“Put me in, Coach! I’m ready to Play!” Capitalizing on Structures that Invite Teachers to Invest in Instructional Coaching

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:

  1. Establish goals through data collection
  2. Encourage growth through application, practice and reflection
  3. Celebrate progress without being critical

Establishing Goals
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:

  1. What student behaviors were you able to identify that served as evidence of academic learning time/student learning?
  2. What teacher behaviors (or what did you do as a teacher) to cause that academic learning time/student learning?
  3. 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:

  1. Listen to understand
  2. 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.
  3. Avoid asking “yes-no” questions and avoid “telling what to do”
  4. Don’t overwhelm teacher with too much (feedback/strategies)
  5. End the session with a teacher-established goal/focus for the next observation

A tool that helps me to not only determine where teachers might be but how to best support them with instructional coaching is the Leadership Practices Continuum (M. Reilly & D. Williams, 2008), referred to by Choates and Reilly. There are three zones in this continuum: Supervisory, Mentoring (teaching and offering options), and Coaching (creating awareness, designing actions, planning and goal setting, monitoring progress and celebrating success). This tool reminds me that as an instructional coach, my job is never to evaluate (that’s the administrator’s job!), so I avoid the Supervisory Zone altogether. My work remains in the Mentoring Zone (fifteen percent of the time) and the Coaching Zone (eighty-five percent of the time). The Mentoring and Coaching Zones are what I refer to as the “Give-a-fish” and “Teach-to-Fish” zones . . . or a way to meet teachers at their Zone of Proximal (Coaching) Development (Vgotsky).  

Though the goal is to work with teachers in the latter, I’ve found that new, inexperienced or “afraid-to-take-risk” teachers often fall into the first. If so, I start in the Mentoring Zone, where I give them a fish by providing more direct feedback and steps, with actual strategies in hand. I move our collaborative partnership into the Coaching Zone once teachers have learned to fish, which translates into being more reflective, resourceful, and receptive to growth in their instructional practices.

Encouraging Growth
The MEET Framework provides me with a step-by-step flexible process to best support growth in teachers. MEET (adapted from Phil Harkins’ Powerful Conversations) can be defined as follows:

M = Make a Connection. Consider creating a respectful relationship of trust before jumping into your first coaching conversation with that teacher! Attend to her emotional needs by respecting what she brings to the table. Establish that this is a collaborative partnership, and the goal is to grow professionally together in a respectful and nurturing way. Make sure the teacher knows before the classroom observation what data you’ll collect and how you will both collect it, using Dr. Blokker’s three questions above.

E = Exchange Data. This is where Dr. Blokker’s first two questions come into play after you’ve completed an observation. Allow the teacher to first share her/his data regarding questions 1 and 2 (student behaviors that serve as evidence of learning and teacher behaviors that caused that learning).

E = Explore Possibilities. Dr. Blokker’s third question is used here, as you and the teacher refer to data collected and the reflective coaching conversation to determine alternative strategies for growth (even with the greatest of teachers!).

T = Take Action. This step is critical to growth! It’s one thing to talk about possibilities. It’s another to take action and as a coach, you must be willing to help that teacher commit to a goal or focus. This is where I see most instructional partners drop the ball. We fail to get the commitment. However, if we’ve built a relationship of trust, we can push for action without being offensive. That conversation might go something like this.

Coach: “So, you mentioned you’d like to increase the level of student engagement and participation. What will that look like?
Teacher: “I think I need to allow more students to talk and interact with each other. Should I integrate more Turn and Talk? More Think-Pair-Share?
Coach: “Sounds like a wonderful way to get more students involved in the learning. How will you do that and what support will you need from me?
Teacher: “I guess I could arrange my classroom where students are partnered up. I need to consider who might work best together though because I don’t want to lose control. As far as support from you, I might need your help with partnering students as well as with some collaborative strategies as I look at what I’ll be teaching next.
Coach: “I love that idea. Let’s work together on that lesson to integrate more student collaboration and then we can determine a time when I can come back to see that in action.

As the conversation winds down, ensure you have a designated date and class period for the next observation with that teacher using that alternative action/goal. Provide support and don’t forget to acknowledge growth, which leads to my final coaching recommendation.

Celebrate Progress!
John D. Rockefeller said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” That’s what we must inspire in teachers. Growth comes from practicing your craft and position on a regular basis in order to be your best for students. And, while reflection from a coaching conversation allows the teacher to determine what worked, what didn’t, and what s/he might do differently, it’s so important to acknowledge progress and what DID work!

Use documented data to ensure teachers are aware of their growth, especially once they’ve tried a new strategy. Moreover, celebrate that! Whether it be with a clink of the coffee cups, a fist bump in a classroom, or a public announcement to the faculty, make sure that teachers see and know how they are growing. This is how you sustain the growth process. This is how you sustain reflection.

As I wrap this all up, it’s important to note that in Tyler Kepner’s 2010 interview with John Fogerty, titled “John Fogerty Tells the Story Behind ‘Centerfield,” he learned the songwriter was “smitten” with the Yankee’s Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, both great centerfielders. Fogerty saw the two players as “the king, the head of the tribe, the most special one,” and described their position as “a very special place . . .  the center of the universe.”

What if our interactions with teachers helped them to feel like they are in a “very special place?”  They are a most “special one?” After all, in helping them to see success, we help to breed success. It’s that celebration that builds confidence and, in turn builds a willingness and enthusiasm to be part of something greater than yourself! That’s how quality coaching for baseball players and quality coaching for teachers is really quite the same process . . . it inspires them to be more than they knew they could be!

“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.

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