Instructional Coaching - Comparing Methods to Find What’s Missing

Instructional Coaching - Comparing Methods to Find What’s Missing

By Sara Ivory

Sara Ivory is currently working as the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program Coordinator at Ogden International School of Chicago. After teaching in elementary schools abroad for eight years, she enjoys being able to support learning in the public school system here in Chicago. Her role allows her to reach all 30 classrooms of K-5 students at Ogden through co-planning, co-teaching, and coaching teachers. She is endlessly curious, seeking to always learn more about inquiry, international education, and supporting teachers to enhance student learning.  

As instructional coaching grows in schools around the world, so do the varied approaches to coaching. While leading writers in the field agree on a few key elements, there are even more differences between the methods they propose. Just as there is not a “best” way to teach, there is likely not one single “best” approach to instructional coaching. Yet, as with teaching, it is likely that researchers will continue to discover best practices for coaching too. For instructional coaches today, this is an exciting prospect. There is still a great deal of learning to be done and endless opportunities to contribute.

Every text I have read and workshop I have attended on instructional coaching stresses the importance of building trust through strong interpersonal skills. How much detail they go into varies greatly though. My first exposure to coaching, an intensive eight-day course in Cognitive Coaching with Bill and Ochan Powell, was still by far the most transformative in my journey toward becoming an effective coach. In this training, we learned how to make others feel comfortable by mirroring their body language, speaking with an invitational tone, using tentative language, asking mediative questions, assessing their states of mind, and genuinely listening.

More importantly, we spent significant amounts of time practicing these skills in conversations with peers. As a result, I am still intentional about how I communicate through my body language and word choice on a daily basis. I also try to listen to others to understand them better instead of only waiting for my turn to share. Through their highly-effective, research-based approach to teaching these interpersonal skills, Cognitive Coaching training shaped who I am as a person and professional.

Somewhat similarly, Jim Knight’s books Better Conversations (2015) and The Reflection Guide to Better Conversations (2015) provide explicit instruction on how to improve communication. His approach involves choosing an area to work on, such as asking better questions and analyzing film of ourselves engaging in a conversation. Having tried this process only once so far, I found it insightful. It is definitely worthwhile to slow down and reflect on how we actually engage with others. I appreciate Knight’s clear process for supporting coaches in developing the Partnership Principles that he specifies in his 2011 article for Educational Leadership titled “What Good Coaches Do.” Instead of just writing about the skills and mindsets that good coaches need to have, like Kathy Toll and Elena Aguilar do, Knight’s Better Conversations provides the tools to improve in these areas.

There seems to also be a consensus about the importance of goals in the instructional coaching process. Knight, Aguilar, and Toll all include formal goal setting in their approaches. Knight has coaches set PEERS goals with teachers that are powerful, easy, emotionally compelling, reachable, and student-focused. Aguilar proposes SMARTE goals by adding the E for equitable. Toll has teachers share what it would look like if their problem were solved and then set that future state as their goal. The only coaching training I have been part of that does not necessarily set goals with teachers is Cognitive Coaching. The Cognitive Coaching model uses coaching conversations for one of three explicit reasons depending on the needs of the teacher at that time: planning, reflecting, or problem resolving. As a result, the goals are to plan, reflect, or resolve problems in a much shorter time period than other coaching cycles. It appears that we can add goal setting to the short list of common “best practices” for coaching.

After agreeing on the importance of effective communication skills and goal setting, Knight, Aguilar, Toll, and the Powells diverge in their methods for how to actually coach teachers and administrators. While some of their ideas are more useful than others, each has pushed my thinking and influenced my work with teachers. Going forward, I plan to continue using Knight’s Impact Cycle since it offers an extensively research-based, clear process for coaching.

Learning the Impact Cycle in person directly from Jim Knight through the Northwestern Instructional Coaching Institute during the 2017-2018 academic year was helpful since I was able to ask questions as I got stuck throughout the year.

The biggest strength of his approach over others is starting with film to establish a clear picture of current reality with teachers. This practice has proven highly successful for me in supporting teachers to reflect and grow. His numerous books and endless online forms and videos take time to go through but are incredibly helpful resources as well.

