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How Instructional Coaching Changed Me

By Sue Easton
How Instructional Coaching Changed Me

I remember my first instructional coach. She didn’t have that title. I was a first year teacher and she was the teacher teaching the other Grade 1 class. But, she was my coach. She planned and reflected with me daily, valuing my opinions and questioning my reasoning, not because she doubted it, but because she wanted me to be able to verbalize it to myself and to others. She encouraged me to develop my own instructional strategies, but review the data after, in comparison with her students, to determine which strategies were the most effective. I didn’t realize how special the experience was, and how special she was, until I moved to a different city and a different school, where a culture of learning was not encouraged or supported.
Over the years, I have had a variety of mentors and coaches, some formally, and some just naturally through our continuous efforts to improve our skills and practices. I have played the role of mentor or coach, always informally, for many talented educators, from and with whom I have learned as we strove to enhance student learning. I think these experiences have led me to value and be so excited about the role of instructional coach, which many international schools are now embracing.
In McKinsey and company’s report “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better,” the authors suggest that the building of collective capacity—through professional development built on increased collaboration, shared responsibility, and lateral versus top-down responsibility—is necessary for school improvement. Instructional coaching, for both individuals and small groups, is at the heart of an effective professional development program in our schools.
At my most recent school, we introduced instructional coaches more than a year ago. We followed Jim Knight’s model and found powerful the shared opportunity for teachers to set their own learning goals while working with the support of an instructional coach. But more powerful still was the increase in professional dialogue. Teachers talked less about activities and more about learning. Evidence of learning started to become more common than just observation and gut feeling.
From my own experience, this professional dialogue, questioning, reflection, and collaborative use of data, all had a powerful effect on my classroom practice. I never felt lesser. I never felt that I wasn’t good enough. I always felt that I was improving. Powell, Chambers, and Baxter (2006) said “[Coaching] is based on an effectiveness model rather than a deficiency model.” I believe in that. Whether we, as international schools, follow Jim Knight’s or Diane Sweeney’s or Kate Sharpe’s and Jeanie Nishimura’s or any combination of models, instructional coaches can have a huge impact on classroom practice, school culture, and ultimately, student learning.
I say “can” have a huge impact, because there are two components that all the research acknowledges are necessary for success: training and support. An excellent teacher does not automatically make an excellent coach. Working with adult learners is not part of teacher training, and necessary approaches often differ from those we use with students. Instructional coaches that are merely given the title with no training or plan for implementation face an immense challenge. They need training and support to be most effective, with individual teachers and teams with varied backgrounds and needs.
The role of the principal is vital for developing a culture of learning in the international school, collaboratively defining the role of the instructional coach and creating organizational structures, including time, to ensure the success of this model of professional development. With ongoing training, reflection, and networking, and a supportive and engaged principal, the instructional coach will have a huge impact on classroom practice, school culture, and student learning.
My first instructional coach had no training, no support, and no mandate to help me, or all of the other teachers that would have benefited from her thoughtful, collaborative approach. Just think if she had.

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02/27/2017 - Kimberly Tomlinson
I share your praise for the transformative power of instructional coaching.
My first experience with a formal coaching program was as a new principal, taking on the task of turning around a struggling school. Combining the initiatives of a collaborative coaching support program with a data-driven PLC structure made for a teaching climate that transformed the school.
I have also experienced "coaching" programs that were poorly executed. Coaching in name only, these efforts lacked the training, support and leadership needed for success. One such program even contributed to a deteriorated climate among the teaching staff, reinforcing a climate of distrust and fear!
Thanks for your timely article. International Schools considering adding instructional coaching to their programs for 2017-2018 will find several excellent models as you mention in your piece. Still, in my experience, there is simply no substitute for effective principal leadership and taking time to build the trust and understanding needed for staff to embrace this amazing resource.