Collaborating, learning, and supporting the coaching process in underserved districts.

Author: Mandela Oxford

The Value of Coaching Light

The Value of Coaching Light

Before I started coaching full-time, I used to wonder what the value of coaching light could be. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms coaching light or heavy, I suggest you check out Coaching: Approaches and Perspectives and other works by Jim Knight or […]

Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of the teacher isn’t exactly a real thing. But it should be. It is the teacher equivalent of ‘contempt of cop.’ Wikipedia provides the following definition: “Contempt of cop” is law enforcement jargon in the United States for behavior by people towards law enforcement […]

Meaningful Feedback-A Strategy

Meaningful Feedback-A Strategy

Today, I had a teacher tell me she “always feels so supported” when she gets feedback from my visits. That is an incredible compliment. It made me wonder why instructional coaches don’t receive feedback like that more often. I don’t have all the answers, but her comment made me want to share my current strategy for meaningful feedback.

There are tons of genuinely meaningful texts on instructional coaching. I’ve probably read a couple dozen of them, and I aim to read a couple dozen more. Some of the consistent ideas I have come across include keeping it simple, being direct and transparent, focusing on the positive, and asking powerful questions.

Based on those principles, I created a simple Google Form for myself. I chose this format for two reasons. One reason is that I can use the add-on “Simply Send” to auto-generate a PDF of my responses in an email to myself. This makes it really simple to double-check my work and send teachers written feedback almost immediately. I can also complete the form from any device including my phone. Finally, it creates a spreadsheet I can view to look for trends or identify common needs.

The form I use only has a few sections. Of course, I record the basics: time, date, teacher, and course. Actually, because I have shared this with my administrators, I start with a question to identify who has completed the form. After the basics, I have five long answer paragraph sections. They are Environment, Planning, Teacher Actions, Student Actions, and Food for Thought.

I strongly believe that observational data is the most effective tool in an instructional coach’s arsenal. I do not script lessons unless a teacher has requested I do so for a particular reason. Instead, I take detailed notes of what both teachers and students are doing, what the classroom is like, and what evidence of intentional planning is evident.

Usually, environment section is relatively short. I like to give teachers my impression of the physical space. Can everyone see the board? Are needed materials placed in an easy to access location? Is the lighting, temperature, and even smell, appropriate to the class?

I tend to go back and forth between the teacher action and student action sections throughout my visit as I describe what I see. I try to give specifics without getting too lost in trivial details. My skill in this area continues to improve with more practice.

To be honest, I don’t totally love the planning section. My notes in that section are often sparse and inferential rather than substantive. I can’t quite figure out if that is my note-taking or related to the idea. My teachers seem to appreciate the inclusion of this area, if for no other reason than that it acknowledges how much time and effort they put into planning.

The final section is called food for thought. In it, I record positive impressions as well as questions and wonderings. My goal is to point out what worked well and help teachers think about opportunities for growth. I try to frame my questions so they are open-ended but based on very specific observable actions. In this section, depending on the personality and needs of the teacher, I might provide some suggestions for tools or instructional strategies to try.

My coaching conversations are based almost exclusively on this feedback. One advantage of this system for me is that when I visit a classroom I can provide meaningful feedback even if a coaching conversation isn’t possible until later in the week. Sometimes, the delay is actually beneficial. Teachers have the opportunity to reflect before we engage. Often I get emails in response with initial thoughts and reminding me of our upcoming meeting.

I believe this system is working. It seems to be having a positive effect on teacher attitude, reflection, and general openness. Teachers are happy to see me in their classrooms–even the tough nuts. Over time, I believe this type of meaningful feedback will lead to genuine instructional innovation.

Stuck in the Middle

Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle of…well, everyone. Not only am I navigating and sometimes mediating relationships among teachers, I also wind up third party to student-teacher, counselor-teacher, or administrator-teacher interactions. Let me be clear: I do not take sides and I do not […]

The Missing Piece in Professional Development

The Missing Piece in Professional Development

What is the missing piece in most professional development sessions? Why is it so hard to change teacher behavior in learning new knowledge? What can we do to make teacher learning stick? We’ve all asked these questions. No matter how thoroughly we prepare or how […]

The Coach’s Role in Teacher Self-Care

The Coach’s Role in Teacher Self-Care

Coaches have a vital role to play in teacher self-care. That statement almost sounds counter-intuitive. Honestly, I kind of hate the term ‘teacher self-care.’ I worry it puts the onus of caring for teachers only in their own hands. As coaches, as schools, as districts, I believe we should share responsibility for the care of teachers.

Perhaps, instead of encouraging teachers to learn to say no, we ought to focus on not asking too much of them. As coaches, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to take an active role in caring for teachers. There is always too much to do in schools; however, there are steps we can take to support teacher self-care.

Coaches can establish a culture of shared accountability. We can learn our teachers strengths, weaknesses, and boundaries. Instruction improves when we can help teachers divorce responsibility from blame to focus on student growth. We can clearly establish our own boundaries and stand firm in support of reasonable expectations. Mostly, we can avoid some common pitfalls.

We are, or at least I am, often guilty of asking those we know will say yes. In a pinch, when I need help, I ask teachers who are willing. The unfortunate side effect is that we unintentionally contribute to the overburdening of certain teachers. Partly, we do this out of desperation. Partly, we do this because it is easier. And partly, I think, we do this out of fear.

