By Ellen Eisenberg

By Ellen Eisenberg, Executive Director of The Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

In the April issue of ASCD K-12 Leadership Brief (, author Marlene Chism shares some insights about preventing the pitfalls when coaching employees. While our instructional coaches are not coaching employees per se, they are working with their teaching colleagues in non-evaluative ways to help grow professional practice. At the same time, the coaches are enhancing their own coaching skills and addressing adult learning that influences student performance.

Ms. Chism suggests four common errors that must be avoided when working with colleagues: sending negative messages, lacking clear expectations, confusing goals, and permitting diversions to intrude on intentional discussions.

Again, these are directed towards employers and employees yet they resonant in my own thinking about coaches and teachers who collaborate to ensure they are communicating a shared vision and collective mission for school wide improvement. Coaching is deliberate and purposeful. And, coaches must use their time with colleagues in calculated ways. Teachers have limited time to engage in the BDA cycle of consultation; make every minute count! Be positive, explicit, forward thinking, and focused.  

What “errors” have you encountered that might be added to these four?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Motivation is a tricky thing. We know that motivation is goal driven and shapes outcomes. And, as teachers, we focus a great deal (or should) on how to motivate our students. How much time, however, do we spend on thinking about what drives the adults with whom we work, helping them move their practice forward so that our students can grow?

While both conditions and issues exist in schools that cannot always be addressed by instructional coaches, the collective problem-solving around those conditions and issues is incredibly beneficial and speaks to the power of collaboration and critical thinking. I think the key here is that coaches and teachers must work together to identify those issues and conditions and jointly plan ways to prompt changes that make a difference in the lives of their students. Venting only goes so far.

But, before that happens, coaches and their teaching colleagues must engage in ongoing conversations to talk about the differences between conditions and issues and what learning means to them. Those conversations evolve into talking about how students learn and what both the teachers and their students need to make learning meaningful. Coaches need to get to the heart of what activates behavior. This type of conversation helps the coach understand what motivates the teacher; they need to talk about the “M” word – that which motivates a teacher to go from “good to great” – to know the kind of coaching approach that will help move practice forward.

For instance, coaches can’t change job security or the influx of a diverse population into a district. They can, however, talk about how teachers can strengthen their professional practice to help them address the influx of new students or how improving their skills might influence their marketability. They can engage in conversations about how to make their work more interesting and more relevant to their students. I’m embarrassed to say that there were times in my own teaching career that I spent far too much time on some things and not enough on others simply because I liked certain content more and I was motivated, one way or another, to use that as my barometer.

A teacher’s own motivation will have an impact on those discussions. As a coach, yours will as well.

What motivates you in your coaching role? How do you motivate others?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ever been in a situation where you were torn between what your answer should be to preserve the integrity of the position and the expected answer that might benefit the very stakeholders you pledged to support?

Coaching is messy and this is but one example of how messy it can get. Take for example a coach working in a very small school where there is a principal, director of curriculum, a few coordinators, an instructional coach, and a part-time librarian. The district support is limited because of size and the coach has the perceived flexibility to move around and provide an extra pair of hands wherever and whenever needed. Sound familiar?

The story continues… a trip is scheduled and the classroom parent is unable to attend. Ask the coach… s/he doesn’t need coverage; RtII intervention is needed and there is no district personnel available who can support the process… ask the coach to participate; the testing cycle begins and there is no school team to collaborate and fulfill the needs… the coach is tasked with organizing, administering, and completing the testing process; the principal is scheduled to participate in a monthly workshop out of town throughout the school year… ask the coach to step in and provide support in the principal’s absence. You get the picture…

A coach may wear many hats to support his/her teaching colleagues. But one hat must be taken off the table… that of administrator. That’s why coaches are not supervisory by role or administrative by need. They must maintain the sanctity of a confidential instructional coaching partnership with colleagues.

The administrator’s role is both managerial and governance; neither is a hat for coaches to wear. But, when asked, how does a coach politely thank the principal for his/her confidence and support while declining the offer to be “Principal for the Day?” We could be like Nike and “Just Say No” but we know that answer is not what the administrator expects. The school needs someone to step into that role; now what?

For starters, the coach and leadership team must meet regularly to discuss how instructional coaching helps the school accomplish its schoolwide goals for improvement. The coach cannot devote time to working with colleagues if s/he is pulled away to do other things. Believe it or not, this provides consistency in practice and expectations which benefits the coaching model in the school. There are other ways to address this and I’d love to hear from others how they have confronted this issue.

What kind of situations have you experienced that blurs the line between fulfilling a school need and maintaining integrity to the job?

Friday, March 3, 2017

I just read a blog entry from The Golden Age of Education written by Lee Araoz entitled, “Instructional Coaches Make a Huge Impact.” In this blog post, he calls instructional coaches, “unsung heroes of the education profession.” That’s a great “shout out” to instructional coaches everywhere.

He mentions that coaches (or TOSAs) provide many things but specifically includes the following roles:
• Provide job-embedded professional development.
• Model and demonstrate highly-effective best practices.
• Offer non-evaluative, objective feedback on a regular basis. 
• Create an environment where student needs drive professional development.
• Offer guidance and feedback at the exact time teachers need it most – in the classroom.
• Inspire teachers to try new learning strategies and tools.
• Facilitate the transition from teacher-centered to learner-driven classrooms.
• Are site-based teacher leaders who support both students and their teachers.
• Collaborate with teachers in order to engage students in innovative ways.
• Help to close the digital use divide by ensuring that all students understand how to use technology to create content.