I will need to continue exploring the teaching practices recommended in High Impact Instruction (Knight 2012) in order to expand my toolkit of best practices to try out with teachers. I will continue to explore Knight’s resources because his Impact Cycle approach to instructional coaching is clear, easily implementable, and effective for improving teaching and learning.

While engaging in Impact Cycle coaching conversations with teachers, I am fortunate to also be armed with the thinking of Aguilar, Toll, and the Powells. My communication skills are forever influenced by the Powells’ training on Cognitive Coaching.

I will keep Toll’s “What gets in the way?” question in my back pocket for situations that might warrant a more direct approach. Maybe most importantly, I am glad that Aguilar’s focus on equity and systems of oppression will now be on my mind while working with teachers. While Aguilar’s approach to coaching as an “art” makes the process more elusive and difficult to learn than the other methods, I appreciate the attention she places on the need for systemic change in education.

She offers a perspective that is otherwise missing in the works of other coaching “experts.” Aguilar pushes us to look at the context of our students, teachers, and leaders in education. We cannot expect to improve teaching and learning without considering the systems of oppression that hinder our students and educators from realizing their potential. Although Aguilar’s book, The Art of Coaching, provides a starting point for coaches to think about equity, it is not comprehensive enough to support the kind of competence coaches need to transform schools.

Even though part of me wishes that Aguilar had already done the work to provide the answers I am looking for, I am left inspired to join the conversation. When I think about what is missing in the coaching models I have studied and the work that begs to be done in my school, I see a need for a systemic approach to addressing issues of equity. Currently, more progressive schools are already engaging with diversity consultants to provide all kinds of training for students, staff, and parents.

This work is powerful and definitely making a difference for those who choose to get involved. Yet, just as teachers choose not to work with instructional coaches, many teachers are not engaging in the self-reflection and listening being organized with these consultants. Although there is a clear sense of urgency to improve teaching and learning in general too, I believe issues of equity come with more urgency than approaches to literacy instruction because of the potential trauma that oppression can cause. No student should be required to learn from teachers who treat him or her poorly. Therefore, even though Aguilar believes coaching should not be mandatory, it seems imperative to me that all educators spend time learning about implicit bias, systemic oppression, and how their beliefs impact students.

I do not know exactly how to approach this equity coaching gap yet but I have some ideas that I plan to test out this academic year. As Aguilar points out, we need to meet our clients where they are at and tailor the learning to their Zone of Proximal Development.

This might mean that coaching for equity would best come in the form of a tiered approach. In a school using these tiers, learning about equity might be mandatory but the coaching element could be optional. The ideas for these tiers would need to be tested and refined of course, but something like this might serve well as a starting point for discussion:

Tier 1- Personal Reflection: Educators reflect on their personal background and beliefs, as well as the context of their students. This might take the form of a guided journal, online class, book study, or video series. Participants would be asked to report back about their thoughts on the process only, protecting them from sharing if they are not ready.   

Tier 2- Trusted Friend: Educators go through the process of reflecting on their personal background and beliefs, as well as the context of their students with a trusted colleague. The partners might use guiding questions for their discussions or complete and discuss a similar journal, book, online class, or video series as those in Tier 1.

Tier 3- Group Training: Educators in Tier 3 participate in group training on equity. This might be offered at their school site or elsewhere. School diversity consultants may be involved in facilitating this training or organizing it. Examples include SEED and Beyond Diversity training.

Tier 4- Coaching: In Tier 4, educators still participate in the equity training activities from Tiers 1-3 to continue to build their knowledge about issues of equity and their impacts on schools. Tier 4 participants also sign up for equity coaching to push their thinking. Equity coaches challenge these teachers to unpack their own beliefs and biases by using tools like the Ladder of Inference. Coaches also encourage these educators to speak up and take action in their school communities.

Huge amounts of work will still be needed to create and refine processes for each of these tiers. I look forward to reading more, seeking advice from experts, building on these ideas, and getting feedback to improve this process. Hopefully, I will be able to contribute to the growing field of instructional coaching by building on the ideas of those who have pushed my thinking so much already.

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