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Instructional Coaches and Professional Learning Communities

 I recently was a guest participant on a Twitter chat with #educoach where the topic was exploring instructional coaches’ work with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).The facilitators offered a series of questions to spark the sharing. Here are the questions, some of the tweets I shared and my reflections on the responses. The entire chat is archived and accessible to you here.

In what ways are you as an IC currently interacting with PLCs?

When you read the participant comments, they range from being available when invited to attend ….. to helping the PLC leaders arrange the agenda for the meetings…. to being the facilitators of the PLC meetings. Some ICs reported that they were in the beginning stages of forming PLCs at their school while others had PLCs as the “way we do business.”

I shared that effective PLCs can allow coaches to multiply the impact of their time. In schools where ICs are working with larger numbers of teachers, it is extremely difficult for coaches meeting with individual teachers to have a measureable impact on overall student achievement. By being a participant in PLCs, an IC can generate shared exploration of student work, collegial critical thinking, creative ideas, and supportive risk taking, applying new approaches in classrooms.

A PLC conversation can serve as a pre- observation conference with all the team members readying the coach to do observations in each of their classrooms. Observation feedback can then be shared either individually with teachers or collectively in the next PLC. While discussing data or student work, questions will likely emerge that can be explored in coaching observations. I believe that PLC conversations present natural opportunities for coaching observations. This may be the best way for coaches in schools where the coaching process is new to find entry points into previously “closed” classrooms.

How do you get PLC conversations to focus on student achievement results?

‏Participant @LauraKJasso suggested that PLCs spend the 1st sessions designing a shared vision based on student achievement.

I believe that definitely is key. PLC’s need to be results focused and student achievement is the result. Too often PLCs become focused on products: pacing guidelines, common assessments, instructional activities. While all this work may occur in PLCs it is crucial that our assessment of what we accomplished not be measured in tasks done or deadlines met but in student learning.

I think that sharing specific learning goals for individual students can provide the ongoing focus on achievement. As assessment information becomes available we identify which students are ahead of target, on target, off target. Then strategize a team response.

Participant @Jyoung1219 noted, Pre-assessments help set goals, track progress, & promote reflective thinking at the end.

Here is a resource I shared: Blog on learning goals and strategies

How do you get PLC work to be more focused on learning than teaching

Participant @mlewiswa suggested: peer observations where there is emphasis on looking at what students are doing and saying, not just teachers

The first suggestion I offered created a greater number of “retweets” than any other I ever posted: When looking at student work or data ask, ”What do the students need us to learn?” This thought really helps me keep clarity on why I am in a PLC. I’d like to get a greater learning outcome than I currently am. If I knew what to do to get it I would. Therefore I need to learn something. My PLC is an ideal place for me to learn and thus impact my students’ learning.

I also suggested that coaches can ask, “What will learners do to cause the learning?” . This question focuses the conversation onto learning behaviors when many teachers want to skip right to teaching behaviors. Coaches can offer to observe in classrooms gathering data on student behaviors. Currently, “What are struggling students doing in class?” as we implement different strategies, “How have these students changed learning behaviors?”

When coaches model in classrooms they can ask teachers to focus on what students are doing. Getting a clear picture of the desired student learning behavior is crucial to the teacher understanding why the particular teacher behavior is important.

What do you do to move PLCs from being a franchise meeting to being a team meeting?

When teachers function more as franchises they might create common assessments, but they take individual responsibility for student success rather than team responsibility. I tweeted: “Key is everyone owning the goal… moving students from here to there…which classroom they are in doesn’t matter

Here are two resources on teaming vs sharing: a blog and video

As coaches cause more teachers to spend coaching time in each other’s classrooms, the quality of teacher critical thinking and learning in PLCs will increase and the greater pay-offs of student success will be achieved.

Instructional Coach’s Roles

I received the following request from an instructional coach anxious to support teacher growth while maintaining the defined instructional coach’s perceived and defined role.

