How Instructional Coaches Can Help Transform Schools
Going beyond one-on-one coaching
Traditionally, instructional coaches have played a rather narrow role in schools, usually working primarily one-on-one with another teacher. This work is important and coaches can be instrumental in developing the skills of teachers. But, if the conditions are right, coaches can work in several additional ways to support the transformation of a site.
Coaches can bring teams together in healthy ways, they can support teachers to increase their emotional resiliency, and they can facilitate systems change. As sites make their annual decisions about professional development for next year, I thought I'd chime in with another plug for coaching.
We all know it's important to work in teams. We know we can't figure out how to solve the crisis in public schools without collaboration. But how many of us have been a part of a team that has felt useless, dysfunctional, leaderless, or that just didn't fulfill its potential? Working in teams is hard and teams need strong facilitators, people who have been trained specifically on supporting a group of adults to collaborate. This is the role that a coach can play.
In order to effectively support teams, coaches need knowledge about team development, they need to know how to design and facilitate meetings, and they needs skills to manage group dynamics and deal with conflict. The coach also needs to know how to develop the capacity of team members so that at some point they'll be able to take over the facilitation of their work together and the coach can leave. These are not skills that most coaches acquire on their journey into coaching, which usually is a leap straight from the classroom to the coach-hood. But they are extremely high leverage skills to develop and use when working in a coaching capacity.
Coaching for Emotional Resilience
Here's a fact I'm sure no one will argue with: being a teacher or principal is extremely emotionally taxing. It seems like the response to this has always been: go deal with it. Get a therapist. Exercise and sleep more. In other words -- schools (administrators, school boards, policy makers) have felt no responsibility to support those working in the trenches to release some of the emotions that arise in our work; they have allocated no time or structures to allow this to happen. We all know the results of neglecting the emotional health of teachers and principals.
Coaches working with teachers and principals can support this need for emotional release. In my coaching work, I find that a solid chunk of time is always spent giving clients space to process emotions. Until they have had time to talk and sometimes cry, we can't get to the lesson planning, leadership team agenda, or data analysis. That's just the way it is. And yes, sometimes I feel like a therapist, and coaching is not therapy, but it's the reality of how things are in our schools and what educators need. My job as a coach is to meet people where they are and help them move forward. And the road forward is full of emotions, but there's no other way to go -- and a coach can develop skills to move someone down that road and not get stuck in it.
Even more powerful is when a coach can support the client to build emotional resilience. We are always going to face adversity in our work and the odds will seem impossible for a long time; how do we find the confidence and energy to keep working for what we believe in, despite setbacks? A coach can work with an educator to form assessments of the past and current reality that support emotional resilience, a coach can help a client form positive views of the future, connect with his/her personal values, develop a strong sense of personal efficacy, and develop the courage to act on convictions. There are many ways in which a coach guides a client through the emotions that arise to transform them into fuel for our work.
Coaching for Systems Change
The third way in which coaches can impact a school beyond one-on-one coaching is the role they can play in whole school system change. A coach is often uniquely positioned to see the big picture -- the way in which people are working, the impact they're having, the needs of students, teachers and administrators. If they have the skills, coaches can help others see these big pictures and work towards systemic changes. They can support the process of gathering data, information and resources so that changes can be effective. They can use an inquiry process approach to ask questions and explore root causes. Coaches often see the parts and the whole at the same time -- this is essential in systems change.
Clearly, there is much more to say about coaching and the conditions that need to be established for it to be effective. As the field expands and more research is conducted into effective coaching models, I hope that the role of coaches in these three areas of work will be explored. And in the meantime, I hope that those deciding on professional development models will seriously consider what coaching can offer.
For more on coaching, read, "Support Principals; Transform Schools," E. Aguilar, D. Goldwasser and K. Tank-Crestetto