Do You REALLY Coach?

2 Oct 2019

I became an instructional coach in my school district in California in 2001 after completing my masters in computer-based education (what educational technology was called back then). I have been in an instructional coaching role for most of my career since then, at times going back into the classroom.

I have been reflecting about the work I have been doing with teachers over the past 10-12 years. With few exceptions, it hasn’t felt like instructional coaching for quite some time, but I couldn’t quite quantify what I was doing with the teachers I am supporting. I have read several books on coaching, have been trained in Cognitive Coaching, and a few months back I attended an instructional coaching workshop presented by Jim Knight, the guru of coaching gurus. That’s where I got a better handle on what I have been doing for the past decade or so.

Jim Knight’s Impact Research Lab, defines instructional coaching this way: “Instructional coaches partner with teachers to analyze a current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to meet goals, and provide support until the goals are met.” (Knight, p.3) Diane Sweeney adds that one way of providing the necessary support is to organize 6-9 week coaching cycles with regular planning sessions. (Sweeney, p. 31) Cognitive Coaching describes four types of support functions. They are Cognitive Coaching, collaborating, consulting, and evaluating. (Costa, p. 149) The “coaching cycle,” a sustained coaching relationship focused on student-centered goals, is an integral part of all of these coaching philosophies.

A lot of what I have been doing has often felt more like consulting than coaching, and has been relationship-driven, where I am seen as a source of support for teachers who are seeking ideas or advice for a particular lesson or project. Also, a significant majority of my work with classroom teachers has been initiated by me, not the teacher. I have developed my techniques as a salesperson, “selling” lesson ideas in the hallway, or collecting “leads” when teachers show up to my professional development sessions. I try to entice teachers to try tools and strategies that may be new to them. I do this by sharing the work other teachers’ students have done with my support, or by modeling a tool during a faculty meeting. When I was in Knight’s “Impact Cycle” workshop he tied all this together for me and gave a clear description of what I have been doing in my “coaching” role for the past decade. I have been providing implementation support, supporting teachers to implement a tool or strategy in their classroom.

Knight refers to implementation support as “technical support,” but this term does not necessarily apply to support with technology. The coach could be providing technical support by helping teachers to implement writers workshop, classroom management strategies, or to master any teaching strategy or program. This is still a partnership between the teacher and the support person. And this is the type of work I have been doing with teachers. I consult with them and help them to implement the digitization of student writing, creation interactive maps, teaching coding, effective search techniques, and a variety of other lessons, tools, and strategies.

I do have the values of an instructional coach. My focus is on student learning. I see the teachers as my partners. I learn from them. I am not judgmental of their choices, and realize they have the final word as to what goes on in their classroom. I am doing my best to empower them to make a difference in their instruction. I do this through consultation, modeling, implementation/technical support, and collaboration, but I am not coaching, in the true definition of the term.

So, do you really coach?

Garmston, Robert J., and Arthur L. Costa. Cognitive Coaching Seminars Foundation Training Learning Guide. 10th ed., Hawker Brownlow Education, 2014.
Knight, Jim. The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should Do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching. Corwin, A Sage Company, 2018.
Sweeney, Diane. Student-Centered Coaching: a Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals. Corwin Press, 2011.