“I am struggling with the fact that we do not have the morning PD times anymore where we were able to use that time to talk about building initiatives and continue to work and build upon strategies or use of resources like technology. I now find it difficult to work with teachers on specific initiatives when doing coaching cycles because I let the teacher choose the focus.  A lot of times the focus ends up being something that we have had PD on, but a lot of times it is not.  How can I find a way to incorporate more coaching with “directed” focus but still provide the teachers the autonomy to choose the focus they want during their coaching cycles with me? “

First, I’d want to reinforce the coach’s desire to provide coaching that supports the school’s professional development investment. As the following diagram illustrates, coaching feedback is critical for professional development to positively impact student learning.

Next, I point to the different roles that coaches can play. At times the instructional coach is working from the peer coach role, giving the autonomy of the coaching focus to the teacher. The instructional coach also has a role that is more in line with mentoring, where the focus of feedback to the teacher is aligned with the system’s agenda such as the implementation of a particular curriculum or instructional process.

In most of the systems where I have worked with instructional coaches, their roles have been defined on the right hand half of the above continuum. I have frequently stressed that part of the principal/coach partnership needs to be clear communication with the staff establishing the coach’s role and responsibility. If teachers perceive that working with the coach is only a voluntary decision, they can be disturbed when receiving feedback from the coach that they did not request.

A school administrator raised this issue by posing the following question;

“For those teachers that aren’t reaching out to the instructional coaches, is it appropriate for the coaches to visit the classroom and meet with the teacher to discuss a compliment and an area that the coach and teacher could explore together?”

 I suggested that this approach would likely be viewed as supervisory by teachers because the coach is selecting the focus area. An alternative would be to select a schoolwide focus and as an administrator or leadership team announce that you and the coaches will be visiting all classrooms and providing individual teachers feedback, as well as gathering schoolwide data, on implementation and its impact on student behaviors.

Example: We agree as a staff that increasing student voice (academic conversation) will increase our student learning. Following PD sessions where various strategies for student talk were shared, it’s announced that student talk will be the focus of administrators’ and the coach’s upcoming observations. Teachers are informed that if they’d like the feedback on a specific lesson, they should contact the coach and schedule an observation. If not, they’ll receive feedback from a drop-in visit. At next month’s staff meeting overall data from the observations can be shared. That data provides individual teachers an opportunity to get a sense of how their progress or struggles compare with colleagues.

I think that in a process like this, the administrator reinforces that the coach is available to assist any teacher who requests the involvement and that any unrequested feedback is part of the school’s professional development plan (non-evaluative). The collection of observational data across the school regarding a desired change in practice is critical feedback for the leadership team. Leadership behaviors are decided by knowing where staff and students are at in the change process.

The more that school leaders and instructional coaches model their openness to using coaching feedback to increase their own growth, the more likely a coaching culture will permeate the school.

Coaches and PLCs

This week I took part in a twitter chat with #esc11coach examining the work of coaches with PLCs. (You can find the entire chat here.) As I was planning for the chat, I found an article in the March 2016 Kappan by Rick Dufour and Douglas Reeves titled, The Futility of PLC Lite. The authors describe how many traditional school events such as faculty meetings or book studies have been renamed PLCs. Often these activities (PLC Lite) don’t meet the tenets of the PLC process and do not lead to higher learning for students or adults.

Dufour and Reeves identify that real PLCs:

  • Address the questions: What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they have learned it? What will we do if they have not learned it? How will we provide extended learning opportunities for students who have mastered the content?
  • Collaboratively gather evidence of student learning with formative assessments.
  • Use the evidence of formative assessments for collaborative inquiry that guides reflective teaching.
  • Design interventions that lead to increased student learning outcomes.

The need for “real” PLCs is reinforced in a report released by Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, Moving from Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work, which reported that more than 1,600 teachers surveyed characterized their professional development as irrelevant, ineffective, and “not connected to their core work of helping students learn.”

The report describes teacher agency in professional learning as the capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues.

