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Challenging Coaching Assumptions

by Srinivas Saripalli

The use of coaching in education has the potential to build strong learning cultures within and across institutions. Coaching can help educators acquire new skills and change the way adults interact in our schools. Yet, for one simple reason, coaching programmes are generally built to fit the current schooling structure. Because of this, they end up reinforcing the status quo rather than fostering innovative modes of organizing, leading, teaching, and learning. How can we change reality? Taking a hard look at some of the notions about coaching, the role of a coach and the interactions between coaches, principals, and teachers can help us identify some of the underlying beliefs that shape the way we now develop coaching efforts.

Let us look at a few ideas:

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Teachers applauding for schoolgirl raising trophy and giving speech at awards ceremony

1. Coaching needs confidentiality, especially when a coach shares information with a principal concerning individual or group coaching sessions with teachers. The demand for privacy promotes the perception that instructors must be protected from administrators.

2. Coaches should do what their principals ask them to do. These graphic fosters the myth that top-down leadership is the best. It ignores today’s evolving leadership dynamics and the value of cooperation in work design.

3. Coaches are not evaluators, but they must improve teacher practice. Coaches coach Educators educate. Principals assess to maintain this strict attitude, supervisors who wield real influence do a one-time official review.

Before diving into the principles, let’s first cover two things that are vital to the reader’s understanding. There are two parts to this article: a brief overview of where we are as educators and how existing institutions, values, and policies (national or local) affect any attempts to alter education in this country.

What is coaching?

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Teacher explaining to school children using digital tablet outdoors

Put simply, coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the ‘here and now rather than on the distant past or future.

While there are many different coaching models, here we are not considering the ‘coach as expert’ but, instead, the coach as a facilitator of learning.

There is a huge difference between teaching someone and helping them to learn. In coaching, fundamentally, the coach is helping the individual to improve their performance: in other words, helping them to learn.

Good coaches believe that the individual always has the answer to their problems but understands that they may need help to find the answer.

What is the current large picture? 

Hegemony, bureaucracy, and hierarchy continue in education People who no longer teach or never taught set policies for school employees to follow. They do this without regard for school life. It’s easy to forget how mentally and emotionally taxing teaching is once you’re out of the classroom. This lack of linkage may be why politicians and administrators have generally assumed that anyone with a liberal arts degree, a few methods courses, and some student teaching experience is qualified to teach. A newer viewpoint has emerged: teaching is a temporary, community service role for eager graduates (preferably from prestigious universities) who want to give back before pursuing their real careers (e.g., an example of organizations advocating temporary teaching using new college graduates is Teach for INDIA). As a result of the low admission bar, district leaders must raise the bar for the profession. The issue is that district leaders often struggle to improve teaching and learning when they lack resources or knowledge.

The prevalence of policies requiring teachers to adhere to packaged curriculum programmes demonstrates district leaders’ lack of understanding of the task at hand. These policies are based on flawed assumptions: that teachers don’t need to know their content deeply or flexibly; that all students learn at the same pace; that teaching is about delivering information rather than constructing knowledge. If one set of instructional materials doesn’t work, get another. If another leadership team’s ideas don’t work, start over. The difficulty is that most solutions are based on basic thinking that cannot solve the task at hand. If the fundamental issue is better teaching, then the remedy must be oriented on teaching as practice, which is essentially internal. No curriculum can educate teachers on how to teach. It cannot be delivered in directives that tell them what to do, when, or how. Teaching—knowing how to teach—begins in the mind of anyone who seeks to develop student learning. It’s not about the resources (although curriculum materials can be great tools), but about what you know, how you know it, and how well you can build a culture where students and adults alike question, reason, and understand.

How have national policies exacerbated educator challenges? 

Challenging Coaching Assumptions - BLUE AGILE

With initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the government has pushed educators to be more accountable for their job. On the surface, this seems acceptable, but the demands of these regulations ignore the fact that educators now lack the knowledge basis to meet these needs. We believe that to achieve the stated aims, policies must be balanced by investments in learning at all levels of the system. This policy puts immense strain on an antiquated form of schooling (factory design; hierarchical positions; solo practitioners) that just cannot satisfy the obligation to ensure all kids learn to high standards.

