If you’ve ever coached a sport’s team, you may have noticed how the process of coaching baseball players and teachers is so much alike. Contemplate the chorus in John Fogerty’s 1985 song, Centerfield:
Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.
Look at me, I can be centerfield.”
That anthem to baseball just seems to exude the essence of confidence, a sense of competence, and a willingness and enthusiasm to be part of something greater than yourself! That’s what great coaches do . . . provide encouragement and support that helps one to aspire to be more. The emotional and mental connections made through coaching baseball players can greatly influence how well they do on the field, and the same can be said of teachers.
In the educational world, the instructional process can be very demanding. To say we need to “feed teachers” through the coaching process is an understatement. We must also provide them with practices to keep them growing and inspired. To do it well and do it right, we need proven strategies! Fortunately, we can pull from the practices of several coaching experts: Dr. Bill Blokker (Literacy First); Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly (Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time); Phil Harkins (Powerful Conversations); and Elena Aguilar (The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation).
Capitalizing on their expertise, I’ve found it helpful to do three things to support teachers through the coaching process:
- Establish goals through data collection
- Encourage growth through application, practice and reflection
- Celebrate progress without being critical
First things first! Goal setting is critical to individual growth. It’s easy for teachers to settle with what’s familiar and comfortable in their practices rather than taking risks and trying new strategies. That’s why classroom observations help teachers to examine current practices through data to determine “what is” and what “needs to be.” I’ve found Dr. Bill Blokker’s three questions to be the best in guiding the reflective process with teachers when coaching. Those questions [loosely phrased but still capturing the essence] are:
- What student behaviors were you able to identify that served as evidence of academic learning time/student learning?
- What teacher behaviors (or what did you do as a teacher) to cause that academic learning time/student learning?
- What alternative strategies/behaviors might you use to cause that same academic learning time/student learning, or to enhance that learning?
The power within those three simple questions is incredible, forcing teachers to actually identify behaviors that are measurable evidence of learning and not just indicators—and there is a significant difference in the two. I’ll show you what I mean through a typical “first” coaching conversation with a teacher following a walk-through.
To question one, a teacher says, “I knew my students were learning because they were attentive.”
I respectfully follow up with a drill down question. “Tell me how you know they were ‘ ‘attentive?’”
Teacher: “They were looking at me. That means they were listening to me. They were engaged.”
As an instructional coach, I carefully drill down a bit more. “Tell me how you can measure that learning? How can you really know students who were looking at you were listening and learning? What evidence do you have?” I follow with this example, “As a high school student (decades ago!), I often looked and nodded occasionally at my teacher—to make her think I was listening, when actually my mind was a thousand miles away thinking about tonight’s date with my boyfriend.”
Most teachers begin to quickly pick up that the evidence must be something s/he can hear or see, which allows the teacher to better eliminate indicators—which are behaviors that appear to lead to learning—but can’t be measured, rather than evidence—which says I know students are learning, because I have this measurable behavior.
Here are a few tips I’ve come up with through my own experience with coaching conversations:
- Listen to understand
- Stay true to the 3 coaching questions:
· Invite the teacher to respond to question 1
· Rephrase (using academic vocabulary) what teacher said for clarification and growth purposes. Consider and ask relevant, probing questions, as needed
· Share additional student behaviors that indicated they were learning (not already mentioned by the teacher) to continue building trust and encouragement with that teacher
· Repeat steps 1–3 for coaching questions 2 & 3
· Save all suggestions relating to growth for the “alternative strategies,” but pose these as questions; again, allow the teacher to respond and think first. Can the teacher identify an alternative strategy? This can become the goal/focus for growth.
- Avoid asking “yes-no” questions and avoid “telling what to do”
- Don’t overwhelm teacher with too much (feedback/strategies)
- End the session with a teacher-established goal/focus for the next observation