My best tips for coaching teachers

Greenville County Schools revised its coaching procedures and is seeing positive results

As the nation faces a looming teacher shortage, one of the most powerful tools we have for retaining teachers is coaching. Every district around the nation employs coaching models. But are they effective?

We asked this question two years ago after years of coaching teachers at both the school and district level. After analyzing our impact, we realized our return on investment was not as large as we needed or wanted. Several things emerged from this self-reflection, and with a few corrections we are seeing positive results.

1. Effective coaching includes everyone

Several years ago, we moved from a model of coaching struggling and first year teachers to a model that focuses on all teachers. After all, football coaches don’t focus solely on the struggling players. They focus their efforts on building the team to make sure everyone performs at their highest potential. We have found that successful teachers are more eager for coaching because they always want to be the best possible for their students.

2. Effective coaching must be differentiated

Teachers fall on a continuum of ability, skill, and will. Each one demands a different approach to coaching in order to get the best results. We use the skill/will matrix highlighted in Max Landsberg’s book, The Tao of Coaching. Administrative teams help identify where teachers fall so that district- and school-level coaches know best how to approach the coaching.

For example, a teacher that has low skill and low will may need some easy, early wins. They are often reluctant to coaching for a variety of reasons. Designing a coaching experience for them that will produce a quick win can build confidence and will. Each of the areas on the skill/will matrix employ different strategies to coach a teacher to success. Just as we differentiate our classroom teaching for students, we should differentiate our coaching for teachers.

3. Effective coaching is based on a model

In Greenville, we took the best methods from various coaching models to develop our own. The core of that model is based on Diane Sweeney’s work in student-centered coaching. A district model helps bring together all coaches, including tech coaches, instructional coaches, district coaches, etc.

4. Effective coaching is sustainable

Too many coaching models rely on the “one and done” method: Walk in, coach for 30 minutes, walk out, and hope our work was meaningful. Hope is not a strategy! When we redesigned our coaching model, we implemented Coaching Cycles. These cycles last at least six weeks. The coach conducts a pre-conference, observation, and post-conference each week. The teacher and coach then sets goals for the next week and the cycle starts again. The teacher is integral in setting the direction for the coaching. For struggling teachers, more direction may be needed initially based on what is happening in the classroom.

5. Effective coaching involves administrators

One of the biggest reasons we were not getting a higher return on our coaching investment was lack of administrator involvement. This wasn’t the administrator’s fault. Our coaching model just didn’t have that component. District and school coaches would coach teachers in isolation of the administration. In too many cases, once the coaching concluded, teachers went back to their previous practices either because they did not have enough support or because they were reluctant to change.

The new model involves administrators while balancing the trust between the teacher and the coach. The coach and teacher complete a Google Doc about the coaching cycle and what they are focusing on each week. In the new model, administrators observe teachers at least three times (and up to six) during a six-week coaching cycle. The administrator’s observation and feedback focus on the week’s coaching goal. The feedback from the administrator should be specific and include both praise and suggested improvement feedback. This reinforces what is happening during the coaching cycle and provides a level of accountability for the coaching.

How we help coach schools to the next level

The academics division works with 10 to 15 “focus” schools each year. These schools are chosen based on academic achievement and principal request. In many cases, principals realize they need help to take their school to the next level. Our focus school initiative has several components.

  • Monthly meetings with academic leaders, school supervisors, and school administrators. These meetings focus on coaching the administration on how to best support teachers, how to observe and provide critical feedback for academic improvement, and how to provide instructional leadership.
  • District coaches provide coaching to teachers alongside the school instructional coaches. This intensive coaching effort, using the coaching-cycle model, provides all teachers with a coaching cycle.
  • Instructional rounds are conducted at least quarterly. These rounds provide the district leadership and school leadership with a common focus. A focus is determined for the instructional rounds and several hours of observations take place, specifically focused on the school’s goals. Debriefs follow, providing school leadership with concrete next steps.

Coaching is not for the faint of heart and it takes the right person to be an effective coach. The most effective coaches differentiate their coaching and can effectively coach reluctant and eager teachers.

One of the most powerful testimonies to the coaching cycles we put in place was from a teacher who had decided to leave the profession. She agreed to the coaching cycle but had already determined she was leaving at the end of the year. On the survey after the coaching cycle ended, she indicated that had she received a coaching cycle earlier in her career like the one just conducted, she wouldn’t be leaving the profession. Unfortunately, we lost that teacher but it underscores the impact coaching can have. Everyone needs and deserves good coaching, but it has to be organized and well thought out to make a lasting impact!

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