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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. It offers a coaching framework and dozens of tools which can used by a range of educators. The following is from chapter one.

What Can Coaching Do for a School?

There's generally an agreement that educators need more knowledge, skills, practice, and support after they enter the profession. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), calculates that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice -- practice that promotes continuous improvement -- to master a complex skill. This translates into about seven years for those working in schools. The majority of teachers and principals want professional development; they want to improve their craft, be more effective, implement new skills, and see students learn more.

Opinions diverge as to what professional development, (PD) should look like. Traditionally, PD has taken the form of a three-day training, say in August before school starts, and then perhaps a couple of follow-up sessions throughout the year. This kind of PD by itself, which just about every teacher has experienced, rarely results in a significant change in teacher practice and rarely results in increased learning for children. According to a 2009 study on professional development, teachers need close to fifty hours of PD in a given area to improve their skills and their students' learning (Darling-Hammond and others, 2009). While the research on the ineffectiveness of "one-shot" PD continues to pile up, a search is under way for PD that might work...

Coaching is an essential component of an effective professional development program. Coaching can build will, skill, knowledge, and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator. Coaching creates a relationship in which a client feels cared for and is therefore able to access and implement new knowledge. A coach can foster conditions in which deep reflection and learning can take place, where a teacher can take risks to change her practice, where powerful conversations can take place and where growth is recognized and celebrated. Finally, a coach holds a space where healing can take place and where resilient, joyful communities can be built.

When considering hiring a coach, principals often ask the following kinds of questions about the impact of coaching: What does the research say about how coaching can transform a school? Is there a model that is most effective? Is there evidence that coaching will result in increased student achievement?

As coaches, it is our responsibility to know what can be expected. We can't go into schools purporting to raise test scores by 50 percent in the first year. We need to articulate what we might be able to accomplish. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research indicating that coaching can help create the conditions necessary for instructional practices to change and student outcomes to improve. These are valuable data points for coaches to be aware of as they help direct the work we do; our work is not simply about working individually with teachers to improve their practice -- it must extend farther.

To date, the most thorough and comprehensive study on coaching was done in 2004 by the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform. It reports a number of finding which offer powerful validation for coaching. First, the report concludes that effective coaching encourages collaborative, reflective practice. Coaching allows teachers to apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone. Coaching supports teachers to improve their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students and also in their work with each other.

A second finding from the Annenberg report is that effective embedded professional learning promotes positive cultural change. The conditions, behaviors, and practices required by an effective coaching program can affect the culture of a school or system, thus embedding instructional change within broader efforts to improve school-based culture and conditions.

Coaching was also linked to teachers' increase in using data to inform practice. Effective coaching programs respond to particular needs suggested by data, allowing improvement efforts to target issues such as closing achievement gaps and advocating for equity. The Annenberg report found that coaching programs guided by data helped create coherence within a school by focusing on strategic areas of need that were suggested by evidence, rather than by individual and sometimes conflicting opinions.

Another key finding was that coaching promotes the implementation of learning and reciprocal accountability. Coaching is an embedded support that attempts to respond to student and teacher needs in ongoing, consistent, dedicated ways. The likelihood of using new learning and sharing responsibility rises when colleagues, guided by a coach, work together and hold each other accountable for improved teaching and learning.

Finally, the Annenberg report determined that coaching supports collective leadership across a school system. An essential feature of coaching is that it uses the relationships between coaches, principals, and teachers to create the conversation that leads to behavioral, pedagogical, and content knowledge change. Effective coaching distributes leadership and keeps the focus on teaching and learning. This focus promotes the development of leadership skills, professional learning, and support for teachers that target ways to improve student outcomes...

As the field of coaching in schools develops, it is critical that we identify and gather sets of qualitative and quantitative data that can reveal the impact of our work on student learning. We need to track the changes we see in teacher and leader practice and gather evidence that our work is resulting in improved student learning. This can be an exciting and validating effort -- it is these data that help us feel effective and that let us know objectively that we're doing good work. In order to do this, we need to make sure that the scope of our work is defined and narrow, that we're gathering data on how our clients make progress, and that we're articulating these findings.

A highly effective, comprehensive coaching program in a school or district supports coaches to systematically gather a range of evidence to illustrate the impact of coaching on teachers, administrators, and students.

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Hannah Johansson's picture
Hannah Johansson
Parent of 5 year old in Toronto

Very well written article! Coaching is inevitable in the genre of education especially in the kindergarten stage.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Good school coaching is part art, part science. For us at ACSR, it's about matching the need of the school and the need of the teacher with the just-right intervention. (Typically it's not as linear nor as simple as administrators would like to believe.) Overwhelmingly, it's about building relationships between the coach and the teacher, keeping the learner in their zone of proximal development so they can risk, reflect, and learn. It also means modeling the kind of facilitative practice we want to see teachers use with kids- good questions, respectful stances, lots of encouragement, plus rigor and high expectations.

For us, any training (traditional, online or otherwise) without some form of coaching is akin to malpractice. Sustained, job-embedded professional learning is a powerful tool when we can get folks to really engage!

Cindy Gray's picture
Cindy Gray
Currently studying Curriculum & Instruction for Adults

I am a very small part of a large vision for training (internationally) pastors and church leaders. One of the key items we are implementing is a coaching aspect. Key pastors and a few others were chosen to be the first group to be trained as coaches. There is an ongoing training, and a lot of support happens online, via phone, or skype. It is very exciting! As some point I will be able to get training, as this first group are mentors specifically for those called to plant churches and pastor.

I loved this paragraph, which I have made some reflective comments in brackets:

Coaching is an essential component of an effective professional development program. Coaching can build will, skill, knowledge, and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator. [It has taken me many years to see the deep truth here. I have had some coaching at seminary, but what I would hope to be a part of is a larger coaching vision for local churches. This is not just discipleship, but a call to teaching critical thinking skills and deeper reflection.]

Coaching creates a relationship in which a client feels cared for and is therefore able to access and implement new knowledge. A coach can foster conditions in which deep reflection and learning can take place, where a teacher can take risks to change her practice, where powerful conversations can take place and where growth is recognized and celebrated. [I think the point of "where a teacher can take risks to change her practice," was important for me to read. Not that I would never see the need to change, but the importance of coaching having a reciprocal aspect. If coaches move beyond their role, it would be easy for us to slowly get into a place where we are the one with all the answers. For Christians, I don't think it would be a purposeful move, but more subtly.]

Finally, a coach holds a space where healing can take place and where resilient, joyful communities can be built. [I think I like this the best. I am very aware of the need for people to feel safe in an environment, and coaching can help others learn to receive without being perceived as "stupid," for example. The coaching relationship can be a healing one, and so those who are coached may eventually become coaches, and thus, healers. I am looking forward to learning how to coach people, as I see it as an important part of discipleship. I am called to help others grow in their faith, and to learn how to better listen and ask reflective questions will be fantastic!]

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