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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Instructional coaching works, or rather, it can work when conditions are right. Perhaps because some principals and district leaders have seen the impact that an effective coach can have, a handful of coaching positions still exist in this era of extreme budget cuts.

Recently, I bumped into a teacher friend who was considering applying for a coaching position at a school that I'm familiar with. Our conversation revealed that this teacher held a number of misconceptions about coaching as well as some idealistic notions. When I started coaching teachers seven years ago, I too held many of these misconceptions.

Here are the highlights of what I told this teacher friend hoping to help her make an informed decision about entering the field of coaching:

1. You've got to enjoy working with adults. Many coaches were strong teachers, passionate about their content and dedicated to teaching kids. This is definitely a pre-requisite to being an effective coach. However, coaches must also like (even love!) working with grownups. That's what you do all the time -- work with adults.

2. You've got to enjoy the particular challenges of working with adults. In some ways, grownups are much harder to teach than kids (and you will really miss the kids). You can't entice them with stickers, points, or free time like you could with your students and they don't respond well to consequences -- you can't threaten to take away recess, call home, or give them a low grade. Motivation has to be intrinsic all the time; this is a particular challenge.

3. You have to have an understanding of how adults learn, or be willing to do some reading in this area. Adults learn differently than children, but adult learning theories are not something most of us are ever exposed to. A new coach must acquire some understanding of these theories and approaches otherwise she risks making all kinds of blunders.

4. Coaching is not "easier than teaching." There's a notion floating around that coaching is a break from teaching, that if you're burnt out in the classroom, you become a coach (I heard this for years as a teacher). This is dangerous territory. While coaching does not require managing dozens of little people all day, it brings with it all kinds of additional challenges. On a logistical and somewhat superficial front, most coaches need to be available to meet with teachers before and after school; this can make for a long workday.

Some of the challenges you might tackle include distrust or push-back from teachers, not having clear roles and responsibilities, being assigned mountains of roles and responsibilities, being limited in the impact you can have on student learning, and being expected (by a principal or district leader) to transform teaching and learning at a school. Coaching is a relatively undefined practice that looks different in every situation; coaches need to be able to manage that lack of definition and actively create one for themselves.

5. Coaching can be incredibly rewarding. In spite of all the challenges, coaching a teacher or leader can be incredibly rewarding. If you're interested in the potential of impacting dozens or hundreds of children, then helping a teacher figure out how to reach more of her students is a high-leverage way to do so. Effective coaches can contribute to teacher-retention, building instructional capacity at a site, improving relationships between colleagues, and establishing ways for teachers to collaborate. Beyond those ways of impacting a site, helping a teacher or leader figure out how to manage his/her job better or how to enjoy it more can be very satisfying.

Working as an instruction/literacy coach is an exciting way to engage in improving our public schools, but there's more than what meets the eye. My teacher friend did exactly what I'd recommend anyone do who is considering becoming a coach: find one and ask a million questions.

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Manuel Zimmerman's picture

This is perfectly timely for me! I have been offered a math coaching position next year in the high school where I've been teaching for five years. I'm not sure about it, having many concerns and questions. Your post answered some of them or made me clearer on some. I am not sure about working only with adults! Do you miss the kids? I never really thought about it that way before and I'm not sure how I feel. I also think I have been under the illusion that it would be easier than teaching, but I don't know. I can see how it could be harder actually. Thanks for your post. You've made me think of a dozen more qeustions I have however.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

I spent over 25 years as a high school teacher, but also spent over 20 yrs in a "second" career as a staff developer. I think your advice is invaluable to anyone considering coaching. It's true that teachers can be a great audience - and they can be a very challenging one as well.

A lesson I learned early on is that the majority of teachers want to leave PD with some ideas they can use. With all the demands of teaching (and life) they don't need a "partial assembly required" workshop that will demand more of their time to implement.

There is a widely held view that teaching is somehow a "gift' you were (or were not) born with. I disagree - teaching is a craft that requires on-going training, reflection and collaboration. It should be supported by a training environment that models what we want to see in the classroom.

Your readers might enjoy reading a few of my blog post that approach professional development in a way that honors teachers and builds capacity:

"A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer" http://bit.ly/oRajI

"Teacher-Led Professional Development: Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs" http://bit.ly/3ZvEqT

"Lesson study: Teacher-Led PD that Works" http://bit.ly/94Wvsh

"The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection" http://bit.ly/92kDwc

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