I agree with most of what Lee suggests but a few things concern me: yes, instructional coaches offer guidance and feedback but not directly in the classroom. The outcomes of the guidance and feedback are visible in the classroom but the actual support occurs through the ongoing conversations about practice. That happens in the before and after conversations. The during time is a place where data collection occurs, something that is discussed and agreed upon in the before. The conversations encourage teachers to become very reflective practitioners!

The other thing that worries me is supporting both students and their teachers. From our perspective, coaches do not work directly with students; coaches work to support student learning through their teachers and effective instructional practices. Sure, occasionally, coaches work with student groups in classrooms where the lesson design needs those helping hands but practice doesn’t change when coaches work with students. Practice changes when coaches work with their teaching colleagues in non-evaluative ways and where feedback is a “give and take” process. And, it’s both the student needs and teacher needs that should drive professional learning support. Teachers need to know how to help teachers support student learning.  

Do you have any experiences to share about teachers who believe that coaches should lend a helping hand in the classroom more regularly than engaging in conversations about practice?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The start of the “testing” season will soon be upon us and we all know what that means. Coaches will be “tasked” to be the leaders of the testing brigade. But that’s the issue, isn’t it… coaches will be the testing coordinators, distributors, administrators, make-up facilitators, and test collectors because after all, they don’t have their own classes.

I urge you to be the coordinator… not of the testing process, but of the collective process that should occur in a school. There needs to be a testing committee that shares in the process. Each school has a librarian, a counselor, administrators, maybe a coordinator or two, and other support staff who can all take an active role in the testing community. If we believe that the whole community is impacted by testing, then we should involve the whole community in the testing process. Some schools, in fact, have parent committees who also offer a helping hand in the process. (These schools offer a “training” session to help acquaint parent volunteers with the process.) Each school is part of a district. I wonder if there are a few district folks who can lend a helping hand as well.

To the extent that you can, please try and organize a community effort as we approach the critical testing period. If a coach is the only one facilitating the process, think of all the missed opportunities for that coach to work with his/her teaching colleagues while the administrative work for testing occurs. Can we really, in all good conscience, suspend all our coaching efforts to administer a test that can be easily shared among several members in our communities of learning?

What is the testing process that your school/district employs? Is there room for change?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

In a Huffpost Business blog I recently read, blogger Faisal Hoque mentioned that “…Leaders fail when they cannot connect with people” and that “leaders who can inspire others but are detached from the messy process of managing others fail.”

Instructional coaches are skilled in establishing solid working relationships based on a shared understanding and a mutual respect for teaching and learning. They work with their teaching colleagues to ensure that building teacher capacity, increasing student engagement, and improving student outcomes are the keys to successful implementation of the school wide improvement process. They recognize that developing trusting relationships designed to foster growth removes the stigma of failure and the threat of a negative evaluation. They understand how to navigate the issues that influence student learning and create opportunities for collaboration, collective problem-solving, and transparent communication.

So, how do coaches “connect with others”?  They personalize the interactions with their teaching 
colleagues. They ask questions; they don’t give answers. They encourage thinking out of the box with an emphasis on limitless thinking. They help shape the thought process to be exploratory and interpretive rather than convergent. They focus on discussing multiple perspectives and varied approaches to problems of practice. They do all of this with an added bonus… they recognize the strengths and expertise of their teaching colleagues! They work through the classroom challenges with their colleagues, share the ups and downs, and offer the side-by-side, non-evaluative elbow-to-elbow support. They listen.

What are some of the ways your coaching interactions help you connect with your colleagues?

Monday, January 16, 2017

We just came back from our multi-day, statewide professional learning conference with about 200 participants. They were energized, ready to share, and empowered to learn. They were passionate about instructional coaching and helping teachers reach their fullest potential. They were “stoked” as they collaborated on ways to increase student engagement and teacher commitment.

Coaches, mentors, administrators, and other school leaders engaged in a variety of breakout sessions designed around the components of effective instructional coaching. Conversations were rich as participants reflected on how they help teachers move along the continuum of instructional coaching and strengthen their school, classroom, and individual instructional practices.

What never ceases to amaze me is the depth to which coaches connect with each other to talk about promising teacher practices and share their innermost thoughts about their own practices. These very skilled and knowledgeable coaches wanted to talk to like-minded practitioners with whom they could collectively problem-solve and share a common language.

One of the many things shared was the recurring theme that effective coaching happens once strong relationships are established. Yes, we want our coaches to engage in the before, during, and after cycle of consultation (BDA) but that only happens when the relationship is ready for those deep, reflective conversations to take place. Not every teacher is ready to bare his or her “teaching soul” at the same time. This is not a requirement but rather a goal that can be realized through a time sensitive series of conversations designed to be probing and not invasive, reflective and not dismissive, expressive and not trivial.

Take your time and build strong relationships. Nag and nurture with a pat and push to keep yours and your teaching colleagues’ practices moving forward.

How do you know when your teaching colleagues are ready for deep conversations that influence student learning?