Another Look at Heavy Coaching - Steve Barkley

Another Look at Heavy Coaching

I am looking back to identify some of the writers, presenters, and ideas that have shaped my work. I realize that today, we have many educators who recently or currently are starting their coaching careers and may not have the information about some of the early work that led us to where we are today. In this blog I’ll examine Joellen Killion’s important insights on heavy coaching.

In a 2008 article titled, Are You Coaching Heavy or Light?,” Joellen defined light coaching as coaches who were working to build and maintain relationships more than they were working to improve teaching and learning. I was working in the field at that time, and it was very common that folks starting a coaching position were providing a lot of “help” to teachers hoping to build relationships. Joellen noted that they provided demonstration lessons and shared curriculum materials, but the pressure was not on teachers to apply learning in their classrooms to increase student success.

Joellen then went on to describe heavy coaching as coaching that feels heavy to the teacher because of the weight of collective responsibility and commitment that the teacher is devoting to the success of every student.  Coaching brings that reflection to the teacher’s mind. It’s not the coach “being heavy.” Coaching heavy causes a teacher to feel on edge because they’re questioning their actions and their decisions, thinking about what they might do to have a greater impact on their students.

Joellen identified seven beliefs that could interfere with coaches coaching heavy.

  • Coaches can believe that being accepted gives them more leverage to work with teachers. Joellen’s explanation was that working on being accepted could interfere with the most important thing; a focus on teaching and learning.  I found early on, that when coaches did light coaching to build relationships with teachers, by the time the relationship was built, the actions of the coach with the teachers had defined coaching as light coaching. Teachers were seeing their coach as a resource, in some cases, being seen as making the teacher’s job easier. Because the coach could find resources for me, it was easier for me to get it implemented in my classroom.
  • The second belief Joellen shared was that being viewed as credible is essential to being a coach. While it’s true that credibility is important, she suggested that credibility emerges from the alignment of one’s actions with one’s words. When a coach can talk about the importance of student achievement and identify the student learning behaviors to generate that achievement and how the work that the coach is doing with the teacher gets students to do that work, you build your credibility.
  • The third belief that could get in the way is defining that the work of coaches is to support teachers. It needs to be clearly presented by the administrator /coach partnership that the role of the coach is to be impacting student learning. The coach works backwards from the desired outcome of student learning to assist in providing the teacher with the changes that the teacher needs to implement to bring about that impact on student learning. So, as a teacher, I assess the value of my coach by seeing the impact that the coach’s work has on my learners.
  • The fourth item that Joellen raised was that coaches can have a belief that teachers are resistant to change. She shared the importance of getting into teachers’ belief systems. If we do, we’ll find that, as I’ve certainly found in my work across these last 35 years, that the vast majority of teachers are truly interested in their students having the greatest learning success possible. So, any resistance that a teacher has to change is probably a resistance to change for the sake of change, or changing to implement a new program without getting to the core of identifying how that change will influence student learning production behaviors, and thus impact student learning outcomes.

“Coaching is about putting results of high-quality teaching and learning for students in the forefront and keeping that in our view at all times and holding ourselves accountable and responsible for both of those things.”  (Joellen Killion)

  • The fifth belief was that coaches can’t impose on teachers since they have no supervisory responsibility. Coaches can’t impose through assigned authority. A coach is not going to “threaten” a teacher with an evaluation or negative feedback. I believe that the way coaches most strongly impact teachers from a heavy coaching standpoint is through the use of a mirror. It’s mirroring back to the teacher any incongruity that exists between what a teacher is stating he wants to make happen for his students and what is actually happening. A coach listening to a teacher exploring student work, student outcomes, student indicators compared to what she wanted as an outcome from the investment she made in a lesson, is guiding teacher reflection that can lead to vulnerability and change. A coach can then explore changes a teacher might make to get the students closer to the outcome that the teacher desired. I believe that has a much stronger impact on real teacher change than any evaluator can have. An evaluator’s impact is likely only to be present as long as the evaluator is present. A coach playing back a teacher’s own words to the teacher, creates a motivation that is present even when the coach isn’t.
  • The 6th belief that Joellen identified was that helping teachers know about or learn how to implement new instructional strategies is the coach’s primary responsibility. The primary responsibility is to impact student learning outcomes. Any new instructional strategy you’re bringing to a teacher needs to identify an impact on students’ success.
  • The last belief Joellen labeled that could interfere with coaches’ success was coaches believing that they’re not responsible for what teachers do. If I identify as a coach, that the real measure of my success is in the impact that I’ve had on student achievement in my school, I cannot get that change in student impact without a change in what teachers are doing. So, in effect, as a coach, I am going to be held accountable.

When I first began to work in coaching, I would do a presentation and I’d have some educators in the audience come up to me and say, “Steve, I really like what you had to say, but couldn’t you find a word different than coaching?” I’d ask why, and they would say, “We already get too many athletic coaches getting into administration as it is, and we’re not sure we want you out there promoting that.” It’s really the word that comes out for me because if you think about a person coaching the basketball team at school, they can work with the team all week long but come Friday night during the game, they really need to sit on the bench and look over their shoulder and say to the crowd, how am I doing?

The crowd, in effect, evaluates the coach based on the performance of the people the person has provided coaching to. So, the effectiveness of an instructional coach is seen as the impact that she’s had on the teachers she is working with, which is only evident in the impact that that teacher has had on his or her students’ learning. When working as a coach increases the success of a teacher in achieving his or her goals with students, that teacher takes on a believability and a trust in both the coach and the teacher’s own ability. That increase in believability and trust will cause teachers to set ever increasing goals for their students, which causes them to set ever increasing goals and risk taking for themselves.

Joellen’s insights are continually worth reviewing. She joined me on a podcast around mental models for coaching which you can find here.

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One Response to “ Another Look at Heavy Coaching ”

  1. Joellen Killion Says:

    Thanks, Steve, for revisiting coaching heavy and light. This is just the right time of the year for coaches to think deeply about their overall purpose and the results they strive to achieve.

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