By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017


I just had an interesting “end-of-year” conversation with a 2nd year coach from a middle school outside of Pennsylvania. She called to ask me about the gradual release of responsibility and what that meant to her role as a coach. She had two questions: 1) if I encourage teachers to teach without me modeling, what will I do for them; and 2) if they don’t need my anymore, won’t I move myself out of a job?

First things first… I asked her to define instructional coaching and her understanding of the instructional coach’s role. Then I asked her to make three columns: 1) how does she regularly engage with teachers; what are the administrator’s expectations of an effective instructional coaching model; and what do the teachers understand about instructional coaching? From there, we moved onto what each column has in common, where do the expectations align with the realities, and what does she spend the majority of her time doing.

I’m simplifying the conversation but you get the gist… by asking some important questions, the coach began to realize that what she thought she should do and what the teachers and administrator thought she should do were really not in sync. In fact, she realized that the teachers expected her to model without the benefit of the “before” and the “after” and the administrators expected her to raise student standardized test scores even though the tests were summative and by the time she saw those results, the students would no longer be with the same teachers.

So, the question was really not about the gradual release of responsibility but rather about sharing a vision and implementing an effective instructional coaching model that focused on school wide improvement and addressed teacher needs so student learning could be impacted.

Ask the right questions and the answers are so revealing.

As a coach, how do you ensure that the questions asked are really the questions that should be asked?

Monday, June 5, 2017

In the May 23, 2017 ASCD K-12 Leadership Brief, an interesting article from the Harvard Business Review titled, “What to consider before taking on extra work” discusses decision making and three important questions to help you commit to something new: What is my motivation? Does it align with my values? And, do I have a choice?

These questions sound so easy to answer yet there really is no simple answer to these in the roles assumed by instructional coaches and their mentors. In fact, I marvel at the amount of juggling it takes for a mentor to balance the role as an instructional mentor and “life” in their respective intermediate units. And, I think the same struggle exists with teachers and coaches in their buildings. There is a challenge to saying, “Yes” as well as to saying, “No!”

One of the things for which I was recently reminded is to think about the time it takes to complete a task well and to be deliberate in deciding what is a “must” and what is “nice” to do. I have trouble with that… I think I have time for everything when, in fact, that’s further from the truth than I’d like to admit.

Some folks don’t want to disappoint anyone or create the image that they might not be able to finish a task. And, if they feel like their job is dependent upon agreeing to complete tasks, that’s another story. I have also learned that we always “go to the well” when we want something done and have faith that the people we ask won’t say no.

So, what to do? I think setting goals from the beginning and sharing those goals with staff who may be requesting the tasks is a start. I also think bringing others “into the fold” and collaborating with staff can also be incredibly helpful. Two heads are better than one and that removes the pressure that it’s all on one person. That’s what we call the “team approach!”

Food for thought as you are reflecting on this year and making plans for next year.  

How do you manage your responsibilities and take on new experiences in your role? What happens if what you are asked to do by your supervisor doesn’t align with your values?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A dream has come true… our book about instructional coaching has been published by ASCD. The title is Instructional Coaching in Action: An Integrated Approach That Transforms Thinking, Practice, and Schools (www.ascd.org). What an amazing thing!

So why did we write this book? We wanted to send a message… helping teachers get better at their craft is not something to hide; it’s something to celebrate. We gathered the collective wisdom of a group of instructional coaches, mentors, regional mentor coordinators, and other school leaders to share the thinking about how working with instructional coaches helps to achieve school-wide improvement in a safe environment, builds teacher capacity, and increases student engagement. Each scenario in the book touches those of us involved in education. Who wouldn’t want to help our most precious commodity… our children… in a no-risk environment where innovation, collective problem-solving, collaboration, and transparent communication are valued?

Coaching is not a deficit model. We need to share our message that if musicians, artists, athletes, and even Fortune 500 executives work with coaches to move their practice forward, why shouldn’t education embrace that same philosophy for growth?

So, yes, I am on my soapbox to shout my beliefs about the merits of an effective instructional coaching model. We need instructional coaching to hit the tipping point… we need everyone to talk about how instructional coaching helps teachers and administrators think more deeply about their work and about their collective responsibility for school wide improvement.  

What can you do in your school community to spread the word about how instructional coaching supports teaching and learning?

Friday, May 5, 2017

What an amazing 3-days!

PIIC coaches, IU mentors, administrators, RMCs, and other school leaders just participated in our 3rd multi-day professional learning conference of the year in State College. It was AMAZING!! 18 breakout sessions were offered along with a whole group general session. Participants were engaged, energized, and rejuvenated as they engaged in professional talk with their colleagues from across the state. Talk about incredible karma!

One emerging theme throughout the 3 days was the profound benefit of working with colleagues. The collaboration and shared learning in a safe environment with trusted and experienced colleagues ensured that every participant had a voice, an ear (actually two), and ample opportunities to learn and talk to each other about problems of practice; gain multiple, practical solutions offered by other practitioners; and gained new ideas to add to their inventory of instructional practices.
 
This kind of collaborative learning illustrates Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.” This zone is where learners learn with the help of guidance. Remember, learning is social and our professional learning conferences demonstrates the notion that interacting with other practitioners helps the learner achieve higher levels of learning and retain more of what they learned (Gokhale 1995). Coaches and mentors support and follow up this learning to ensure that what is learned is applied deeply and effectively. These kinds of opportunities for ongoing collaboration facilitated by coaches and mentors create a culture of shared learning that is transformative.

How do you engage in collaborative learning in your school?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


In the April issue of ASCD K-12 Leadership Brief (ascdleaders@smartbrief.com), 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?