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Instructional Coaching, From Theory to Practice

By Kristin Heglund and Kelley McKenna
Instructional Coaching, From Theory to Practice

Instructional coaching is a practice that is gaining popularity in schools all over the world, based on research into the most successful models for continuous adult professional development. You may have heard Atul Gawande’s TED talk about surgeons participating in peer coaching, or perhaps you read his New Yorker article “Personal Best.” Gawande says, “No matter how well-trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own. That’s where coaching comes in.” Many international schools model their instructional coaching programs on Jim Knight’s work, which comes out of the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas. Knight writes, “In coaching relationships, both parties work in partnership to identify what intervention will be implemented, they observe each other, and they share ideas back and forth in collaboration.” It is this shared vision and responsibility for implementation that is at the heart of instructional coaching. A conversation: teaching and learning coaching in action Kelley: We really lucked out, given my goal of including English language learners and Kristin’s ESL expertise. Having a thought partner was my motivation to be involved in this program—especially someone from outside of my department, because it offered a different perspective. Also, I knew there was something I really wanted to work on, but I didn’t know if I was going about it in the right way, so talking through my own development process was helpful. Kristin: As Kelley’s coach, I also found it extremely gratifying to work with someone in Physical Education (PE), which was originally outside of my comfort zone. I came to the realization that so much of instruction has commonalities across all subjects. Kelley: The process of the coaching cycle was interesting. It required me to be very intentional and pushed me to figure out what exactly I wanted to get out of it, and more importantly what the kids should get out of it. As a teacher, there are often so many elements of a lesson to think about; this was a honing process. Kristin: It’s a wonderful moment in any coaching cycle when the teacher starts to notice that a change in her behavior is having an effect on her students’ learning, and then the moment when she realizes she’s ready to apply the new practice without any further support. Kelley: The nicest part about coaching, as compared to other kinds of PD, is that it’s 100 percent about you, and it’s right now—not for the next unit, or the next year. It takes place in an environment that is comfortable. Often at a conference you might maintain a facade, but with coaching it’s a very safe place to say, “Here’s what I’m struggling with, and this is what I’m thinking.” Using a video allowed me to see, “Oh yes, I did the strategy there!” Or, “No I didn’t do it there.” Over time it allowed me to see, “Oh that’s making a difference now.” I’ve loved some of the PD opportunities I’ve had, especially some of the PE-specialized workshops. But they always promote really big ideas! These are not tailored to what your students need right now. Then there’s the advantage of starting and actually finishing a goal, because how often does that happen? A reflection: reasons why every teacher should try coaching 1. Relationships You will make a professional relationship that is comfortable and there’s no hierarchy. You may also meet someone who isn’t necessarily in your division, department or school, and the relationship doesn’t end at the end of the cycle. 2. Thought partner Your coach will help you delineate a goal that is powerful for you and your students and then help you plan how to achieve that goal. As a result, the conversations you have are focused solely around your needs and how best to reach your goal. 3. Personalized PD You get to work on the needs you identify for your particular students right now. You’ll work on a goal that you set, not one set for you. 4. Accountability Usually, you’ll choose to work on something you have been wanting to tackle but have been putting off; your partner will make you stay on track and stick with it. You will still need to take time out of your schedule to make the coaching cycle work, but the investment will directly impact your students and very quickly you’ll see its value and worth. 5. Non-judgmental feedback The coach will give you feedback on what she sees happening in your classroom, focused on what you’re working on and always without evaluation or consequences. 6. Outsider perspective Many teachers only work closely with department or grade-level partners; coaching is sometimes a great opportunity to work with someone with a different set of skills or perspective. 7. Support for teachers A day in the life of a teacher is all about students and what’s best for them. It’s rare for a teacher to have time to focus solely on them and their professional needs in an individualized way. 8. It’s enjoyable! “When people talk about learning, the experience should be exciting, energizing, and empowering,” writes Jim Knight. “After talking together, both instructional coaches and teachers should feel more competent and committed to making a difference in children’s lives. Instructional coaches, I believe, can have an unmistakable, positive impact on schools simply by having many, many healthy conversations with teachers.” Kristin Heglund is a Teaching and Learning Coach and Middle School ESL teacher at the International School of Brussels. Kelley McKenna is a Middle School Physical Education and Health and Special Olympics Coordinator and Personal Learning Coordinator.

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