Many of us have ventured into secret sharing spaces in our schools. These are the places we go as educators when we don’t quite understand a concept or when the objective of a recent professional development was lost on us. It’s where we go when we aren’t quite sure how to embed the new learning into our practice. I’ve been in professional development and heard myself say, “Ok. Yes, I understand that.” But in private, I might say to a friend, “I don’t have a clue what they want us to do. What in the world were they talking about, and how do I actually do it?” Although asking for help should never be seen as a negative, the culture of the profession screams at us to smile and say, “I’m fine” and then go figure it out. No one wants to admit that they’re the teacher who is still working to improve their practice. However, this is exactly the thing we all need to embrace. We have work to do. We’re working to be better teachers.
But why do teachers sometimes seek growth in private rather than reach out to an instructional coach whose role is to help them to improve their practice? Sometimes teachers lack the trusting relationship with an instructional coach that is absolutely vital to fostering and sustaining good practice. Sometimes talented instructional coaches fail at truly shifting teachers’ practice because they have been given limited time in the school day to work with teachers. And the times I’ve seen instructional coaching have almost no impact on instructional practice were instances in which coaching was used as an evaluative gotcha game or tied solely to negative feedback. It fails when the coach is not skilled at relationship building and facilitating adult learning.
As a teacher, I didn’t always trust that instructional coaches knew what I needed or had the time to help, so I found what I needed either on my own or through colleagues. And while that collaboration was impactful and essential, no teacher should be forced to shift their practice by visiting colleagues’ classrooms after school or by having quick conversations in the hallway or at the copy machine. Therefore, as a coach, I am spurred by my experiences as a teacher to do everything I can to build positive relationships with teachers, the type of relationships that allow me to be a trusted partner in teachers’ instructional growth.
In my work, I keep three principles in mind.
Don’t be a human red pen.
I never want to be a walking red pen on a teacher’s practice. No teacher wants to spend time with anyone who only points out flaws. Even if a teacher needs to do quite a bit of work, I try to highlight the positive things that are happening in the classroom and celebrate those as often as I can. When I need to call attention to instruction that requires improvement, I do so in a way that is respectful and not authoritarian. I share stories of times I struggled as a teacher. I guide them to call attention to the ways they hope to grow, and we start our planning there. Teachers trust coaches who can be fair, balanced, and human in their support.
Being a mere spectator isn’t helpful.
Good data can be gathered by observing a teacher’s practice, but if instructional coaching only consists of observing and then giving feedback and then observing again, a huge opportunity to truly coach is likely being missed. Going into the classroom to teach a segment of a lesson or to co-teach the lesson builds trust with the teacher. Building tools and planning together, reviewing student work, and building student activities as a team builds a partnership. Coaching is not about telling; it is about showing how.
Be careful with reporting
The method we use to document a teacher’s growth or lack thereof is so critical to the coaching relationship. Whether or not the coaching role is evaluative, documentation either for a principal or for the teacher’s reflection should be focused on the plan going forward. Again, balance is key. Documentation should always be used to capture praise and to cement a plan.
Ultimately, good instructional coaches can help shift the culture in the school by being a present partner in the growth that occurs in classrooms. When feedback and observations are paired with effective planning and modeling, teachers are much more willing to take instructional risks that lead to growth for their practice and their students’ learning. They are much more likely to ask a question out loud and welcome the assistance and support of an instructional coach.
Monica Washington is the Director of Inclusive and Responsive Educational Practice and an instructional coach for BetterLesson supporting teachers and education leaders across the country as they make positive shifts in instruction and leadership. A decorated educator of twenty-four years, Monica has received honors and awards from a wide variety of organizations for her leadership, advocacy, and classroom instruction. She is a 2015 Milken Unsung Hero Fellow and a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. In addition to instructional coaching, Monica supports educators through workshops, speaking engagements, and blogging. Monica is passionate about educational equity, and she serves as a Leading Educator Ambassador for Equity for the Education Civil Rights Alliance. Additionally, she serves on the Board of Directors for the National Education Association Foundation and The National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Monica is the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year.