Training Instructional Coaches - Steve Barkley

Training Instructional Coaches

I recently received the note below from Tammy O’Donnell regarding her plan to train reading coaches. Having worked with Tammy on several projects, I was sure that she’d have some insights that would be helpful when training instructional coaches.
My questions and Tammy’s answers follow.

Dear Steve:

Today I have been working on a professional development piece to use with our district’s eight reading coaches in January and was reminded that I have been meaning to let you know how I have been using a couple of products with your name on them. Coaching Skills for Successful Teaching, 1996, along with the 2005 product published by the School Improvement Network, Instructional Coaching: School-Based Staff Development for Improved Teacher and Student Learning, are working very well in tandem and the sessions have been extremely well received by my coaches here in DeSoto.

Thanks again for your vision and leadership in the area of instructional coaching.

Tammy O’Donnell
Director of Instructional Services
School District of DeSoto County, Florida

What do you see as the most important “understandings” to be shared with new coaches?

It took a couple of years (and I have the scars to show on my hard noggin) to “allow” myself to give permission for the coaches to work on trust for one semester or longer. I have to assure them that it’s OK not to expect to do a lot of formal coaching until January (January- if they are known quantity from the faculty or a school across town. If they come from Missouri or Alaska, I really do allow a year for the trust to develop).

Initially, when we won a Just Read grant in 2003, we felt the pressure to hurry into the coaching model due to the pressure of achieving results — or else. This just did not work well, so we have applied “lessons learned” including: Go slowly now, so you can go fast later.

What are the first skills for new coaches to be practicing and internalizing?

We work really hard on the open and closed-ended questions with new coaches. For a long time we do this. I use many of your materials from the coaching manual. I build a transition from the open-ended questions to the reflective prompts that I draw from Teachscape’s CWT (Classroom Walkthrough) training, also. We are attempting to build reflective practice into the culture of our schools, so I use the training with principals and assistant principals, then coaches and new teachers’ mentors.

I have found a great way to use one of your articles from the manuals: “Empowering Questions for Teacher Conference.” I have them take the article out of their binders and use a color-coding system as they read it, marking the questions as follows:

Green: I am willing to begin using this question with no hesitation. It fits my personality and leadership style.

Yellow: Haven’t used it but I am willing to try with caution or some modification to fit my style.

Pink (red): This is so not me that I would not use this question in any format.

Lavender: Marks any other points of interest.

I find that the group of new coaches have a useful “product” to take away from the training. The “green lights” are validated for them, and they have some yellow ones to add to their bag of tricks. Some of our personal favorites are the “magic wand” and “hiring your replacement.”

What are the indicators that coaches have the initial skills and are ready for more complex strategies? What kind of training do you see as most appropriate for your more experienced coaches?

This year I have tried to organize the materials from the video series and sort them by “new coach” and “veteran coach” and maybe another category for principals to experience. I am very pleased to find pockets of common topics to be used with all the coaches within the SIN/Video Journal program. Having you, Joellen and Jim Knight–plus the capacity to see real coaches in action on the DVDs is just what the doctor ordered. What I hope to develop over the next few months is a package including something like a five-year professional development component that provides differentiated experiences for the various “ages and stages” of our coaches. I just believe that this should be in place for those who are entrusted with developing the coaches in future. Hopefully, I will have something to share with you within a few months.

I was so excited when the video materials came out that I shared with the coaches at their first meeting an overview of the program and asked that the whole group select the topics they would most likely want to learn about. The two topics that topped the list were Facets of Developing Coaches, Seeing Effective Coaches at Work, and Working with the Principal. So I am presenting these topics at our monthly meetings for all the coaches. Then I use some different segments with the beginners–that is a work in progress but I find that the two series work well together. Then there are portions of the training that the coaches insisted that I use with their principals. So I will plan to do that after the dreaded FCAT because life as we know it revolves around the testing season.

I often find that the relationship and teamwork of coaches and principals can greatly increase the impact of coaches on teaching and learning at a school? What have you experienced? How do you build that into the training of coaches?

I am really struggling with that–see answer above. The one thing that cannot be negotiated is the triangle of trust (first session with new coaches every year).

I am learning so much from using the series this year–and nor surprisingly, when they share around the circle, the one “prominent/most promising/successful” school has the greatest amount of effective practice to share. And it is so obvious that they work as a team with administration in the building. The others are benefitting from hearing their reports, and hopefully the exchange of information across schools will impact the schools where the relationship and teamwork with administration is not as fully developed. So much, as you know, depends on the instructional leadership at the school. And from a district level, it is such a delicate matter to support but not intervene. I have a long way to go on that one!

Is there an email that reader could use to contact you directly?
Yes, please use:

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