Using instructional coaches effectively

Few responsibilities of a school leader are more important than continuously improving teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Which means that a “fundamental” of leadership is an unrelenting, laser-like focus on the quality of instruction and learning.

But what exactly do effective principals do on a daily basis to improve teaching and learning?

While there is no formula for success, and leaders’ time and energy are limited, good principals effectively use as a “force multiplier” the tools that are available to them to support teachers in their demanding work.

Instructional coaches are one of the most valuable of those tools.

Many school leaders, however, have not been well supported in the effective use of coaches and are uncertain about the best ways they can enable them in their important work.

So in June 2013 I turned to Jim Knight, who knows more about this subject that anyone I know, to write a guest post.

(If you are not already a subscriber to Jim’s Radical Learners blog, I encourage you to be become one.)

Here is what Jim had to say about:

6 Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching has the potential to dramatically improve teaching practice and consequently student learning.  But in most cases, a coach’s success is directly connected to how effectively she or he is supported (or not supported) by his or her principal. After working with hundreds of schools where coaches have succeeded and struggled, I’ve found that there are six actions principals can do that will make or break instructional coaching success.

1. Support the coach.  In any organization, people are keen to do what their boss wants them to do. If principals make it clear that they consider instructional coaching a vital part of their school’s plan for improvement, then teachers will be more inclined to work with the coach.  If the principal is less enthusiastic about instructional coaching, teachers will usually be less enthusiastic.

2. Let the coach coach.  I’ve never met a principal who had too much time on his or her hands. Leading a school always requires more time than is available and every principal must be tempted to hand off some of that work to a coach. But if a coach writes reports, develops plans, oversees assessment, deals with student behavior, does bus and cafeteria duty, substitute teaches, and so on… well there’s no time left for instructional coaching.  The easiest way to increase a coach’s effectiveness is to let the coach coach.

3. Clarify roles. Usually coaches are positioned as peers and not supervisors.  If teachers talk to peers, they will be more forthcoming, usually, than if they talk with a supervisor.  If this is the case, then coaches should not do administrative tasks such as walk-throughs, teacher evaluations, and so forth. If coaches are considered to have an administrative role, they should have the same qualifications and training as any other administrator, and everyone in the school, most especially the coach, needs to know that they have that role.

4. Clarify confidentiality. Again, usually instructional coaching is considered confidential.  Teachers, the thinking is, will be more forthcoming with their thoughts and concerns if they know that the conversation is just between the coach and teacher.  However, what is most important is that principal and coach clarify what will be shared and what won’t be shared.  If teachers say something they think is confidential, and find out it was shared, they may consider it a breach of trust—and nothing is more import for a coach’s success than trust.

5. Make instructional coaching a choice. If teachers are told they must work with a coach, they go into instructional coaching seeing it more as a punishment than an opportunity, and instructional coaching is difficult from the start. It is not a good use of a coach’s time for her to spend the entire conversation trying to talk a teacher into instructional coaching.  I suggest that principals be firm on standards with teachers, but flexible on how teachers hit a goal. Thus a principal might explain that a teacher needs to increase time on task, but just suggest the coach as one of many options, letting the teacher decide how he might want to change.  When instructional coaching is compulsory, teachers often perceive it as a punishment. When instructional coaching is a choice, people often perceive it as a lifeline.

6.  Make it easy for people to be coached.  Certainly most budget issues are beyond a principal’s control, but to the best of their abilities, principals should strive to find funds for released time to free teachers up for instructional coaching. The more difficult it is for people to find time to meet, the more likely instructional coaching will have limited success.  In every way possible, a principal should do everything that can be done to make it easy for coaches and teachers to collaborate.  

What would you add to Jim’s list?

How checklists can improve teaching and leadership

Even under the best of circumstances good teaching is an incredibly complex task which can appear almost effortless to the casual observer.

The intellectual, emotional, interpersonal, and even physical demands of teaching cannot, however, be underestimated.

Therefore, a “fundamental” of leadership is that teachers and principals use whatever tools are at hand to manage those demands. 

Checklists are just such a tool that when effectively used enable teachers to focus their cognitive abilities on the unexpected moment-to-moment changes in the classroom that make teaching an improvisational art.