For years, educators and policymakers have referred to ongoing education for teachers as professional development (PD) or PD trainings that teachers “receive.” We use the term professional learning because it recognizes teachers as agents of their growth and emphasizes that learning is an experience driven largely by the learner.

The report called for professional learning systems “that position teachers as constructive participants in their professional growth.”  I believe that real PLCs rather than PLC Lite can place teachers in that constructive position.

Here are the questions about PLCs that I explored in the twitter chat with coaches:

In what ways do you work with PLCs to reach your coaching goals?  Many instructional coaches dedicate a substantial amount of time to facilitating and or participating in PLCs. I believe that is a good decision if they have administrative support to build real PLC’s. (See my earlier blog Hijacking PLCs.) Coaches can impact teaching using PLC conversations to establish follow-up classroom observation and feedback. Whatever change the PLC is working to achieve in student achievement sets the stage for observation of connected teacher and student behaviors.

How can your observations from classrooms support PLCs? Since the coach as part of a PLC is clear on the decisions that PLCs have made about “how” they will take action to bring about the desired learning results, they can observe and provide feedback that specifically speaks to the planned strategies. When PLCs are analyzing data and questions emerge about “what is happening”, the coach is in a position to observe and return with information to aid decision making.

How responsible are you to build team relationships in your school? Team is a critical element in real PLCs. The members assume shared responsibility for all students to be successful learners. Coaches moving among the classrooms of a PLC’s members can link the members, extending the sharing of teacher actions and students’ responses. In addition, coaches can build the important “sense of team” between PLCs vertically and across departments.

How do you get teachers to coach each other? A PLC meeting is a great place for a coach to speak up and create teacher to teacher observation. A teacher asks, “How will you describe the project to your students?” As a colleague begins to describe her plan, the coach offers, “Why don’t I take the first 15 minutes of your class and you can observe the presentation to her class?” These opportunities are present in almost every PLC meeting.

How do you see coaches working with PLCs?

Principal and Instructional Coach Goal Setting

As this school year comes to a conclusion many school leadership teams will be working on a school improvement plan for the coming year. These improvement plans should serve as a starting point for identifying a principal’s and instructional coach’s goals that will support the plan.

Student achievement needs to be the starting point for the school’s goals as well as the principal’s and coach’s goals.

The gap that exists between current student achievement and the desired vision of achievement creates the driving goals. This gap could be across the student population, such as written communication skills, or targeted at an underperforming sub-population such as middle school ELL students’ science achievement.

Knowing the desired student learning outcome, the next step is to identify what student experiences and production behaviors are needed to create the learning outcomes and the changes necessary in teacher behaviors and actions to gain the necessary student behaviors. Key question: What do students need their teachers to learn?

Knowing the changes that are necessary in teachers now creates the goals for principals and coaches. Key question: What do teachers need the school leaders to learn? What are the leadership behaviors which will promote and support necessary teacher changes?

The questions below, taken from the Maryland State Department of Education’s School Improvement site  in a section dealing with the principal’s role in creating a vision, provide a great starting point.

I often describe that changes in conversation are the starting point to changes in practice. Administrators and coaches should be planning for ways they can engage staff in the conversations that will focus and initiate exploration of the need for change. Considering a middle school’s improvement plan for advancing students’ written communication skills, the leadership team might:

* Ask teachers to bring examples of students’ written assignments to a staff meeting. Seated in grade level cross curricular groups, teachers compare the same student’s work completed on three or four assignments from different classes. What is similar and different?

* Ask the English teachers from each grade level at the beginning of the year to present to the staff the goals that they have for student writing outcomes for the year’s end. Request that they provide examples of those outcomes for advanced, proficient, and struggling writers.

*An instructional coach might offer to run some lunch time reflections around feedback on students’ writing. Teachers bring a sample or two and discuss the feedback they were thinking of providing.

*Social Studies and Science PLC’s might invite an English teacher to join their PLC for 20 minutes as they discuss prepping students for an upcoming written assignment.

