I have frequently struggled when reviewing the job descriptions for instructional coaches. Many are written at the district level while the real work of the instructional coach should be focused and driven by the needs of teachers and administrators in a school, who are working to create the maximum learning opportunities for students. To maximize student learning, great personalization at the building level and then at the classroom level is required. My focus has been on the partnership agreement between the coach and the building leadership team that focuses and drives the work of the coach. This agreement should also guide the work of school administrators and teacher leaders in support of the coach. In other words, a team is focused on common goals. The tasks that the coach takes on emerge from the partnership agreement, rather than being driven from outside by a job description.
In many ways, this job description issue is like a problem that I often find in school improvement plans. The plan is more of a list of activities that will be carried out rather than defining outcomes of the improvement in student success. For example, when I ask a school leader, I might be told that the school improvement plan is to have all the teachers trained in a new math curriculum program. When I hear that, I look to coach the leadership team to recognize that training in the program is an activity. The goal is increased student math learning that occurs from students doing and experiencing different learning production behaviors because teachers have changed math instructional practices and perhaps classroom environments. When that’s clear, we know that the training is just the first step of the process. We should be asking what needs to be observed following the training.
Consider the coach’s role in the implementation of that plan. Identifying the change process that will support goal achievement, begins by outlining the coach’s focus. Observing for changes in teacher practices would be an early step following program training. If those changes are not occurring, leadership needs to engage in actions such as conversations with staff, coaching, perhaps gathering necessary resource materials to support teachers, or retraining. In other words, the training didn’t have the desired impact yet, so we don’t want to check off that the goal has been met because the training has been completed.
I’m currently coaching a district central office team responsible for teaching, learning, curriculum, and innovation. They want to function as a team rather than as individual content specialists. Everyone on the team is used to having a job description, which historically provided some degree of comfort. In other words, I can check back and check off that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But when functioning as a team, projects and needs will require a group (team) to form and respond. Individuals step into roles that emerge as needed for success. Sometimes strengths and passions are called upon. At other times, learning something new or seeking outside resources is needed because none of the team possesses the required talents or passion.
I’m seeing the role of the instructional coach in a similar light. The coach needs to step into the role needed by the school staff and students. The role emerges rather than being pre-set in the job description. I pulled an instructional coach’s job description from a district posting online that contained 27 items listed as general responsibilities. Here are just a few:
- Provide support in analyzing student assessment data
- Assist teachers in designing instructional decisions based on assessment data
- Assist teachers with specific classroom activities when requested
- Provide support for classroom motivation and management strategies
- Assist teachers in creating materials that are in alignment with the curriculum
- Provide teachers internet links related to instruction and curriculum
- Instruct and support teachers with curriculum, software products, and classroom curriculum related technologies
- Model lessons when appropriate
- Provide encouragement and emotional support to teachers
When I read the last two items on the list, I interpreted them as good news and bad news. Understand that job responsibilities may vary related to each building’s need. Good news. Perform duties as assigned by the principal, Bad news. I’d be much more comfortable if “assigned by the principal” meant that the responsibilities will emerge as the leadership team and coach analyze and plan for maximum student learning. That job description pulled me back to a piece that I recently read written by Susan Thomas, who is a part of Jim Knight’s instructional coaching group. She posted a blog titled, “Hiring Instructional Coaches and Firing Scope Creeps.” That last item in the job description, “perform duties as assigned by the principal”, surely opens the door for scope creep.
Thomas writes, “Once the coach is hired these hazy job descriptions result in the coach having so many different tasks that they can’t spend most of their work time on the coaching tasks that help to move student growth. And they have no idea whether what they’re doing is helping students. That feeling leaves coaches frustrated and overwhelmed. Scope creep is as pervasive in coaching as good intentions and only a concerted focus on role clarity can solve the problem.” I agree that role clarity is what we need to seek, and that is most likely to emerge from the partnership agreement made between the coach and the leadership team at the school after a deep analysis of needs and goals. Thomas adds, “Scope creep means that people are now unsure of what the project or role is, unsure about who’s responsible for it, and definitely unsure about how to measure whether it’s successful because no one is sure what success is anymore. Things have spun out of control.”
I frequently state in my training sessions with coaches and administrators, that coaches need to be getting positive feedback as the initial changes from their work are noticeable, observable. Back to my earlier example about the math training program and improvement in student math outcomes. As soon as it’s recognizable that teachers are beginning to change practice, that should be bringing the first positive feedback to the coach that his or her work is having an initial impact. We all need that kind of positive feedback.
Diane Sweeney provides an example of understanding a coach’s role in her blog, “So You’re Thinking About Hiring Coaches.” She writes, “Recently we received a job description that was created by a district that was implementing student-centered coaching. We noticed that the duties listed prioritized practices, such as modeling lessons, writing curriculum, and managing tier two interventions. We pointed out that these practices aren’t emphasized in student-centered coaching and suggested that it might be confusing to include them so prominently. Imagine getting hired as a coach with the understanding that you’ll be managing two-tier interventions and then learning that the real expectation is to engage in coaching cycles.”
So, I’m pondering; rather than an instructional coach job description, identify the desired skills, talents, attributes, and mindsets of the individuals that you’re seeking as instructional coaches. High on my list would be curiosity about teaching and learning and a desire to learn more about teaching and learning. I would also seek candidates with great respect for students, teachers, parents, and administrators, as continuous learners. Having selected the person for your instructional coach role, have them join the leadership team and develop the role that they will initially play and then modify as learners’ needs and goals evolve. I’d love to hear your thoughts.