Simple to say (and expect) but difficult to implement! Educators simply do not know how to achieve the degree of achievement indicated in these policies. (Actually, neither does government.) That educators (and government officials) don’t want all students to succeed is just a matter of the culture they operate in. The educational system must be completely reformed, as must our approach to teaching and learning. This will need vision, guts, and time. But it isn’t the reality for educators. They face punitive consequences, which appear to be the government’s principal tool to force schools and districts to comply. And sanctions don’t address capacity.

What will boost teacher knowledge and the educational system? We believe adult learning and coaching can help solve the current educational crisis. Threats generate fear, not knowledge. Fear produces what? If the recent Atlanta cheating scandal is any indicator, punitive threats and the need for rapid change induce change, but not the type that lasts. A reaction to mandates and sanctions isn’t necessarily pleasant or productive. We believe mandates and fines have hampered the growth of adult learning and the creation of new knowledge in part because they have increased teacher anxiety, preventing them from taking calculated risks to innovate. The fear of punishment and humiliation has forced them to focus almost exclusively on standardized exam scores.

Most teachers don’t know how to teach better than they did before the regulations were put in place, and the government doesn’t seem to have the means or will to develop teacher capacity. (Even if the policies are incorrect, the pressure they create may eventually lead to new educational methods. That is not the situation now.)

We shall quickly examine some important hurdles to educational reform outside government policies. Tests, outdated educational architecture, and unrealistic teacher and administrator expectations are the reality.

Standardized tests are maybe one of the greatest hurdles to education reform. Because many supporters of the national testing craze are not familiar with the classroom and teaching, they have limited knowledge of how standardized exams harm teaching and learning. Time is expended to guarantee that pupils pass standardized tests because they are increasingly used to gauge individual student, teacher, school, and district achievement. This means teachers are often focused on mastering a narrow set of isolated skills, which are outlined in the list of standards that will be tested, rather than developing students’ ability to reason and communicate their thinking. With immediate outcomes (children pass the standardized test), this fragmented teaching leads to the gerbil-wheel of learning—cram, forget. Again. Forgetfulness happens because students’ knowledge is superficial or disconnected.

The school timetables are not structured to allow adults time to interact, learn, and reflect. Even the most forward-thinking administrators may fiddle around the edges of school schedules to carve out some time for adults to learn from and with one another.

While most teachers want to explore new techniques of teaching, school institutions often come in the way of this desire—there just isn’t enough time. Coupled with the solitude of solo performance, we promote the perception that teaching is a private act. De-privatizing teaching, which is necessary for new research on teaching and learning, remains elusive. Teachers rarely observe each other teach collaboratively developed lessons regularly. Rarer still is the ability to provide actionable feedback to improve school practice. Even when teachers do this, it is usually just on occasion. When instructors do have time for professional development, they are not educated to identify specific behaviours that matter.

Third, principals, even instructional leaders, are placed between a rock and a hard place if their schools do not make AYP. When your job is on the line, you are inclined to support foolish policies and unworkable deadlines by encouraging teachers to teach to assessments that limit student learning chances.

A superficial understanding of differentiation, models of teaching, cooperative learning, and other topics can lead to teacher-administrator confrontations. Instructors may believe they know more about teaching than their administrators, eroding confidence and credibility and causing teachers to comply with things that distract them from the important business of engaging students in meaningful learning. Teachers and principals alike get irritated, fatigued, and impotent, and blame each other for this. This situation has rekindled old rivalries between administrators and teachers (e.g., the Andhra Pradesh’s teacher strike).

Where we are and where we want to go.

What if we realized that education is in flux and that when new information, techniques, structures, and practices emerge, much of what used to be good teaching will have to be abandoned? Imagine an educational culture that respected, encouraged, and recognized adult learning as a crucial tool to improve student learning. The profession’s ever-increasing responsibilities require new teachers and veteran instructors to know more than they already do. Would it be possible to provide ongoing support and training to those expected to achieve at higher levels if we understood this? What if we assumed that all educators want their kids to succeed and are willing to go the extra mile?

How does coaching fit in? 