* A survey might be taken of all staff regarding the number, length, and complexity of written assignments they gave in the previous month. Results are then provided for PLC discussions.

* The principal might request that staff invite her to observe a lesson where they are prepping students for a writing assignment or a lesson where they are reviewing feedback with students.

Once decisions are made as to principal and coach behaviors, the next step is to identify the indicators or evidence that would inform leadership that their actions are generating the desired changes in teachers that will lead to changes for students.

If the leadership actions around writing are effective, what initial teacher behaviors would be observable? At what point would you expect to see changes in student actions: such as completing more writing assignments or rewriting after receiving teacher feedback? Where would you look for the first indicators of increased student writing achievement?

Instructional Coaches’ Questions for Steve

I recently worked for two days with 175 instructional coaches in a large Texas district. It was a return following earlier training I had done for them. As part of the preparation I requested questions that folks wanted to pose from their coaching experiences. Here are some of them with my responses:

Balancing time with teachers when you can’t work with all of them at the same time (25 total)…is there an efficient/equitable plan or model?

Balancing supporting all teachers on BIG campuses—how?

As I worked through this response, I had my own aha! I believe the answer isn’t about balance, it’s about prioritizing. I frequently use this slide with coaches and administrators to examine how to set coaches’ priorities.

“You” represents the instructional coach and “student achievement” represents the desired outcome of the coach’s efforts. So how does a coach spend her time? (How much time? Where?):

Working directly with students

Working in the classrooms of individual teachers

Working with teams of teachers in PLCs

Working to provide training/coaching to administrators

I have always suggested that this is a building by building prioritization. I propose that this is a decision that the coach makes with a leadership team for a three-month period. Then revisits and resets. A school with several beginning teachers may focus the coach for the first three months on those individual teachers. Another school with no beginning teachers may focus the coach on PLCs. If balancing means doing a little with every teacher, it may prevent an instructional coach from achieving a “real” change in any given area. A highly effective coach may need to say “no” or “not now” to some requests. A priority filter is important for deciding.

How can data be collected to assess the impact and effectiveness of the instructional coach?

Here is the visual I used to answer this question.

The ultimate data will be a change in student achievement. More students are scoring advance on the state assessment. Our ELL students are successfully completing higher level courses. More students are choosing an additional year of math and science. The number of students volunteering for community service without credit has increased.

The early data on coaches ‘effectiveness begins with recognizable changes in teacher behavior. More teachers are attending the lunch and learn opportunities? Teachers are asking questions about how to get students engaged in project-based learning. Then, teachers’ instructional behaviors change. You see students being given more rigorous learning tasks. Teachers are changing the kinds of questions they pose to students. The next change to record is in student behaviors. On walk throughs, you note students asking more questions. You observe students using teacher feedback to modify their approach to an activity. Students explain “why” they are engaged in a task. All of these indicators are precursors to increased student learning. We should be able to predict increased student learning by the early indicators.

How do we respond to lack of teacher buy into teaching with rigor?- —combating the thought of “our students can’t do that”

As a new IC, how do I avoid all the “Well, last year, we…?”

How do I respond to the refrain, “ There is not enough time.”?

My response to these is to reflect ahead to a positive, desired future outcome and my interest in working with the teacher to make that outcome happen:

Teacher: “ Our students can’t do that.” Coach: “You really want your students to be able to do that.”….” I’d love to support your efforts.”

Teacher:” Last year we ….” Coach: “What are you hoping to accomplish with your students this year that you were unable to achieve in the past”.

Teacher: “There is not enough time.” Coach: If you had more time, how would you use it to increase student success….After teacher responds: “ So you’d like to find a way to make that happen for students.”

I closed the two days with my response to this question:

How do I know if I’m cut out for this job?  Some days I feel so ill-equipped and would prefer to go back into the classroom where I have more control, where I’m not held by some invisible higher standard.  How can I re-energize my spark?  I’m in charge of motivating others, but nobody is in charge of motivating me. Then I feel guilty that I have these feelings at all and would not dare share them, and look THAT vulnerable.    

