By Ellen Eisenberg

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I just spent three wonderful days sharing and learning with instructional coaches, mentors, and other school leaders from across Pennsylvania. We worked together and engaged in professional conversations around building teacher capacity, increasing student engagement, and improving student outcomes. A variety of strategies, instructional practices, and a multitude of ideas about teaching and learning were shared and discussed through the lens of instructional coaching. Colleagues collaborated with each other and reflected on, in, and about practice. Each session was facilitated by practitioners: the coaches and mentors. The collective wisdom of the group was awesome!

One of the things that surfaced during this statewide multi-day professional development was that not one coach, mentor, or other school leader called him/herself an expert. Each person defined his/her presence as being a member in a community of learning and practice, sharing expertise, experiences, and examples of working with their teaching colleagues. Every person felt comfortable and confident; each person understood that being in a safe environment, one that was non-evaluative and risk-free, was the way to practice with his/her coaching colleagues. There was no worry about making mistakes. This is the same climate that must exist when coaches work with their teaching colleagues.

One question that arose while working together was how to define an instructional coach. You know, the 30 second elevator speech that explains what coaches do. My answer… instructional coaches are “agents of change”; their role is to change instructional practice in a collaborative environment. If you need a paragraph explaining what coaches do, try this:
Instructional coaches engage in confidential, non-evaluative conversations with staff members helping them implement effective instructional practices. They work with teachers one-on-one and in small groups to reinforce that what is learned through theory, demonstration, and practice is successfully applied in classrooms. Their work is intentional and deliberate, providing real time support and specific feedback designed to improve practice. They offer differentiated, ongoing job-embedded professional development in a safe environment, focusing on school wide improvement, building teacher capacity, and increasing student engagement.”

How do you describe your role to your colleagues?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Every day, week, and month brings new challenges to the coaching role. Just when we think we “got” it, something else happens to make us doubt just what we are doing and how we are doing it. We read a ton of professional articles, journals, blogs, and tweets; we engage in all kinds of conversations with our colleagues; we design ongoing professional development for our schools; we prepare meeting agendas and materials for our teachers; and we model effective instructional practices so that our teachers will “see” what we are talking about when it comes to building new skills and changing practice. As much as possible, we anticipate the questions and concerns our teaching colleagues might have. What we don’t anticipate is the amount of time it takes for our colleagues to learn something new and feel comfortable implementing those new learnings in ways that make a difference in their instructional practice.

On average, it takes twenty (yes, 20) separate instances of practice for a teacher to master a new skill (Joyce & Showers, 2002). We think by building a teacher’s knowledge base through a “drop-in” or one-time only professional development session, we are giving teachers what they need. That’s the issue… coaches don’t “give” teachers what they need; coaches and teachers work together to build the skills needed and provide continuous support so that they talk about practice through implementation and then talk about the implementation of the practice. It’s not just learning about a new skill; it’s learning a new skill and how that new skill will transform practice. It’s learning the skill, talking about when and how to use the skill, and then reflecting on whether the skill and the implementation were effective in achieving the defined goals. This not only takes time but also support from coaches so that working “side-by-side/shoulder-to-shoulder” helps teachers recognize what new skills are useful, how to deliver those new skills in effective ways, and then change their beliefs so that new practices are not discarded when the practice is not as successful as hoped. (As a teacher, I had a desk drawer full of “bells and whistles” that I had no idea how to use!)

What are some of the ways you share new skills and help teachers change their beliefs in a no-risk environment?