By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I recently heard the tail end of an interview on the radio with Malcolm Gladwell. When asked about his impact on his readers, he said that he liked to “…disrupt their way of thinking.” He continued by saying that he likes to “upend the individual’s understanding of things.”  Interesting… I think that’s just what coaches do… they help move individuals from one level of comfort and understanding to another level of learning. Usually, that next level is not one that fits like an old shoe!

The teachers I meet are passionate about what they do. In fact, I haven’t met a teacher yet who doesn’t want to do a better job of teaching. The truth is that teachers want to influence their students in ways that will make a difference in their lives. However, the conditions under which they teach and the economic times make it difficult to think outside of the box and try innovative things that challenge their students. Teachers are incredibly patient and supportive of their students. They all pursued teaching because they wanted to change the world by making it a better place to live; they wanted their students to reach their full potential and be the next generation of world leaders.

But, is that enough in today’s world? I don’t think so… knowing the curriculum or knowing the core content is just part of the equation. Knowing how to deliver the content to students and drawing connections to real life situations that are meaningful and relevant to students while helping them to take ownership of their own learning is where the power rests. It’s like creating the perfect lesson plan:  the goals are identified, the materials available, the core standards addressed, and appropriate student learning groups designed to meet the diverse needs of the students. Wouldn’t it be great if the teacher could practice the delivery before the actual class to ensure that the goals, assessments, and outcomes were aligned?

That’s the beauty of working with an instructional coach. Through the BDA cycle of consultation, the coach and teacher work together to plan, think aloud, and collectively problem solve so that every student benefits from the non-evaluative scaffolding of collaboration.

Instructional coaching is a courageous endeavor… the good news is that coaches help teachers rethink what they teach in ways that they didn’t know existed previously… the bad news is that with this newfound knowledge comes some unease and tension in trying new things. Coaching disrupts the status quo. It involves professional conversations about teaching and learning; it requires two or more people coming together to discuss learning, student engagement, and teacher capacity. It entails colleagues working together and sharing opinions, insights, feedback, and a fair amount of self-reflection. It means that the individuals must think about their own thinking and make some deliberate decisions about what they do, why they do “it,” and how they do “it.”

Very often, teachers are either falsely competitive or work in isolation. What I mean is that in certain situations, teachers compete with each other for being the “best” teacher in x grade or they close their doors and work completely isolated from their colleagues. Either way, the results are the same… no opportunities to spread the learning, share the expertise, or broadcast the wealth of experience that no doubt lives in each professional learning community.

Instructional coaches shift thinking and change action by creating environments that are conducive to discourse and ongoing communication. They engage in deliberate and intentional conversations that result in professional growth. After all, talking about one’s practice surely invites reflection and innovation.  Coaches re-ignite the passion for learning by reinforcing the notion that it’s okay to ask questions about teaching and learning; what’s not okay is to do nothing about what one learns.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coaches, indeed, have a very special role. They are not classroom peers nor are they administrators. They have one “foot” in each world, however, as they work with teachers in non-evaluative ways and work with administrators to help them understand that they are in a community of learners and must not expect coaches to breach confidentiality about their work with teachers.

Coaches need a variety of expertise… they need to have a skill set that is responsive and directive at the same time; they need to understand strategic planning and have a “game” plan for getting work accomplished; they must also be familiar with resources and tools that help shape the coaching relationship and support learning at all levels.
When asking several coaches to identify the most critical attributes for successful coaching, these five qualities emerged as high level necessities: ability to build trusting relationships, model great listening skills, “look” with a non-judgmental eye; ask meaningful questions, and create an environment conducive for relevant and specific feedback. All of these characteristics come with one important thing missing… EGO!

The coaches with whom I work have positioned themselves in ways that are supportive and collaborative with teachers and administrators. They are clear about their coaching roles and share that understanding with the staff they support. They acknowledge that this is not a “who’s right” situation. They follow the teacher’s lead when appropriate and know when to nag where necessary. They recognize that addressing individual learning needs is just as important as program fidelity or results oriented coaching. They try to be as responsive as possible, being flexible and understanding in constructing relationships that are developmental. They differentiate their support and offer “side-by-side” encouragement so that teachers can collectively problem-solve and engage in critical thinking so that changes in instruction, practice, and student learning are the expected outcomes. At the same time, they realize that some conversations are more challenging than others.

Effective instructional coaches do not “tell” teachers what to change; they regularly meet with teachers both individually and in small groups to be part of the process for change. The co-plan, co-facilitate, co-teach, and then debrief about practice. They talk about instruction in ways that build their own capacity for learning which ultimately transforms practice. 

This transformative practice works well when administrators and coaches “partner” together in ways that are non-evaluative, community oriented, participatory for all teachers (coaching is not a deficit model), and collaborative. The goals and process are transparent as are the outcomes. As coaches have explicitly stated: we help our teaching colleagues set goals and a purpose for teaching a lesson/unit/concept; we listen and collaborate as they identify strategies and techniques for effective instructional delivery; we ask some probing and clarifying questions to ensure that the content, instruction, assessment, and outcomes are aligned; we “pat and push” when we have to guide them in a different direction; we share their in-class experiences in non-evaluative ways; and we help them become reflective practitioners and recognize both the strengths and areas of need in classroom practices. Coaches listen more than talk and do not need to share everything they know about a particular idea. Coaches start and end each day asking, “What am I doing as a coach to help teachers change and improve their practice? What am I doing as a coach to help teachers improve student engagement and outcomes?” This is truly the coaches’ mantra!