First, if an instructional coach chooses to return to the classroom after a year or two of coaching (I know several) it isn’t any indicator of failure or quitting. Most everyone who takes that route describes how much stronger of a teacher she is from the coaching experiences. The ones that I know also play key leadership roles from the classroom.

Your rewards and satisfaction from coaching I believe are found in celebrating teacher growth and their students’ success. I was elated when a first grader of mine proudly read his first book. I find that same elation when a teacher shares how her learning ignited a student’s effort in math. Today I get the same “kick” when a coach I’ve supported shares a success with a teacher. If you coach a beginning teacher who choses an extended career in teaching, consider how far out into the future you have touched the lives of students.

Coaching is hard work with some amazing joys!

Instructional Coaches Assessing Impact

In an Education Week blog, Peter DeWitt states that while “Instructional coaches can help teachers improve their instructional practices in any subject at any time,”  they are  a bit more removed from students and therefore can find it more difficult to know the impact of their work. He identifies the need for all educators today to have more than “a good feeling” to demonstrate the positive impact of their work.

When I am asked to train instructional coaches in systems where the positions are first being implemented, I share with coaches and principals that I am certain that in less than two years the questions will emerge: “What does the instructional coaching program cost us and what proof do we have as to what we are gaining from that investment?” My advice is not to wait for the question to emerge but to consider what evidence would be an indication of progress and how that evidence can be gathered.

As the final months of the school year begin, it’s a good time for principal and coach partnership conversations to focus on what evidence is present that indicates progress toward the goals they have established. This process can play an important role in setting goals and plans for the next school year.

The driving focus of school leadership’s work needs to be student achievement success.

That goal is achieved by bringing about changes in teacher and student behaviors that result in the student learning outcomes. Having decided on student achievement goals, principal and coach should have planned backwards identifying:

What changes need to occur in what students are doing and experiencing?

What teacher instructional/facilitating behaviors are needed to generate the desired student changes?

What changes need to occur in teachers’ engagement in professional learning communities, professional learning, coaching observation and feedback that will support the desired changes in teacher practice?

What changes/practices need to be implemented by principal and instructional coach to generate the needed school culture and collaborative staff practices that will guide continuous improvement?

These questions suggest the evidence that instructional leaders can explore for signs of their impact. Start from the bottom up.

First: Did the leaders implement changes in their actions?

This could almost be done as a checklist or counting of occurrences:

If it was decided that the instructional coach would do observations and provide feedback to teachers connected to the teachers’ growth plan, how many teacher were observed how often?

If it was decided that the principal would protect PLC time, how often were PLC’s given extraneous tasks to complete for school or district requirements?

If it was decided that the instructional coach would coach teachers in PLC effectiveness, how often did that occur and what kind of feedback did the teachers receive?

Did the coach and school leaders do what they had planned to do? (Often coaches and principals discover they need to make stronger commitments to their next year’s action plan.)

Second: What changes were observed in teachers’ collaborative behaviors?

Did the conversations in PLCs become more focused on learning? Is there student work at most PLC meetings?

How many teachers have approached the coach for observation and feedback on a change they were focused on making or on a student learning concern?

How many teachers have done how many observations in their colleagues’ classrooms?

What questions have teachers raised during professional learning activities?

Third: What changes have been observed in teachers’ instructional practices?

Following the professional learning and coaching:

Have teachers’ questions to students changed?

Is there more differentiation built into classroom activities and centers?

Are teachers assigning tasks of greater rigor?

Are teachers designing integrated learning opportunities?

Do learning plans or classroom assessments indicate the changes that leadership focused on gaining?

Fourth: What changes have been identified when observing students?

Are the target students engaged in the desired learning behaviors? (Are ELL learners engaged in conversations?)

Have changes in teacher actions led to changes in student learning behaviors? (Are students collaborating with learners outside the school?)

Are students modifying work and implementing teacher feedback?

