices found that coaching had a greater impact than most school-based interventions (e.g., pre-service training, student incentives, merit-based pay, generic professional development, data-driven instruction, and extended learning time).
That said, adding positions alone isn’t enough to make this a worthwhile investment. As a former instructional coach and school leader myself, I know that there are lots of ways we can fail our teams and our students with these positions
I moved into an instructional coach position after three years in the classroom. Yep, cue the eye roll from any and all veteran teachers I encountered. Sure, I had good results - my students performed well above district averages on standardized tests, I was a “Teacher of the Year,” and I thought creatively about authentic assessments in my classroom - but what made me a strong teacher didn’t necessarily make me a good coach. I loved planning professional development and was energized in conversations with teachers who had a similar style of teaching to mine, but I struggled to identify how best to support teachers who approached instruction differently. Being an effective instructional coach is about more than just being a good teacher. I needed to learn how to identify the shifts that would make the most difference in each classroom. And I needed to do it without seeming like a condescending know-it-all, because frankly, I knew a lot less than the teacher team I was hired to coach.
Still early in this coaching journey, a teacher on my team asked me to go for a walk around the track. We hadn’t hit it off in terms of a working relationship. He was an excellent teacher, had some of the highest test scores in the district, and his classroom culture was that perfect mix of joy and accountability. He didn’t mind me coming into his room per se, but he cancelled any post-observation meeting we were supposed to have. I didn’t know how to work with him. Should I lean into my positional authority and tell him regular observation and feedback conversations with me were part of campus compliance? The pressing issue for this teacher was about more than just roles. He said, “I was here before you got here, and I’ll be here after you leave.” He had this feeling like I was not in my role for the “right” reasons; maybe he feared I would leave my role within a few years; whatever the case, he wasn’t ready to open up to an honest conversation about his teaching. What I came to realize is that instructional coaching is more than just classroom experience and instructional expertise, coaching is dependent on relationships -- and this teacher and I didn’t have this critical foundation. The truth is that we must invest in these relationships early and often, and create spaces for vulnerability, in order to unlock the potential for professional growth.
Instructional coaching can work. The meta-analysis referenced earlier determined the quality of teachers’ instruction improves by as much or even more than the difference in effectiveness between a new teacher and one with five to 10 years of experience. Moreover, student performance improved with instructional coaching regardless of how many years of experience the teacher had. So our question isn’t to hire instructional coaches or not, but rather, how might we support and develop instructional coaches so that teachers and students can truly benefit from coaching?
At Education Elements we believe instructional coaching is about more than just pedagogical expertise and relationship building - it also requires joy. Teachers' experiences with a coach should lift them out of their day-to-day grind and help them see things differently, in a way that’s enjoyable for both coach and teacher. We believe we should take what we know about personalization and data-driven decision-making to ensure there’s accountability and tailored support in the coaching process. Finally, we know time is precious. Support for instructional coaches needs to align with our current reality by being easily accessible and bite-sized.
As we all begin the 2021-2022 school year, how will your district ensure you don’t repeat the failures of this former instructional coach? We’d love to hear from you — join us for an informal coffee chat on Thursday, September 16th about strengthening instructional coaching.
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About Courtney Flanders
Courtney Flanders is an Associate Partner, working with districts and their school teams to implement meaningful changes in sustainable ways. She taught high school English in both traditional and projects-based-learning classrooms before moving into school leadership where she co-founded a personalized learning high school. She earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism and Political Science from Syracuse University and an M.Ed in Urban Leadership from Southern Methodist University. Courtney is a native New Yorker and currently lives in Texas with her husband, son, and their two dogs.