When my principal first approached me about becoming our building’s literacy coach (lo these many years ago), my first reaction was “Are you kidding me?”
Despite a strong background in literacy, I had no clue how to be an instructional coach. Even after some vague assurances that I’d be fine—something along the lines of “Oh, I trust you’ll figure it out” and “You have everything you need to be a good coach”—I still wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job.
It’s a familiar response that I’m sure many of you have experienced. In time I figured out that I wasn’t alone in this “learn as you go” approach to instructional coaching. The sad truth is that most coaches in schools today undergo this same sort of pseudo on-the-job training that, at best, is a cross between a strong desire to be effective and a personal drive to learn. For most of us you also need to throw in a good dose of insomnia and a sheer sense of panic! With the staff and administration watching your every move, developing a strong sense of who you are as a coach can be daunting.
Over the years, with experience as my guide, I’ve gleaned important lessons from workshops, professional texts, study groups, and good old trial and error. Along the way, I developed friendships with other professionals who help keep me going, serving as mentors and resources. More than a decade later, I’m still at it, and I’m still learning.
I’ve reached a place now where I can support other coaches—just as my friends did for me all those years ago. With this in mind, I’ve collected several suggestions and keep them on hand for when new friends ask for support. I also keep a copy nearby for myself, because when the tardy bell rings, it’s easy to forget those lessons that are most important—even for us folks who’ve been around the mulberry bush many times.
Whether you’re just starting out on this incredibly rewarding path, or you’re somewhere along the way and you just need a refresher, I invite you to stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and reflect on these important reminders.
1. Prioritize your goals and time in the building. You can’t be everywhere at one time. Who and what agendas really need you most right now? Where will you get more bang for your buck?
2. When you model or co-teach a lesson, insist on scheduling time alone with the teacher for reflection (i.e., “What did you see?” “What questions do you have?” “What surprised you?” “What other thoughts or questions did the lesson bring to mind?”).
3. Coach the way you expect them to teach—considering . . .
- recognition, and
4. Evaluate your work regularly (i.e., “Was this helpful?” “Did I waste your time?” “Do you have any other questions for me that I didn’t get to?”). If someone sees you as a useful resource and acknowledges it, encourage them to tell their peers. References are a great way to plant trust and let reluctant teachers know what you can do for them. My coworker and I always say, “We do our best work on referrals.”
5. Helicopter vs. plane—Some things can be dropped from the sky on people, and other ideas need time to “come in for a landing.” This can sometimes mean starting that process even a year in advance (i.e., “Sometime this year, I want you to consider [X], so that you’ll be prepared to start doing it the next school year”).
6. Value the struggle
- Have an “unconditional positive regard.” Believe that most teachers want to do good work or they wouldn’t be here.
- Appreciate that teachers have lives outside the classroom that may weigh heavily on their minds during the workday. Public relations are very important. Let them know that you understand their busy lives and sometimes overwhelming responsibilities.
- Accept that we are not all in the same place, and we don’t all grow at the same rate . . . just like our students.
- Value and encourage your teachers’ best and nothing less—accepting that their best may not be near where you’d like it to be.
- Don’t take it personally if they don’t accept or use your wisdom and suggestions. Remember that we are all in different places in our learning. Just because they don’t act on it right away doesn’t mean the seed went unplanted.
- Believe that misunderstandings, conflict, and nonacceptance of you are is not always a by-product of malicious intent. This is just as important in working relationships as it is in romantic relationships
7. Remember that you are the first domino. What you pass on to the teachers . . . they pass to the students (e.g., stress, anger, a sense of urgency, conflict, a poor attitude about a new school policy, calmness, a love of the material, or even a smile).
8. Nurture yourself. You are no good to others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Consider . . .
- Your schedule—Prioritize what you have to get done and ask yourself what you can realistically get done in a day. Are you asking too much of yourself?
- Your stress level —Monitor this well or you’ll pass it on to the teachers.
- Your alone time—We all need to recharge our batteries every now and then. If you’re needed constantly at work and you’re needed constantly at home, who’s meeting your needs? Who’s taking care of you?
- Your other life —Yes, you do have one, and it’s just as important as your school life. Make time for it, and allow it to renew you. Set strict rules for yourself about how much “home time” you’ll allow for work stuff and then don’t let yourself feel guilty about it.
9. Be human. Allow teachers to see you that way. Admit when you don’t know. Confess your mistakes. Share with them times when your faulty thinking as a teacher resulted in a less-than-perfect outcome or when your home life overwhelmed your sense of what’s good for students. Be quick to apologize or make amends if you’re in the wrong. There is a certain amount of trusting camaraderie that comes from an understanding that “I’m no better than you are” and “we are all in this together.”
10. Know the difference between coaching light and coaching heavy. In one of the most powerful articles I’ve read in a long time, “Are You Coaching Heavy or Light?,” Joellen Killion (Teachers Teaching Teachers, May 2008) outlines the differences between these two forms of instructional coaching (also referred to as shallow vs. deep) and gives us a strong lens through which to look at our own practices.
Often in an effort to appear accessible and reliable, new coaches veer toward a lighter form of support, as opposed to doing the more boat-rocking work our role requires. Coaching light is driven by a desire to build and maintain relationships with teachers, whereas heavy coaching articulates a strong focus on improving teaching and student learning—even if that requires us to be directive and have difficult conversations. Though light coaching is certainly a valuable component of the instructional coaching process, many of us linger in this area for far too long out of trepidation and uncertainty. Many times, we simply aren’t aware that there is another, stronger form of coaching we could be doing.