As of now, there is no systemic, proven method for educating currently employed or future educators. Professionals in the teaching profession have diverse perceptions of what constitutes effective practice. Whenever a group of educators—principals, district executives, teacher leaders, coaches—observe a class together, whether in person or by video, they always have varying perspectives on its success. Opinions are the keyword here. These varying opinions derive in part from how people watch the film or learn in class. Professionals could learn to identify, name, and perform important behaviours that are at the heart of good teaching by calibrating their lenses on some universally agreed-upon traits. We are not alone in considering this approach. They, along with the Centre for Educational Leadership, have produced rubrics for evaluating lessons. Rubrics, like instructional materials, are merely tools. Individual and societal tools for meaning-making. Engaging in rich dialogue centred on the instructional core is required (e.g., communities of practice, study lessons, instructional rounds). We need to develop mechanisms that allow us to agree on how the rubric’s descriptions appear, feel, and sound in actual classroom episodes. These processes require time to create and should be done by all roles. Currently, some districts work with principals. Creating shared pictures and understandings of the complicated labour of teaching in real classrooms is rare in districts. If we could do this jointly, evaluating training would be less contentious since everyone would have a shared image of proficiency.

We still disagree on many areas of teaching, learning, and success measurement. In many cases, principals and coaches cannot sort through classroom interactions to find the key moves that affect student learning. The best practice is a misnomer. We frequently try to replicate effective practices across sites. Using replication presupposes we can take a technique from one context and apply it in another with the same results. Systemic theorists recognize that learning is social and contextual. Often, just the most superficial components of a best practice are transported from its founding site. What works well in one place often fails in another. There are certainly some extremely beneficial general teacher techniques or practices that work in most circumstances, but not well enough to reach all students. Rarely do educators spend enough time discussing what techniques work best with which kids.

The validity of practices that are worth researching is determined by obtaining evidence of actual student learning in real-time. Examining test results is a useful trend. We can use this data to indicate that six students didn’t understand a topic, but that’s it. The fact that these six students have vastly diverse understandings of the same item cannot be determined by data; it can only be discovered by classroom teachers when they investigate student knowledge and identify misconceptions. To increase their comprehension, these kids need quick, specific, and practical feedback tailored to their developmental stage. Because test data gives each student the same feedback (you got the item wrong), it is unhelpful for long-term advances in either teaching or learning. So, data analysis without coaching is unlikely to improve classroom practice or student development.

Coaching conversations that focus on the instructional core—planning, teaching/observing, and debriefing—can help us identify practices that appear to have the greatest influence on student learning. Students’ words, questions, interactions, work, and products should be the basis for these talks, as should intelligent experimentation (e.g., testing out certain behaviours, models, technologies) and classroom observations by colleagues, coaches, and administrators.

We could all benefit from cross-role coaching models that help us build new norms for working together around the instructional core. To learn again, we may have to unlearn – confront our current ideas and behaviours – to unlearn. It’s okay not to know. We might be free to experiment if we admit that many of our current actions are not only ineffective but also counterproductive. This enhanced ingenuity may help us rethink teaching and learning and address challenges. Teachers lament that their kids aren’t problem solvers. When we examine their current practice, we often find that what teachers denounce is exactly what they are delivering! If you micro-manage learning, you create pupils who can’t think for themselves and panic at the slightest problem. Rescue teachers have kids that anticipate and need to be saved. This teaching style is based on a conviction that the teacher’s responsibility is to ensure students get the right answer. In other words, failure and mistakes should be avoided rather than used for student learning. Examining mistakes helps people learn from them.

We are afraid of making mistakes now, especially while a supervisor is watching. If teachers try to prevent pupils from making mistakes, they are likely to avoid making mistakes themselves, fearing the consequences. Shame arises from the belief that mistakes are indicators of ineptitude rather than growth opportunities. In this high-stakes environment, principals compound this propensity by acting as though individual teachers should know how to teach rather than be supported to learn how to teach.

