Instructional coaches should be continually engaged in developing a deep reservoir of knowledge and skills that can impact student and teacher success. The coaching role creates many opportunities for learning from the teachers and leaders with whom you are working. How does a coach best engage with teachers so that the coach’s expertise is a resource that is sought rather than avoided; empowering rather than off-putting?
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Steve: 00:28 When is the coach an expert? Jim Knight wrote this question in an article published by ASCD – do coaches need to be experts to have the biggest impact? You’ll find the link to Jim’s article as well as the other things that I cite in this podcast in the lead-in. Jim noted that when coaches positioned themselves as experts giving advice, they can often overestimate the value of their advice and they can turn off the people they’re coaching by trying to solve problems for them. Jim shared the quote from Michael Bunge Stainer that we should tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good as you think. And also a quote from sir John Whitmore, that the job of the coach is to unlock people’s potential to maximize their own performance. As I explored this topic further, I found a great video by Nick Bosk titled, “Do I Need to be an Expert to be a Coach?”
Steve: 01:56 And he presented a great visual by thinking about the coach as coaching a person learning to drive the car. And the coach is seated in the passenger seat. If the coach is coaching too strongly, kind of what we might describe as an expert, it would be like reaching over and grabbing the steering wheel. Not a very effective approach. The coach may have strategies and information that the person you’re coaching can use, but that client who’s being coached, the coachee needs to stay in control of the steering wheel, just the way the teacher needs to stay in control of the implementation of the learning process in their classroom. I’ve previously recorded a podcast with JoeEllen Killian, where she talked about different mental models that coaches might operate from. And her three models were head, heart and hand. She described the hand approach as a mental model where the coach embraces action. In a case where you’re coaching from an expert spot, I think it would likely fall into JoeEllen description of that hand mental model. Take a moment to listen to her thoughts on it.
Steve: 03:49 I’d like to talk about the hand part. The hand approach to coaching, the hand mental model that a coach may hold is one that is embracing action. The more I do, the more that will support the teacher. So this coach operating from the hand approach may be very active in providing resources, modeling, demonstrating, giving the teacher things, providing an example, let me show you, let me lead you in this process. Let me tell you the way to do this so that you are able to follow my actions. It’s very action oriented, very often, the coach doing most of the work.
Steve: 04:40 So is the coach’s tendency in that setting to think that they can make it easier for the teacher to change by the coach doing more?
Steve: 04:49 Yes, yes, yes. And the more the coach does, the more the teacher sees how difficult the work is, how complex the work is, and that then may interfere with the teacher’s ability to even have any sense of confidence or competence to be able to pick up those practices. So when coaches operate from that hand level, they are usurping the role and responsibility of the teacher to be engaged in the change.
Steve: 05:22 So in effect, when the coach does more and the teacher does less, it can create a situation where both the coach and the teacher become paralyzed in that action model. And that kind of strikes me as being similar to Nick Bosk’s visual of the coach trying to grab the steering wheel. One of the ways that I’ve worked to tackle this issue of when is it appropriate for the coach to have an expertise, is to build into the pre-conference, to build into my early work with the teacher, a description of a continuum where on one end of the continuum, the coach has seen in a role that I call eyes and ears and the opposite end of the continuum, the coach’s role is described as that as that expert. At the eyes and ear spot, the teacher is really seeking an observer to collect data that the teacher will process and draw meaning from. In this case, anyone can do the observation, even if they’re unsure of what to conclude or how to generate a change that the teacher might want to implement.
Steve: 07:01 An example would be, tracking student voices in a lesson who spoke. Did they ask a question or did they answer a question? An observer collecting that data then, allows the teacher to take the data that was collected and draw a conclusion from it. At the other end of the continuum, the teacher is requesting a coach who has a an expertise, perhaps it’s in a particular content delivery or a particular instructional strategy. Now, in this case, the expert coach chooses what to pay attention to and directs the teacher to the next best step. A good example was early in my career after teaching middle grades for five years, I became a first grade teacher. I really needed a with expertise to be observing my work in teaching beginning reading. I didn’t know enough to be able to to focus a collection of data that was going to be helpful for me.
Steve: 08:18 I needed a coach with reading expertise to be observing and directing my my learning and my practice. Now, going back to the continuum, there’s a spot in the middle of that continuum. So again, you’ve got coach as eyes and ears on one end of the continuum coach as expert on the other end of the continuum. In the middle of the continuum, the coach and teacher are kind of partnering in deciding the focus of an observation, deciding the interpretation of the observation data and coming up with ideas for next step. An example might be a teacher’s concern for the engagement of English language learners during a science lab. The teacher and coach might decide upon having several observations, recording the actions of the ELL students as well as other learners in the class. And then when they meet, they explore the data together.
Steve: 09:27 They might decide that another observation or two is needed because they’ve arrived at a more specific question they want to explore, or they might together generate strategies, actions that the teacher can take to implement, and then have the coach come back to observe to see whether or not those strategies are generating the desired learner behaviors. The strategies can come from the coach or the teacher but they’re emerging out of this partnership conversation. My finding has been that a trust is built when the role is agreed upon on the front end and then the coach stays in that role. So a coach sharing expertise that wasn’t requested is often likely to be interpreted by the teacher and as an evaluative or supervisory behavior. But equally, a coach withholding helpful knowledge that the teacher is wanting, taking an approach of getting the teacher to gear it out on their own and can “frustrate” and even anger a teacher.
Steve: 11:04 Trust requires coaches doing what they agreed that they were going to do. Jim Knight summarized this well in his article. He wrote, “I believe instructional coaches can and should have expertise. They just shouldn’t act like experts effective. Instructional coaches honor the professionalism of teachers by ensuring that teachers make the decisions about what happens in their classrooms.” That’s exactly the reason that I put so much emphasis on coaches developing very effective skills in pre-conferencing with the teacher. It’s critical that the teacher’s goal is driving the work of the coaching process and that the coach’s role has been established in that pre-conference so that in the post-conference, the coach staying in the role builds the trust and that trust encourages future teacher vulnerability, which is critical to teach your growth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to connect with me at barkleypd.com. And thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 12:48 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.