Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
Time has always moved differently for teachers. We mark the passing of years against predictable and sometimes plodding school events, yet, day-to-day, a flurry of tasks can make the years whizz by. Instructional coaching involves taking some of that malleable time, slowing down and using precious minutes to consider our practice and to work towards a preferred future.
At Frankfurt International School (FIS), we have long been asking how we can best use the time we have to improve teaching and learning. FIS identified coaching as an improvement strategy because many of our board members benefited from coaching, and the leadership team started working with an outside leadership coach. In addition, the school reflected on the professional development that was proving most useful. Assistant Head of School, Devin Pratt, explains, “In order to learn we need to be reflective. We found that the best professional development we were getting was when we worked with consultants over an extended period of time (one school year or more). The relationship you build with a coach is more powerful than just going on a workshop, and the coaching model makes more sense for helping teachers to grow because we build relationships.”
In 2018, FIS introduced an Instructional Coaching program that has brought positive results and become a useful tool for nurturing transformative pedagogical change. As we established our vision of instructional coaching, we found the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aquilar, and Andy Vass particularly helpful. We also had the freedom to define our work and respond to teachers’ needs as they arose. Coaching, then, is ever-evolving, and until April 2020, the coaching program existed in a physical environment, but then we were thrust into distance learning online. Some aspects of coaching have naturally changed but our fundamental approaches and beliefs endure.
Instructional Coaching is individualized professional development. Across the school, the details and focus of the coaching process are customized, but at the core, our trained coaches are classroom teachers with extra time who work with peers on individual goals. Regular classroom visits and one-on-one meetings typically incorporate:
· Trust building between coach and teacher
· Teacher identifying a topic to explore
· Coach helping a teacher create an action plan
· Teacher and coach collecting data to measure the impact of a plan
· Teacher and coach evaluating the effects of the actions and either re-assess a new strategy or end the coaching process
Instructional Coaching respects teacher expertise and seeks to create enriching peer-to-peer dialogue and transformative individual action. In other words, instructional coaching is helping teachers uncover their own solutions, and we believe it should:
· Focus on student learning and growth
· Use strengths-based feedback
· Be positive and optimistic
· Be supportive, not evaluative
· Be voluntary
· Be a cycle of learning to produce growth
· Be a collaborative partnership
· Be focused on a clear goal
· Aspire to foster a culture of coaching in everyone
In the Upper School, two coaches work with 130 teachers across all subject levels. We are not content experts, of course. We see our role as building on teachers’ strengths and helping faculty to unlock their potential towards their preferred future.
The response has been resoundingly positive, and teachers are eager to make use of the personalized professional development that coaching can offer. This can be seen in the survey results below:
Coaching will/has benefited my teaching practice
Aug 2018: 74% of teachers agreed
June 2019: 89% of teachers agreed
Difference: 13% increase
Coaching will/has benefited my US students
Aug 2018: 77% of teachers agreed
June 2019: 82% of teachers agreed
Difference: 5% increase
Coaching will/has improved by job satisfaction
Aug 2018: 66% of teachers agreed
June 2019: 79% of teachers agreed
Difference: 13% increase
Very similar positive results towards coaching have been recorded in the U.K. (Ambition Schools Leadership) and in the U.S. (a Harvard meta-study). These studies have one thing in common; they all indicate that coaching benefits teaching and learning. Both teachers and students transform.
For schools considering a coaching program, key to our early success was taking the time to have face-to-face conversations. At the start of year one, instead of emailing everyone we made an elevator pitch during the opening faculty meeting and then systematically went to every teacher over the next two weeks, answering questions and giving an overview of coaching. Using a tactic recommended by coaching guru Jim Knight, we left each teacher with a one-page description of instructional coaching and allowed them to contact us when they wanted.
As well as visiting classrooms and focusing on elements of teaching and learning as specified by the teacher, the coaches have been working with groups of teachers during common planning time. We have even hosted open lunch meetings where we share food and best practices.
By the start of March, we had held over 400 coaching conversations… and then covid-19 hit. The school closed as a physical location, and all teaching and learning became virtual through Zoom, Loom, and other platforms. Coaching, like teaching and learning, moved online as well.
At its heart, Instructional Coaching is about teachers making changes that help improve teaching and learning. The pandemic forced change on everyone. Over the course of just two incredible days, FIS teachers moved teaching, planning, feedback, and classroom management online. Teaching and learning changed overnight, and teachers adapted in ways that they had never considered or possibly even wanted. Coaching changed, too.
All the goals we were working on together suddenly breezed out the window and were replaced by the immediate needs of the school’s distance learning program. These needs included managing online conversations and etiquette, conducting experiments virtually, running ensemble theatre pieces, and creating non-googleable assessments. More importantly, our focus shifted from a strict focus on pedagogy to having more conversations around personal well-being and the impact of work on home lives.
Despite this current shift, positive coaching relationships have been sustained and possibly strengthened, and teachers have continued to welcome the time to discuss their own practice. Making time for professional dialogue is important, either online or in person. It is good to talk, to appreciate what is going well, make goals, or work towards a vision. In doing so, we can all stay hopeful and feel connected as we adapt to new realities.