I love the learning I gain from interactions with educators. Not surprisingly, educators focused on coaching and collaborating provide extra special opportunities. Kevin Schlomer recently provided me one of those learning opportunities and I was anxious to share it with you.
Kevin is a former instructional coach and coordinator of instructional coaching. He is currently an assessment consultant with Heartland Area Education Agency in Johnston, Iowa. Kevin also teaches action research courses for graduate students at Viterbo University. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I spent nine years in the world of teacher leadership—six years as an elementary instructional coach and three years as a coordinator of instructional coaching. In that time, I worked with teachers, administrators, and coaches to build a program that met teachers’ needs and aligned with our vision of mutually respectful, collaborative, and growth-enhancing experiences between teachers and coaches.
Every spring, we conducted a survey of teachers about the impact of instructional coaching on their work. It was my job to read, synthesize, and share information from those surveys to improve our program. After years of sifting through hundreds of narrative comments about coaching, I realized that many of the themes I encountered could be mapped onto Steve Barkley’s evaluation/coaching continuum (Barkley, 2010, p. 23). This continuum is shown in figure 1 below.
What’s power got to do with it?
In Barkley’s continuum, coaches’ movement to the left brings teachers closer to imposition of external criteria on their work. Coaches’ movement to the right brings teachers closer to self-initiated personal improvement through peer coaching. In the surveys I’ve examined over the years, many comments related to all areas of that continuum. For example, teachers expressed concern about movement of coaches into roles better served by administrators (evaluation). They mentioned coaches’ coordination of curriculum roll-outs or school improvement work (supervision). Some teachers mentioned coaches’ provision of professional development or support of new teachers (mentoring). And, as hoped, many teachers explicitly or indirectly shared experiences about peer coaching. These statements were always the most positive and refreshing ones to read.
But there remained other comments that did not fit onto the continuum above. Some related to things like coaches answering basic questions for teachers or finding resources. Others were highly negative and said in essence: “I’m fine and I don’t need a coach.” I wondered, “What do these comments say about our program? Where do they fit on the continuum?”
Eventually I came to realize that many narrative survey responses—especially the negative ones—were about more than just coaches or coaching processes. They were about power—who had it and what they were doing with it. When I realized this, I added three categories to the right of peer coaching in Barkley’s continuum. I labeled these categories consulting, information gathering, and indifference. With these additions, every comment from the surveys seemed to have a home. I called the resulting model The Coaching Balance Scale, which is shown in Figure 2 below.
Peer coaching rests at the center of the coaching balance scale and is aligned to Knight’s (2007) partnership principles of equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, praxis, and reciprocity. It is a mutually respectful and beneficial experience in which two professionals of equal status approach an instructional challenge together. A teacher identifies an area of focus and works collaboratively with a coach to learn about, implement, and reflect upon the success of options that address the teacher’s focus. True peer coaching interactions between coaches and teachers demonstrate equal professional status, equal give-and-take, and equal respect.
A coach’s presence in peer coaching represents the ideal balance of power between teachers and coaches. However, when the coach moves left into mentoring or supervision, the balance begins to tilt left and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of the coach. When the coach moves right into consultation or information gathering, the balance begins to tilt right and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of the teacher. The direction of the tilt, and thus the balance of power, depends on which level of the scale the coach works in at any given time.
Creating this model also caused me to think about instructional coaching programs as a whole, so I added a foundation for the balance to rest upon. These foundational components include administrator capacity, coach capacity, teacher collaboration, program vision and infrastructure, and school culture. Weakness in any one of these foundational components will cause instructional coaches to shift too far left and teachers to shift too far right. If this continues for an extended period of time, the coaching program will struggle to remain balanced and peer coaching opportunities will decrease.
Practical implications of the coaching balance scale
This model has several practical implications for instructional coaching programs.
Implication 1. Although coaches are pulled in many directions, they must spend the majority of their time in peer coaching.
Experts agree that more than half of a coach’s time should be at the center of the coaching balance. Diane Sweeney (2015) suggests at least 50% (and preferably 60%) of a coach’s time should be spent in coaching cycles. The Instructional Coaching Group’s (n.d.) instructional coach certification process requires a minimum of 70%. Because coaches are associated with whatever they do most consistently (Sweeney, 2015), teachers who only see coaches in supervision, mentoring, consulting, or information gathering capacities will associate them exclusively with that work. It’s important to remember that the supervision, mentoring, consultation, and information gathering components of the coaching balance scale are not bad in and of themselves. But if coaches consistently spend more than 30% to 40% of available time in any combination of those four roles, opportunities for peer coaching will begin to diminish.
Implication 2. Significant disparities in the balance of power can make teachers uncomfortable.