Lastly: What changes have occurred in student achievement?

How do system assessments evidence an increase in student learning?

What are course grades communicating about student learning increases?

Does an increase in student enrollment in challenging learning opportunities indicate increased student success?

What evidence exists in student work to indicate an increase in desired soft skills?

While the change in student achievement is the focus of the work of instructional coaches, understanding the process that would most likely generate that achievement is critical to planning and assessing coaches’ work. As coaches and principals assess this year’s progress, goals and plans for next year will emerge.

Instructional Coaching Professional Development from the Academy for Educators

Steve Barkley and PLS 3rd Learning are offering instructional coaching professional development modules through the Academy for Educators. Each module is fully facilitated by an expert online instructor who provides frequent and meaningful feedback to participants.

The instructional coaching professional development modules are framed around Steve’s work as an education consultant. Participants will have access to essential elements of instructional coaching to prepare for teaching and leading in 21st century learning communities. Complete four of the five instructional coaching modules to earn a micro-credential. Click here, or watch the video below to learn more about this professional development opportunity.


Want to learn more about instructional coaching? On September 25th, Steve Barkley is hosting the free webinar: Instructional Coach and Principal Partnership. Click here for more info or to register for the webinar.

Thinking About Principal and Instructional Coach Agreements

On Monday September 25 at 10am EST, I will be holding a free webinar on principal /coach partnerships built to maximize student success. (Information and Registration here) This blog outlines some of the key elements that will be explored. I will present my thinking in three sections: Focus and Goals, Expectations, and Long Term Desired Culture.

Focus and Goals:

I have presented to many systems implementing instructional coaching that the bottom line payoff of the investment in coaching needs to be an increase in student achievement. From the start, principal and coach should identify specific student advances that are the focus of the coach’s work. It is very easy for a coach to become extremely busy with a very full schedule only to end the year with no traceable connection to specific student achievement.

A coach can build her plan and make important decisions about where her time is spent when she knows that the principal agrees with her on the prioritization of focus. Here is the backwards process I suggest the coach and principal explore.

Having identified a goal of specific student increased learning, the coach and principal can agree on what student learning production behaviors are required and how teachers can instigate those learning behaviors. Now a coach can consider how his actions can best support teachers in implementing the needed teacher actions.


The Instructional coach should be expected to develop a plan that provides teachers with the needed support to create the desired student learning production behaviors. This may mean devising professional learning experiences. In an earlier blog, I reviewed “what we know” about professional learning that positively impacts student learning and the important role that coaching plays. Teachers can expect that the coach’s work with them will be non-evaluative and that the coach’s success is directly connected to a teacher’s increased success with her students.

The principal should be expected to support the work of the teachers and the coach. First, the increased student learning goal that has been identified in planning with the coach is presented to staff by the administrator or school leadership team as a common schoolwide goal. This decreases the coach’s engagement with teachers being interpreted as supervisory. The coach’s involvement is supporting teachers in meeting goals they own.  An instructional coach can work with the expectation that the principal will maintain the coach’s non-evaluative position. A coach feels comfortable that the administrator will not ask for information about her observations or assessment of a teacher’s practice. She also knows that should she slip and complain about a reluctant teacher, the principal will avoid any sharing of her frustration with the teacher. Administrators with the coach and leadership team should be creating the time for coaching practices to occur.  An administrator who covers a teacher’s class for 15 minutes or picks up a duty assignment so the teacher can conference with the coach sends an important message.

Teachers should be expected to engage with the instructional coach, sharing any concerns regarding insufficient student growth. A teacher meeting with the principal concerning a struggling student can expect that one of the first questions the principal is likely to ask is, “What did you find when you approached the instructional coach about your concerns?” Growth often requires vulnerability. Teachers opening their classroom door to observation, sharing their instructional plans, showing student work and assessment with a coach are being vulnerable. A teacher is vulnerable and takes risks because his students’ success is that important.

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.