What if we decided to be kind to one other and tried to establish societies where making errors was a sign of progress? What if we could give instructors precise, concrete feedback instead of focusing on what they don’t know or can’t do well? What if we focused on what teachers can do and guided them to incrementally improve their skills? What if we believed that those who work in schools every day have the intrinsic intelligence to overcome the obstacles they face when given the chance, time, support, and resources? Coaching might then be used to achieve this level of accountability (response-ability). Toggle navigation Multigenerational learning organizations.

Is secrecy truly required? 

Trust, transparency, and innovation will be the new currency in multi-generational learning enterprises. How will including confidentiality in our coaching models help or hinder the creation of learning organizations? Confidentiality suggests a lack of trust, something to hide, and a lack of a culture of transparency.

It is often mentioned in coaching literature that coaches should keep conversations with teachers private. In our experience, many coaches and principals feel that teacher-coach relationships are best kept confidential. Teachers may not want to work with a coach if they know the coach is working with the principal and revealing information may negatively affect a principal’s opinion of a teacher. Do these worries exist?

Fears are real and often based on experience in today’s environment. Too many administrators don’t believe all teachers can or will learn and lack the skills to change a distrustful culture into a learning culture. If principals don’t trust some or all their instructors, they probably don’t trust the principal. To inspire trust in others, one must first demonstrate one’s trustworthiness.

Effective principals build trust in their schools. 

A second fact is that principals may lack the skills to have focused interactions with teachers that result in greater teacher capacity. If we design coaching initiatives with the understanding that many principals lack the knowledge and skills required to improve teacher performance, then skilled coaches should partner with principals to ensure teachers receive the specific feedback and support they need to advance to the next level of competence. Coaches can assist develop a culture where teachers, principals, and coaches work together to improve instruction by meeting often and walking together. Principals and coaches, like instructors, might map out the abilities and requirements of every employee and build differentiated professional learning plans. Their input might be shared with teachers in a three-way, grade-level, or department meetings, where everyone is expected to share what they know and what they want to learn more about. By openly stating our strengths and desire to learn a high-value component of teaching, we begin the process of transparency and de-privatization. If everyone knows what their colleagues must contribute and what they are working on, we can find ways to coach each other and be coached. Transparency is essential to creating confidence.

Coaches would carefully assess a school’s current culture before recommending changes. If that culture has been competitive, secretive, antagonistic, and top-down, then a sudden shift to transparency might be unwise. Gradual progress towards that aim is required. Ask principals how interested they are in what faculty believe about the current situation and how they may improve their working environment. Inquiring about the principal’s leadership style and view of school challenges would give the coach a window into the principal’s world.

A proactive coach could help the principal envision her desired culture. The administrator and coach would collaborate to strategically decide who gets coached, why, and how this supports systemic change in teaching practice. To build this kind of cooperation, a coach must first earn the principal’s trust by offering suggestions and soliciting assistance. A principal should offer coaching as an investment in teachers’ careers and ask teachers how coaching could improve their practice. Unlike other times when coaches are appointed to failing teachers or all instructors without their input or a defined plan of action. Allowing instructors to ask for coaching or be tapped on the shoulder to coach allows teachers to volunteer while maintaining the principal’s ability to require some teachers to coach. That is, everyone in the school would have input into the coaching paradigm. If the existing culture is not conducive to learning, choose a small group of volunteers who will work one-on-one with the coach.

Should principals supervise coaches? 

The answer is “it depends.” Often coaching programmes start at the district level, and principals are left out. A district supervisor may assign coaches to schools with little or no instruction to the principal on how to best use coaching. Even when district leaders try to standardize the role and purpose of the coach, many principals don’t buy into the plan because they weren’t involved in the planning, don’t believe coaching is the right tool for their school, feel threatened by the coach’s presence (is the coach a district spy?) or have so much p Principals who have no input on the design may be less committed to the coach’s success.

Coaches, principals, and district leaders should collaborate on coaching with feedback from school faculty. Building communal awareness and commitment takes time.

It makes sense for the principal to guide the coach’s work if they are informed about coaching, can diagnose teacher needs, and give critical resources such as time and coverage. If the school is struggling and the principal is the fifth in seven years, he may want various things that do not always improve teaching. For example, expecting the coach to spend equal time with each teacher, having the coach model lessons and debrief them without preconference or preparation time, having the coach act as a substitute teacher when needed, etc. If this is the case, the principal should not be directing the coach’s job. Coaches fail because they lack clarity about their job and purpose. When principals are weak or inept, coaching becomes a dance in which the coach negotiates her role and schedule. Coaches must have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities to be successful.