That is why I’m bringing back an essay from April 2013 on the subject of checklists that also happens to be my most-viewed post.

The power and uses of checklists for teachers and administrators

Checklists are a simple but powerful way to improve individual and group performance. They are declarations of standards that ensure that important tasks are completed.

By routinizing certain procedures, checklists ensure that higher-order mental processes are available for complex, non-routine events, which is why they are regularly used by surgeons and airplane pilots, as well as by those engaged in other demanding occupations.

Physician Atul Gawande makes the case for checklists in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. (An earlier post elaborates on the educational implications of this book and others by Gawande.)

While good checklists are precise, Gawande notes, “They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

Checklists, Gawande adds, “… can help experts remember how to manage a complex process… They can make priorities clear and prompt people to function better as a team.” 

To illustrate the ways in which checklists can improve group functioning, Gawande explains how they can level hierarchy and distribute power in ways that can save patients’ lives when they require surgical team members to introduce themselves before surgery and to state their roles and unique perspectives regarding the procedure. 

Checklists have a number of important applications in school settings:

• Checklists could be used by teachers in preparing lessons, like this checklist for project-based learning.

• Checklists could be used by principals and teacher leaders in preparing for faculty or team meetings based on the ingredients of successful faculty meetings that I offered in this post.

• Checklists could be used to increase influence using the elements contained in the SUCCESS acronym as a guide (see my previous post).

• Checklists could be used in developing both long-range and short-term professional learning plans for schools and school systems. Here are a few things that might be included on such checklists:

___ Focuses on priority areas of student learning based on various sources of evidence, including but not limited to standardized tests;

___ Addresses core tasks of teaching such as the development of engaging student work and using assessments to promote learning;

___ Engages all teachers in learning, not just volunteers;

___ Occurs virtually every day as a routine part of teachers’ collaborative work on high-functioning teams—PLCs, grade level, department, or other structures;

___ Assesses effects of professional learning based on changes in instructional practices and improvements in student learning. 

The acronym CREATE could be used to help planners remember those ingredients: Core tasks of teaching, Results for students, Every day, All teachers, Team-based learning, Evidence-based decision making. 

What additional uses do you see for checklists in educational settings?

Taking a fresh look at the fundamentals…

I started this blog in 2010. 

Since then I have published 452 posts that have produced hundreds of thousands of views and more than 1,500 comments that have enriched and deepened our collective understanding of those topics.

Readers are system and school administrators, teacher leaders, and “retired” educators who often continue to contribute to schools and their communities in a variety of ways. They share a desire for intellectual engagement, contrarian ideas, and a deep concern for the well being of children and public education now and in the future.

Perhaps most of all, they are resilient, at least those I know personally—that is, many have been challenged by and learned important lessons during difficult times and persisted in their work in the face of often daunting obstacles. One way they demonstrate that persistence is reading this and other blogs, among many other activities that stretch their thinking and practice.

Over my career as a teacher leader, school and school system leader, and executive director of NSDC (now Learning Forward) I have worked with thousands of individuals and teams in a variety of settings—among them K-12 schools and system offices, universities, teacher unions, and non-profits.

No matter the setting or decade (or even century), several common leadership themes emerge in that work: 

• establishing trust and productive teamwork in cultures of continuous improvement,

• being persons of integrity, 

• solving complex problems that have no straightforward solutions, 

• influencing colleagues who may not wish to be influenced, and

• engaging others in ways that produce meaningful, sustained professional learning and commitment to long-term purposes and goals.

What are the implications of these experiences and my 452 posts as I think about the future of this blog?

In the course of my work with groups a number of “fundamentals” inevitably arise: planning and conducting effective meetings, having candid conversations about important topics, influencing beliefs, creating respectful and productive relationships, deepening understanding of new ideas and practices, and developing new habits of mind and practice.

As I review blog posts from previous years I am aware that particular essays have addressed those topics in ways that resonated with readers who continue to return to them many years after their publication. 

A primary focus this school year will be bringing back some of those posts to new readers and others who may benefit from considering these ideas again from a fresh perspective. In addition, new posts will be added to the mix as important issues arise in the months ahead.

I look forward to taking this journey into the known and unknown with you as we reprise the fundamentals and explore emerging ideas and practices. 

