I have been in the instructional coaching game for a few years now. You can hear me talk about it on The School Leader’s Podcast here and with Sarah Cottingham here. During this time, I’ve encountered a number of conventional beliefs about instructional coaching that, frankly, don’t make sense or conflict with what my on-the-ground experience tells me. Inspired by a recent flurry of tweets by Eric Kalenze on this topic, I thought I’d write a post that pushes back on three “articles of faith” of instructional coaching. I might be wrong about these, which is why the comments remain open.
1. Instructional coaching should be more facilitative than directive
This idea, which is drawn from an alliance between adult learning theory and constructivism, starts with the premise that adults are psychologically different than children, and so coaches shouldn’t “tell” teachers how to teach. Instead, we should facilitate reflections that allow teachers to construct their own meaning about how to teach. This sounds lovely, but the drawbacks should be obvious. When someone doesn’t know how to do something, they will benefit from guidance from someone who does. A more productive use of coaching time than “what do you need to work on?” is, “today I want to show you ways to ensure students enter the classroom quietly without bashing into each other.”
However, the main reason I don’t fully buy into the facilitative coaching idea – what Kalenze called “instructional talk therapy” – is that every piece of feedback I’ve gotten from teachers is that they want me to tell them more things, to show them more stuff, to give them more guidance. The more I take a “directive approach” to coaching, the more often I experience gratitude from my colleagues. The opposite is also true: The more I withhold knowledge from teachers by taking a purely “facilitative approach”, the more disillusioned with instructional coaching they seem to become.
2. Instructional coaching should be optional
The idea here is that teachers should be allowed to opt in or out of instructional coaching opportunities. The main reason given is that it’s suspected that teachers will not be as receptive to coaching if it isn’t originally their choice to enter into it. For me, the flaws in this line of reasoning are even more self-evident than the previous one. Teachers do not typically decide whether to attend in-building professional development opportunities, so why should coaching be any different?
Allowing teachers to skip out on coaching is to say that a school’s PD services, which are paid for by taxpayers who expect their money to go towards its intended purpose, can be dismissed on a whim by a government employee. We can go into bargaining agreements and unions and what have you, but at the end of the day the six figure salary that mid-career coaches make in my state should be allocated on the basis of who needs it, not on who prefers it. This is especially important in light of what we know from psychological research, including the Dunning-Kruger Effect; It’s very possible that the teachers who need instructional coaching the most are also the most likely to underestimate their need for instructional coaching.
3. Instructional coaching is more about leadership traits than knowledge about teaching
The field of instructional coaching seems eternally obsessed with generic, all-purpose leadership skills and personality traits. Upon being hired, we’re given a black and white copy of some coaching cycle and told to have emotional intelligence, build relationships, apply a growth mindset, and so on. Our PD tends to look more like one of those self-help seminars from an online pyramid scheme than anything approaching the level of sophistication of researchED. Publications such as the WalkThru books are bright lights in a field of nebulous and impractical advice.
In my view, instructional coaching would benefit from focusing on enhancing the knowledge resources that coaches bring to bear when solving problems in classrooms. A coach who doesn’t know how to, for example, teach a phonics lesson will not know what to look for in a good phonics lesson when it’s time to meet with a low-performing kindergarten teacher. It’s just as unlikely that a coach without knowledge of cognitive science principles will invoke retrieval practice and spacing as solutions for a teacher who has trouble getting his kids to remember the material. While it may sound counterintuitive, getting coaches to focus on how to teach rather than on how to coach seems like a much better bet for schools.
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