Educators do not yet have a clear and agreed-upon description of the coach’s job and goal. Among the various roles a coach may play: They can be hired by the district to help teachers implement a new programme; they can provide professional development in one or more content areas; they can report to the principal or a district office. While role ambiguity has its drawbacks (frustration, uncertainty, and burnout), it also allows coaches to alter their responsibilities. Coaches must advocate for what they desire, what they know will most effectively impact teaching practice and student learning. We urge coaches to seize this chance.

Coaches who have a clear vision, a defined job, and can identify the needs of each principal, teacher, and school will be more successful in revealing and promoting improvement. Coaches can devise a strategy that considers current conditions while aiming to raise student accomplishment levels across the board. This strategy is provided to the principal as a beginning point for negotiations. The coach and principal must then work together to mould the work in effective and long-term ways. A tall order!

Where do coaching and eval intersect? 

Given the premise that coaches collaborate with principals and teachers, and that all three collaborate, and that teaching is a complex but learnable practice, evaluation can become an organic and non-threatening part of school culture. Evaluation is a trip to investigate teaching and learning and determine where people are along the path. Finding high-leverage behaviours to focus on, practicing those behaviours over time, and creating a safe environment for beliefs about teaching, learning, and content to surface, be examined, inquired into, and evolve. The formal assessment would then be evaluated. A formal assessment is the culmination of several informal assessments. Because informal evaluation is used throughout the year, formal assessment findings are unlikely to be a surprise. These days, assessment is less loaded than evaluation, although every assessment incorporates evaluation.

Coaches and principals should work together to achieve their common goals. Their mental models of effective teaching must align. They must visit schools together and compare their impressions to calibrate their mental models. The shared observations and follow-up talks will inevitably impact a teacher’s evaluation. Conversations with others affect us all. That’s it! Inspire each other’s thinking and practice. Instead of saying coaches should not affect teacher ratings, it would be more correct to say coaches should realize that their actions and words do influence teacher evaluations. Coaches must be aware of their influence and use it properly.

Frame Judgment 

It’s a great difference between thinking or saying, “Teacher X is lazy and chaotic” and “Teacher X is not yet organizing her lessons well.” In addition to time management, we are working on large topics and questions for each lesson.” The first is a character fault (laziness) judgment, while the second is an appraisal of specific actions that might be improved to improve her teaching. A teacher can learn to design classes around broad ideas and plan them in depth by using the second statement. The principal can help the coach and instructor by helping them set goals. The principal can oversee the work by observing the teacher and asking for written lesson plans. The coach can collaborate with the teacher to plan lessons, coach during lessons, and reflect on the teacher’s planning evolution. During their weekly meetings, the coach and principal can discuss progress and plan the next steps.

In Brief 

The picture we are constructing of school coaching goes beyond the work of a single coach. The expert model, the lone ranger situation, can lead to dependency and blame. We envision coaching cultures in which all individuals charged with promoting student learning may learn cooperatively across roles. This means creating new adult norms in school. It implies transforming schools into multi-generational learning organizations, blurring the lines between principals and instructors. We consider coaches as culture builders.

To tap into a school or district’s large reservoir of experience, it would behoove us to identify and exploit the natural knowledge and skill of every adult on the faculty. Transparency would replace concealment. People trust leaders who extend trust and are trustworthy. Then teachers would be more willing to share their knowledge and develop a more cohesive profession. The ability to hold each other accountable and deliver candid, actionable and educated feedback to colleagues must be cultivated. The new covenant is to act on feedback rather than take it personally or defensively. Adults would need to go out of their solo practice comfort zone and into shared practice. This involves frequent inter-visitations by colleagues, coaches, and administrators, followed by reflective conversations focused on refining the practice and developing school coherence. We recognize that this ambition requires a long road. ancient adage

“A thousand-mile trip begins with one step!”

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