George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Teaching How to Teach: Coaching Tips from a Former Principal

Key lessons center on connecting and modeling.

July 30, 2008

Danfeng Koon's voice is measured and empathetic as she tells me, "I appreciate the positive feedback, but I need you to be more specific and ask reflective questions in order for me to improve my practice." I am a novice principal at a new, small public high school in San Francisco. Before me sits Koon, an excellent math teacher who has left a teaching job in the Bronx to join our start-up.

She continues, "What if you said, 'When I saw you give a warning to Patrick, I noticed that he focused himself for a few minutes but then quickly regressed. What other strategies might you use to keep him on task?' I think that sort of thing might help me more." Balance specific feedback with reflective questions -- it is a lesson I will never forget.

High-quality coaching lies somewhere near the crossroads of good teaching and educational therapy. Done well, coaching can help you sort through your pedagogical baggage, develop or hone new skills, and ultimately find your best teaching self. Done poorly, it might turn you off to the entire notion of support. But what if it's not done at all?

In my six years of teaching English and social studies before becoming a principal, I never received any real coaching. Did I undergo the requisite annual administrator drop-in and evaluation? Of course. But these painfully brief "assessments" of my practice never pushed my thinking or helped me realize my potential.

In my seven years of coaching teachers -- as a mentor, as an administrator, and now as an instructional coach -- I made as many mistakes as I made inroads. Despite stumbling through the process at times, I solidified some core concepts that now shape my practice.

Here are some key lessons I gathered along the way:

Build Relationships and Trust

Like students, teachers need to know and trust you in order to enter willingly into a coaching compact. When we coaches fail to invest time in building relationships, we may unwittingly undermine our best efforts. As a first-year principal, I experimented with several strategies to cultivate trust with my colleagues.

Before the school year began, I met with each teacher one-on-one to ask questions and understand their hopes, fears, and support needs in the upcoming year. By choosing to listen rather than to talk, I conveyed that I saw my primary duty as supporting good teaching.

Throughout the school year, I helped run off-site professional-development retreats, where our founding staff of eight built a sense of community by sharing stories. In June, we used grant funds to rent a beach house for two nights, where we cooked, laughed, and planned the opening of school together.

At another midyear retreat, I hired a masseuse to provide half-hour sessions for the teachers so they could relax and feel pampered. These small gestures helped offset the stress we all inevitably experienced as we launched a new school with few resources. They also gave me a foundation of trust and collegiality with most of the teachers I coached.


Two women sitting next to each other at a desk working on a laptop
Photo credit: Jen Davis Wickens
Lesson Planning: Shane Safir (at right) works with Erin Brandvold, a teacher at the Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, on a genocide project for her World History class.

Help Teachers Plan with the End in Mind

At one of the schools where I coach, a ninth-grade teacher (who requested not to be named) felt overwhelmed and frustrated. With 125 students and a new curriculum, he was drowning in a sea of student work and lesson plans. Our coaching time focused on developing a strategy for the spring semester.

The teacher expressed anxiety about curriculum mapping, noting aloud that it was not how he typically thought or planned. Rather than reject his adapted style, I tried to build off of it. We sat before a whiteboard in his room, pondering the visual cluster of ideas he had drawn with a dry-erase marker. Using this brainstorm as a rich starting point, I helped him to map these ideas into a tight, disciplined curriculum map, which included big ideas, specific learning outcomes, and assessments to measure student understanding.

After a couple of meetings, he had articulated a powerful set of goals for his students and knew how he would measure them. More importantly, he expressed a renewed sense of self-confidence in his ability to plan.

Model Best Practices

Like good teaching, effective coaching often involves the modeling of best practices. Giulio Sorro, a trained history teacher at another school where I coach, was suddenly charged with creating a humanities (English and social studies) curriculum. He knew that he needed to develop his practice of scaffolding -- modeling a learning strategy or task, then gradually shifting responsibility toward the students -- for his reading and writing instruction, but he lacked the training to do so.

As his coach, I sought to model, little by little, some strategies I had learned on the job, such as literacy-building techniques, structuring controversial debates, and charting student discussions on the board for visual impact.

After identifying the literary concepts he wanted students to explore in a complex poem -- imagery and allusion -- we planned a lesson in which he would do a "think-aloud" of the first stanza for students, repeat this process for the second stanza, and stand by them as they practiced their fledgling analytical skills on their own.

Connect Teachers with Resources

As a fourth-year math teacher, Crystal Proctor felt stuck. Despite her best efforts, she knew that her students weren't getting the math on the deep level they needed to. But she wasn't quite sure how to adjust her practice. I arranged for her to visit an excellent math teacher at another school, hoping she might find inspiration.

In our discussion the following week, Crystal said she found the observation helpful because the veteran teacher was so explicit in his teaching. When pushed a step further, she explained that she often took for granted what her students already knew, but watching the other math teacher taught her to break down words and concepts into smaller parts and analogize them to familiar markers in her students' lives.

"For example, yesterday I was talking about how steep an angle is," she shared. "I realized they might not understand the meaning of steep, so I asked them to consider the streets they climbed to reach school and to compare the steepness of various grades. They got it!"

I was reminded that good coaching is not about dynamic coaches serving as heroic educators, but rather stems from the simple habits of connecting teachers to resources and asking them reflective questions.

See Shane Safir's profile for more information about this blogger.

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