Power becomes more concentrated and unbalanced the closer one moves to the ends of the balanced coaching scale. By power, I am referring to control over decision-making. Moving to the left places the coach more in control of decisions than the teachers.
This decision-making authority can also be thought of as autonomy. There is a constant tension with autonomy in schools today. On the one hand, it’s important to ensure that all students experience similar opportunities and consistently high expectations for their learning. On the other hand, good teaching is responsive in nature; every teacher, student, and classroom has unique needs that should be accounted for. No single action will be effective in every situation. Because teachers are professionals intended to diagnose and solve problems, it follows that they should be afforded enough freedom and flexibility to learn and teach in ways that will support their students.
However, autonomy does not mean that teachers have the right to make all decisions without regard for students or the system. In his book Thinking for a Living, Thomas Davenport perfectly captured this tension:
. . . Because knowledge workers prefer autonomy doesn’t mean they should always be given the maximum amount of it. . . . Some efforts to improve knowledge worker performance may involve removing some discretion from the knowledge worker. Still, organizations must be careful when implementing any new process or technology that significantly reduces the autonomy of their knowledge workers. (Davenport, 2005, p. 17)
If teachers perceive that independent thought or self-direction is threatened, they will respond negatively. Whether intentional or not, impeding the capacity of teachers to think independently and guide their own work is “dehumanizing” (Knight, 2016, p. 32). The key, as in all things, is to get the balance right.
Implication 3. Coaches and teachers move in opposite directions when they feel threatened by perceived displays of power.
As mentioned before, moving to the left of peer coaching places more decision-making control in the hands of the coach, but moving to the right of peer coaching places more decision-making control in the hands of teachers. Simply put, the further left a coach moves from peer coaching, the more a teacher feels threatened; the further right a teacher moves from peer coaching, the more a coach feels threatened.
A result of this perceived threat from supervision or mentoring activities is that teachers might retreat further to the right to regain power they feel has been lost by exercising control over key decisions (such as what they will discuss; to what degree they will discuss it; and if the coach is even welcome in their classrooms or not).
Coaches can feel threatened by teachers who only participate in consultation and information-gathering activities. When coaches are pressured by supervisors to engage significant time in peer coaching without all foundational components functioning at high levels, they may respond in one of two ways to gain access to classrooms:
- Some coaches move to the left of peer coaching and attempt to engage in supervision and mentoring activities to short-circuit their way into peer coaching. This, in turn, causes some teachers to move even further right and perhaps into indifference. Like magnets of similar polarity, the coach’s action in this case repels the teacher.
- Other coaches might follow the teacher’s lead and devote their work to consultation and information-gathering activities. Killion (2008) described this phenomenon as “coaching light” (p. 1). They might spend much or all of their time there, performing work that keeps themselves busy and is even appreciated by the teacher (Killion, 2008). Though this work keeps the coach in contact with the teacher, it tilts the balance of power to the right and rarely brings the two together in peer coaching. Over time, the coach’s singular engagement in consultation and information-gathering activities reinforces a culture where teachers remain to the right of peer coaching.
Neither of these solutions is particularly desirable for teachers or coaches. If the modus operandi of the school is a continual tilt of the balanced coaching scale, it means one or more of the foundational components needs to be examined (this is discussed next in Implication 4). However, during short-term tilts of the balanced coaching scale, awareness of the tendency for coaches to move left and teachers to move right during perceived threats to power can help a coach be more reflective and purposeful during interactions with teachers.
It is important to note that engagement in evaluation (coach) and indifference (teacher) must always be off-limits. Participation in these levels of the balanced coaching scale tips the program so far that it falls off the scale. Serious long-term consequences to the program can result.
Implication 4. The cause of a permanently tilted program is almost always a breakdown in one of the foundational components.
The coaching balance scale rests upon a foundation that addresses the needs of individuals and the system. Minor tilts occur often as coaches move back and forth among supervision, mentoring, peer coaching, consultation, and information-gathering with teachers. Long-lasting or significant tilts, however, indicate the school should examine each of the following foundational components and address issues as necessary.
- Administrator capacity includes a principal’s and central office administrator’s understanding of coaching, ability to promote coaching, and ability to guide the remaining foundational components. Those administrators who have experienced coaching themselves are often better able to distinguish peer coaching from the other levels of the balanced coaching scale and understand the nuanced implications of coaches completing tasks that fall at levels all along the scale.
- Coach capacity refers to the technical skills of coaching that are often not taught in teacher education programs; things like questioning, paraphrasing, listening, and observation skills (Barkley, 2010). In addition, coaches may need additional training in instructional models; content knowledge; and district processes and procedures (Schlomer, 2017).