Not unlike our teachers, we as Instructional Coaches are frequently overworked and overwhelmed. When last-minute tasks with impossible deadlines loom, we are often desperate for help. We reach out to those we trust. We depend on those whose abilities we trust. It feels impossible not to depend heavily on the dependable.

In addition to desperation, asking those likely to say yes is So. Much. Easier. It is difficult to confront the insecurity of asking someone for help when we are unsure of the answer. It is hard enough to ask for help. Pressure makes it infinitely harder. Formulating a plan for approaching those who are less apt to pitchin takes valuable time and effort.

Asking for help is also terrifying. It makes us vulnerable. How can we balance being an instructional authority with needing to ask for support? We fear the potential loss of respect or authority or validity. It can feel like we are sacrificing our standing instead of standing on our own. We are worried about appearing weak at nervous about failure. Compounding those issues is the fear that the help we seek may be inadequate.

Despite all those issues, we can care for our teachers and ourselves by creating a culture of shared responsibility. A culture of collaboration as a positive choice that leads to success rather than a mandate. Taking the time and effort to invite every teacher to participate in shared tasks builds confidence, respect, and success. It can lead to the sharing of ideas.
Of course, teachers have different skill sets and levels of contribution. Knowing and respecting those strengths and limitations is part of the job. Accepting each other, even as we push each other to improve, is a vital part of a healthy school culture.

Teachers who fail to care for themselves eventually fail to care for others effectively. Coaches have a role in ensuring teachers take care of themselves and each other. Just as we encourage students to develop shared accountability and mutual respect, we need to encourage teachers to do the same. Maybe it would be fair to say that the coach’s role in teacher self-care is coach self-awareness and coach self-care.

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How soon is too soon to visit classrooms? Maybe that is the wrong question. How soon is too soon to start observing teachers and providing feedback? This is my struggle. Of course, as a coach, I want to get into classrooms as soon as possible. […]

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating materials is often a part of the coaching gig, even though it isn’t in the typical coaching job description. We are often called on as experts to evaluate a variety of instructional materials, books, and programs. There are so many things to consider when […]

Gossip and Gripes: The Instructional Coach Chronicles

Gossip and Gripes: The Instructional Coach Chronicles

People talk. They gossip. They gripe about their colleagues. As a coach, I feel like I hear it all. To be successful, though, I can’t participate, no matter how tempting.

It isn’t because I don’t enjoy gossip. And certainly, it isn’t because I have no gripes. One of the things I focus on establishing with my teachers is that they can tell me anything without worrying about privacy, judgment, or negative consequences. To preserve the relationships I am building, I must be a vault. The black box. Information goes in raw and comes out not at all.

It is incredibly lonely to only listen. It is exhausting to choose my words carefully with everyone. It is depressing to hear accounts of terrible teacher behavior. It is delicate work to determine what action, if any, to take in response.

Developing appropriate responses to gossip and gripes is an ongoing challenge.

There are times when I gently suggest to someone sharing another teacher’s personal dramas that perhaps spreading rumors isn’t the most supportive course of action. Though nerve-wracking, the direct route usually works best. Questions I’ve asked include “How is sharing this information helping your colleague?,” “What could we do to support this person?,” or “I wonder if this information can help you work with this person?”

Often, gossip is an avoidance tactic. Teachers who gossip about others are generally attempting to avoid focusing on themselves. Those in this category are often unwittingly revealing insecurities about their professional acumen. When I recognize a teacher using gossip to stall, I can more easily put aside any irritation I might feel.

Other times, I simply listen and hold my tongue. There are people who use gossip to build connections with others and establish a personal relationship. Those same individuals are often also testing the trustworthiness of the people in whom they confide.

When teachers complain about each other’s professionalism, I find that trickier to manage. It irritates me when teachers tear each other down. Criticisms that are unjustified are especially irksome. The best I can do in those circumstances is to express surprise and offer counterexamples.

Criticisms based on legitimate concern are tough. Generally, I work with the teacher speaking to try and see things from a different perspective. Then I try to ensure I work with the teacher who is struggling on those areas that are problematic.

For example, two teachers came to me to complain that another teacher in their subject area is neither paying attention or contributing to group efforts. I tried to be tactful and ask them what efforts they have made to give her meaningful tasks or play to her strengths…to no avail. Finally, the tirade ended with a “How can she not sense the almost open hostility?”

I took a deep breath and said as calmly as possible, “Maybe she does and it rightly fuels some sense of self-righteous superiority.” Both women paused, looked at each other, and then one said, “Well, that’s counterproductive!” I agreed and asked them what they could try instead. There was some grumbling. I gave them a choice “Put some extra effort into finding ways to work with her, or expend that energy being irritated.” Despite the continued grumbles, they conceded that being irritated wasn’t working well for them.

Being so direct is always risky, but I know my teachers fairly well by now, and I felt confident a more direct approach was an appropriate course of action.

Still, though, I worry. What if I had been wrong? What if this teacher’s behavior becomes even more egregious. How much griping can I take? How do I help this teacher?

Gossip and gripes are inevitable with any group of people. Navigating them as a coach is tough. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the ick people spew about each other go away. I don’t know if I always handle it in the best way possible. All I can say is that I try. I try to be the black box. I try to create and nurture relationships.

Using Core Competencies in Your Curriculum Planning Process

Using Core Competencies in Your Curriculum Planning Process

Core competencies in business are typically “soft skills.” Core competencies in academics have potential too. This year, I have the opportunity to facilitate curriculum writing through the lens of core competencies. I define core competencies as the 10-15 essential skills a student can expect to […]