Review: Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction

Review: Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction

By Timothy Dohrer

Review: Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction

“Instructional coaching is not about evaluation; it is about improving instruction through collaboration, modeling, data, research, and practice.”

 It can be easy to fall into sports metaphors to describe various aspects of life and occasionally they actually work. In the case of Jim Knight’s book Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction, the metaphor of coaching works really well.

 A basic definition of a coach is someone who helps you attain a goal. Sometimes the coach is working towards that goal as well. We see this mostly in sports. In the recent World Cup soccer tournament, it was very clear that United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann was as invested as his players in winning games. He is also a former player so he understands what it means to play the game and still has the skills to teach young players himself.

 Coaching teachers to improve their practice is a concept that has been explored by many others over the years. Jim Knight, a researcher and professor at University of Kansas, understands the history of coaching in schools and has articulated a modern definition of instructional coaching that is being used successfully in schools across the United States. He has published a number of articles and books about his research and trains teachers to become coaches at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas.

 Instructional Coaching is a straightforward and detailed explanation of this coaching model. Knight walks his readers through the history and philosophy of coaching before delving into the day-to-day experience of being a coach. I deeply appreciate that Knight draws from many other coaching models, including executive coaching, coactive coaching, cognitive coaching, and literacy coaching. These traditions clearly inform instructional coaching.

So what is instructional coaching? Instructional coaches (IC) are full-time professional developers who work on site in a school to help teachers incorporate research-based practices into their teaching. An IC develops a relationship with a teacher to understand that teacher’s specific needs. In collaboration with each other, the IC and the teacher determine what area of their instruction needs improvement, such as student behavior, content knowledge, direct instruction, or formative assessment. Certainly, the IC will observe the teacher’s instruction and collect data from those observations. But the IC will also model instructional methods and strategies in the teacher’s classroom with her students.

 This modeling piece is possibly the most powerful difference between instructional coaching and other coaching models. In order to be successful, the IC must be an expert at the methods being modeled. The IC must be an excellent teacher who feels comfortable working with a class of students that may not be his own students. If teaching is a calling for only a few people in our society, being an Instructional Coach calls on an even smaller number of people.

There are challenges related to instructional coaching. Certainly, a school or district must invest money and time into a coaching program. A full-time coach may be too expensive for many districts. There is also the issue of finding the right coach. As described, an outstanding IC is a special teacher who is also going to need a certain amount of training. Finally, as Knight clearly understands, an IC must sometimes convince a reticent or vulnerable teacher that working with a coach is a positive idea.

 All these challenges are laid out in Knight’s book, along with plenty of strategies on how to overcome them. He also utilizes many, many case studies and concrete examples of schools, coaches, and teachers who benefit from this approach, which, coupled with his clear and detailed explanations of the instructional coaching model, results in a powerful and convincing manual on how to make this work in schools.

 It is important to note that nowhere in this text does Knight discuss evaluation. This is incredibly significant today as teacher evaluation is such a focus in discussions of education and in the political arena, where federal policy and state legislatures are suggesting that the way to improve teaching is through onerous, punitive evaluation systems. Instructional coaching is not about evaluation; it is about improving instruction through collaboration, modeling, data, research, and practice. In sports, a coach has the power to bench a player. This is not the case in instructional coaching, which is where the sports metaphor breaks down.

In this regard, instructional coaching is something that may be unique to education. It falls into the tradition of service and altruism and true collaboration, without the “us” versus “them” positioning of teacher evaluation. It is about improving instruction for the sake of kids, and one teacher helping another perfect her craft.  Knight has articulated an approach to professional development that is powerfully positive and formative, something that is missing from discussions of summative teacher evaluation. Taken together, instructional coaching and well-designed teacher evaluation could be the combination schools need to finally “play the whole game” of teacher development and improvement.

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