– Madeleine L’Engle 

Long Term Culture Change

What is the common vision that the principal, leadership team, and instructional coach have for a coaching culture in the school? I found this description of a coaching culture from Ed Parsloe.

“In a coaching culture, most staff use a coaching approach in their daily life – with each another, and with external stakeholders and customers.  A true coaching culture is just ‘part of the way we do things around here’.  But it’s not all motherhood and apple pie.  A coaching culture is about delivering results, improving performance and making the most of people’s potential.  The emphasis is on delivering results and making each other (and the wider organisation) stronger and more capable.  It’s NOT about having coaching conversations for their own sake, or as a diversion from other activities!”

How do the instructional coach and leadership team work together to make their culture vision a reality? I frequently describe the instructional coach as “the coach of coaching.” What I mean with that phrase is that the coach works to increasingly have teachers coaching each other rather than just seeing the instructional coach as the provider of coaching. I believe this supports the building of a coaching culture.

If you’d like to explore more about principal and coach agreements, please join us on the webinar.

Teachers Taking the Lead

Teachers Taking the LeadJoellen Killion and Cindy Harrison have written a second edition of Taking the Lead: New roles for teachers and school-based coaches.  I was delighted to be asked to write the forward for the book. Here are some of the thoughts I shared:

As opportunities for teacher leadership and instructional coaching increase, there is a heightened responsibility to assure that the investments made in this work are impacting student achievement, learning, and success.

Coaching that impacts student outcomes must be designed using a backwards process. A clear understanding of the desired learner outcomes (knowledge, skills, attitudes, aptitudes) is the initial focus of coaching plans. This must be followed by an analysis of what the students will do to generate the desired learning outcomes. I’ve labeled this “student learning production” behaviors. Now teachers are ready to design ways to engage students in tasks and actions that will initiate and support those learning production behaviors.

When coaches can facilitate teachers working through this backwards process, they are in the best position to enroll teachers in the hard work of learning and changing to positively impact student outcomes. As Cindy and Joellen state in chapter one “Coaching, to be effective, must have a defined purpose and goals.” Start with the end in mind… student outcomes.

Whenever I am asked to provide training for a school system’s initial entry into a coaching program, I insist that the first session include the principals with their coaches. The coach/principal partnership is critical for coaching to deliver its desired results. The first part of that agreement as mentioned above is identifying the change in student achievement that will be the overall focus of the coach’s work.” Why are we investing in coaching?” The second step is to identify the roles of the coach that are most likely to provide the changes in teachers’ practices that will produce the desired learning production behaviors.

Teachers Taking the Lead

So, planning backwards, teachers ask the question, “What do our students need us to learn?” That answer prepares leaders and coaches to examine what roles and actions they should take to support teachers. Exploring the ten roles in Taking the Lead provides guidance in designing a plan for coaching that will have the greatest impact. Ongoing coach/principal check-in conferences should confirm that the coach is “working the plan.” About every 9-12 weeks I recommend assessing if different roles might have greater impact during the coming weeks.

Effective coaches at times need to say, “No.” They have more requests than they have time to fulfill and prioritization becomes critical. Sometimes that means a polite “request for reconsidering” to the principal who has suggested an assignment that prevents the coach from executing the role identified in their partnership agreement. As Cindy and Joellen suggest “Coaching without parameters limits the depth of focus and support coaches provide, and simultaneously, limits their impact on teaching quality and student success.”

Continuous educator growth and development is critical for continuous increases in student learning outcomes. Coaching feedback and support are necessary for teacher learning. Therefore, we must focus on creating a culture and profession based on educator openness to coaching. The work of teacher leaders, instructional coaches, and school administrators should engage staffs in creating a coaching culture within our schools. In a recent report Blazar and Hogan (2016) identify that we need school environments where providing and receiving constructive feedback are a regular part of teachers’ professional work.