- Teacher collaboration involves the extent to which teachers collaborate teacher-to-teacher in the school environment. Do teachers view themselves as team players or independent contractors? Are efficient and productive teaming structures already in place?
Additionally, what is the nature of the collaboration in which teachers routinely engage? Roland Barth (2006) noted that schools with genuine collaboration are marked by teachers who:
- talk with one another about their teaching practice,
- openly share their knowledge with one another,
- watch one another teach, and
- support and celebrate the successes of one another.
In schools where teachers exhibit these characteristics, peer coaching is a welcomed opportunity instead of a threat.
- Program vision and infrastructure. There are several pieces to this foundational component:
- Has the school identified a philosophical model to follow? Can all staff members (especially teachers) speak accurately and clearly about this philosophical model? I advocate for Knight’s (2007) partnership principles of equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, praxis, and reciprocity.
- Has the school identified a coaching process to follow? Can all staff members (especially teachers) speak accurately and clearly about this coaching process? Many models exist, but whichever one is selected should (a) engage the teacher and coach at an equal level, (b) focus on the outcome of the coach’s and teacher’s collaborative work on student learning, and (c) use evidence to make decisions.
- Has the school identified common frameworks for instruction? That is, does common language and understanding exist with the best practices a school adheres to in areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and social/emotional learning?
- Is the program guided by a common measurable goal that guides the work of instructional coaches?
- Does the school have a process in place for periodic review of the program? Do these processes invite, honor, and thoughtfully consider the voices of all stakeholders (teachers, coaches, administrators)?
- Has the school established processes to guide and protect the work? This includes things like coaching job descriptions; administrator-coach agreements; dedicated time and processes for coaching; budget support for coach growth and development; and so on. (A great resource to investigate these issues is Coaching Matters by Killion, Harrison, Bryan, and Clifton ).
- School culture. Does the school have a belief that all students can learn? Do teachers approach their work from a growth mindset (Dweck, 2016)? Is the school welcoming and inviting, with relationships among all stakeholders that are warm, respectful, and nurturing (teachers, coaches, students, staff, administrators, and families)? (One helpful resource for this work is Part III of High Impact Instruction by Knight .)
A breakdown in any of these foundational components can cause coaches to move left and teachers to move right on the balanced coaching scale, minimizing opportunities for peer coaching within the school. Regular examination of these foundational components is an important part of the overall health of a coaching program.
Use the balanced coaching scale for formative assessment of a coaching program
The coaching balance scale can provide a useful way to make sense of teachers’ narrative responses on surveys and formatively assess the coaching program. When reading each survey response, determine to which level of the coaching balance scale teachers are referring (evaluation, supervision, mentoring, peer coaching, consultation, information gathering, or indifference).
Place a tally mark in each box on the scale as you notice each level mentioned in the survey responses. Each comment could address multiple levels from the scale, or just one. When you have finished reading all comments and marking the tallies, examine the scale. How balanced is your program? Does it tilt to the left (placing disproportionate power in hands of coaches) or to the right (placing disproportionate power in the hands of teachers)? A program that is fairly well balanced will have the greatest number of tallies present at the peer coaching level.
This is not the only data to examine for a quality coaching program, but the process described above provides a useful way to understand the perspectives of teachers while interpreting what is often an overwhelming and unruly amount of narrative survey data.
What began for me as a way of attempting to find meaning in hundreds of narrative survey responses eventually became a model that I believe has wider applications. Version 1.0 is presented here; refinements are likely to happen over time. I’d welcome your thoughts about what I have presented here. If you happen to interact with this model in some way, please share your experiences and feedback. Happy coaching!
Barkley, S. G. (2010). Quality teaching in a culture of coaching (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
Barth, R. S. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Educational Leadership, 63(6), 8-13.
Davenport, T. H. (2005). Thinking for a living: How to get better performance and results from knowledge workers. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Instructional Coaching Group. (n.d.). ICG certification: Current certification cycle. Retrieved from https://www.instructionalcoaching.com/certifications/
Killion, J. (2008). Are you coaching heavy or light? Teachers Teaching Teachers, 3(8), 1-4. Retrieved from https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/may08-issue.pdf
Killion, J., Harrison, C., Bryan, C., & Clifton, H. (2012). Coaching matters. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.
Knight, J. (2016). Better conversations: Coaching ourselves and each other to be more credible, caring, and connected. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Knight, J. (2013). High-impact instruction: A framework for great teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Schlomer, K. J. (2017). Examining the impact of Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching on elementary instructional coaches’ work (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (Order No. 10273211)
Sweeney, D. (2015, September 22). Getting to 60% (1 of 3) [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://dianesweeney.com/getting-to-60-percent-1-of-3/