What does it mean to be a strong man?

I have temporarily suspended my sabbatical because I recently heard a story that got me thinking about what it means to be a strong man.

The story goes that a very rich and very, very powerful person (some would say the most powerful person in the world) felt disrespected and made to look weak and it was necessary for the very rich and very, very powerful person to respond forcefully to demonstrate his strength and dominance over the person regarded as disrespectful and over everyone else. 

That got me thinking about what it means to be a “strong” man. (I say “man“ because both individuals in the story are men and because Father’s Day is upon us.)

A strong man:

• Does not need to tell you on a daily basis how smart, intuitive, and very, very powerful he is. Because a strong man is  confident in his strength he does not need to constantly remind others of it.

• Protects those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance.

• Acknowledges mistakes, expresses regret, and apologizes when necessary. 

• Demonstrates his power by consistently advocating for all of humankind, now and in the future, not just for his own family and tribe. 

What would you add or subtract from my definition of a strong man? In what ways would that definition be the same or different if it were describing a strong woman?

Finding our best selves in other people

We are usually happiest and make the biggest difference in the world when we most consistently act on behalf of our highest values, use our most important strengths, and treat others with respect—that is, when we are our best selves.

And the positive emotions associated with those experiences motivate us to be that best self again.

Our best selves can also be inspired by people who display qualities we wish to cultivate in ourselves.

Ask yourself: “What would [insert the name of a relevant person you respect] do in this situation?”

The answer to that question can guide us in becoming our best selves in times when those qualities are most needed.

Which people, near or far, inspire your best self?

Note to readers: I will be taking a sabbatical from blog writing during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes to everyone for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).

Giving others the gift of their genius

I’ve had conversations with people in which they sought to display how smart they were. Some tell you directly that they are geniuses. Others try to convince you by talking at great length about obscure subjects using big words.

I’ve also had conversational partners who helped me experience my own resourcefulness and wisdom.

In their presence I felt deeply heard and appreciated, and through my interaction with them I found greater purpose, clarity, and direction.

With such individuals we think thoughts we did not know we were capable of thinking and see opportunities that previously eluded us.

I encourage you to offer others the gift of their genius one conversation at a time.

It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give one another.

What conversations today will lend themselves to giving such a gift?

Are you a “tuner” or a “spinner?”

At first glance, “spinner” and “tuner” seem like another way of saying extrovert and introvert.

But the explanation of these terms offered by David Brooks, drawing on the work of Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein, offers fresh insights into these temperaments.

Brooks explains the distinction this way:l

“The spinner is the life of the party. The spinner is funny, socially adventurous and good at storytelling, even if he sometimes uses his wit to maintain distance from people.

“Spinners are great at hosting big parties.

“They’re hungry for social experiences and filled with daring and creativity. Instagram and Twitter are built for these people. If you’re friends with a spinner you’ll have a bunch of fun things to do even if you don’t remember them a week later.

“The tuner makes you feel known. The tuner is good at empathy and hungers for deep connection. The tuner may be bad at small talk, but in the middle of a deep conversation the tuner will ask those extra four or five questions, the way good listeners do.

“If you’re at a down time in your life, the spinners may suddenly make themselves scarce, but the tuners will show up. The tuners may retreat at big parties, but they’re great one-on-one over coffee. If you’re with a person and he’s deepened your friendship by revealing a vulnerable part of himself, you’re with a tuner….

“Now if you are looking for friends, the spinners are great. But my questions for the class are: If you’re looking for a life partner, should you go for your same type or your opposite? Should you marry someone who meets your strengths or fills your needs?

“My guess is that if you can’t find someone with both traits, marry a tuner, even if that gives your relationship a little extra drama.”

In Western culture extroverts are celebrated for their outgoing natures and large social networks.

Introverts, on the other hand, are often described as shy, “in a shell,” and even anti-social, qualities for which they are sometimes judged and even shamed.

As an introvert I often find myself explaining and even defending to extroverts (and sometimes even to introverts) the important qualities introverts bring to work settings, families, and friendships.

The notion of “spinners” and “tuners” adds another dimension to that explanation.

What is your experience with these two temperaments and how they are viewed by society and within your work and personal lives?


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