Teacher leaders need to be “coaches of coaching.”  Leading with their own vulnerability and modeling their coachability are keys to generating a culture of coaching. For most schools this is a new way to work and learn. Such a change will place demands on leaders at all levels. The closing chapters of Taking the Lead provide strategies for addressing the visible and invisible roadblocks.

This is hard work. Important work. Killion and Harrison provide a valuable resource.   Only by expanding the role of skilled teacher leaders can we create the conditions for teacher coaching to have maximum payoff… all students experiencing excellent teaching and learning every day.


Build the Instructional Coach-Principal Partnership During the Summer Months

The alignment of an instructional coach’s and principal’s messages to staff is important in maintaining teacher actions what will drive increased student learning. Both principal and coach must make constant decisions and responses to staff during busy school days throughout the year. Rich conversations assist principal and coach in knowing their thinking is based on agreed upon goals and priorities.

Sebastian Wren and Diana Vallejo writing in Effective Collaboration Between Instructional Coaches and Principals,  identify several critical elements for successful instructional coaching initiatives, including the coach-principal partnership.

“The instructional coaching model has tremendous potential, both good and bad. Instructional coaches can be the wind in the sails of a struggling school or they can be the anchor. There is growing evidence that instructional coaches can be a driving positive force in a school, but only if certain conditions are met…

…there is one critical topic that is only beginning to get long-needed attention in the instructional coach literature—the placement of the instructional coach within the school and the working relationship the coach should have with the principal and other administrators within the school.”

In Coaching Matters, Joellen Killion and others provide suggestions and examples that can assist in developing a written coach-principal agreement.

It is critical that coach and principal function as a team and are seen by staff as being “on the same page.” A teacher should discover that as she implements changes discussed with a coach, her principal notices and reinforces those efforts. It should be obvious to the staff that issues addressed in their faculty meetings align with topics of PLC and coaching conversations sparked by the coach. This does not mean there isn’t confidentiality in coaching conversations. It means the common focus on student achievement and the thoughts about the necessary student behaviors to produce that achievement are in place.

Scheduling the time, especially uninterrupted, for the necessary coach/principal conversations is often difficult.  Summer may provide the perfect opportunity for the instructional coach to call the principal and request a coffee hour to catch up and/or establish a plan for the start of the new year. Here are some questions that a coach might use in such a dialogue with consideration to varying partnership situations. (Mix and match as appropriate)

Situation 1 – Coach and principal both returning, having worked together last year.

  • What do you identify as our greatest success last year in student learning?
  • What did you notice in classroom observations that would have led you to predict that success?
  • What do you see as our focus for student growth this year?
  • What changes will teachers need to make to gain the student behaviors we need?
  • What would you see and hear students doing that would tell you the teacher changes are in place?
  • How would my work support the changes we need?
  • What do you believe you will need to do?
  • How should we plan to communicate the plan to the staff?

Situation 2 – Principal returning and coach is new to the school.

  • What are some of the strongest student achievement results the school is getting?
  • What do you believe are the staff efforts that are getting those results?
  • Where are you envisioning the next desired increase in student achievement?
  • What will you need to get students to do to reach that result?
  • What will that require teachers to do?
  • How should I begin my work to support those efforts?

Situation 3 – Coach returning and the principal is new.

  • What have your experiences been coaching, being coached and working with school based coaches?
  • How does the role of a coach fit into promoting the school culture you will want to develop?
  • What questions do you have for me?
  • How can my work assist you as you begin knowing and guiding student achievement success?

Situation 4 – Coach and principal are new to the school.

  • What have your experiences been coaching, being coached and working with school based coaches?
  • How does the role of a coach fit into promoting the school culture you will want to develop?
  • What do you know about the school that will focus our beginning work?
  • What do we need to find out?
  • What are some of the initial impressions and messages you want the staff to receive?
  • How can I best support the start of that work?

If you are a principal and your coach doesn’t request a summer conversation, consider sending an invitation. Then forward this article. I believe there is real value in the coach hearing your responses. I’d love to hear the experiences of anyone experimenting with these questions. Good luck in building your partnerships.