5 ways to improve instructional coaching today

A superintendent shares her district’s best practices for inspiring teachers to keep learning as the district aims to improve instructional coaching

Instructional coaching can be a powerful framework for teacher professional development, but not all coaching is created equally. As a beneficiary of a Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL) Grant, the Marion County School District has been working to improve instructional coaching practices, with great success. Here are the changes we’ve made that have had the most impact.

 1) Focus your PLC meetings.

In the past, our professional learning community (PLC) meetings were fairly unstructured. Teachers would show up, and the meeting would sometimes turn into a staff meeting, or a department meeting, or a grade-level team meeting.

This year, we’ve implemented the Supporting Teacher Effectiveness Project (STEP) model, which is highly teacher-driven, but provides more focus and structure. It’s important to involve teachers in their own PD, to make them active decision-makers in the process, because they know what the bright spots and challenges are in their own classrooms.

Our new process preserves that autonomy, but has given those meetings a structure. Striking a balance between maintaining a framework and empowering teachers creates an environment in which collaboration can flourish.

2) Encourage reflection rather than compliance.

It can be tempting for instructional coaches to slide into becoming compliance coaches. They are experienced and talented teachers, familiar with best practices and any number of things to avoid. It’s easy for them to slip into telling mentees, “This is what you didn’t do. This is what you need to do.”

But we’re not looking to turn teachers into automatons who respond to this behavior or that challenge, in the same way, every day and in every classroom. We want our teachers to be themselves, to become the best teachers they can be as the individuals they are. And that requires self-reflection, not preprogrammed responses.

Our coaches encourage our teachers to reflect by asking them questions to encourage it and by helping them learn to ask reflective questions of themselves. We also have teachers watch their peers teach and watch videos of their own teaching so they become more mindful of their own practices.

3) Use video to facilitate honest and actionable feedback to improve instructional coaching.

Video is a powerful tool for encouraging self-reflection among educators, but it’s integral to our PD approach beyond that in a couple of ways.

First, the addition of video has created an opportunity that we didn’t have previously. In the course of a school day, whether you’re an administrator, instructional coach, or member of the support staff, time is always at a premium. Using the Insight ADVANCE platform allows us to watch and comment on video of a teacher at night, in the morning before school, or whenever else we need to fit it into our day. Video really empowers our coaches to more fully support their teachers without the need to be in their classroom at a specific time. It almost feels like it allows our coaches to be in multiple places at once. (We’re also looking forward to using live video as a way to further increase the opportunities for frequent coaching via one-on-one or team meetings.)

Second, video allows our coaches to be more thorough and thoughtful in their observations. When you observe a lesson in person, you see it one time. With video, you can go back for clarity and ask, for example, “Did she ask this kind of question? Did he have the right taxonomy? Were her questions at the right level for her students?”

Video also ensures the teacher they’re getting honest feedback. After a traditional in-person observation, the teacher being coached may say something like, “Well I don’t remember doing that.” But with the video record, it’s right there for both the teacher and the coach to see, which sheds light on common pieces of evidence and allows for meaningful discussions versus adversarial.

The goal isn’t to “catch” teachers doing something bad or wrong, but we all have tendencies that we engage in without even thinking about. Video helps to overcome these biases because it’s right there in front of us. Essentially, that video becomes another piece of data to help support whatever recommendations the coach is making while offering the teacher a different perspective—quite literally—of their classroom practice.


4) Get everyone on the PD team.

We have a dedicated instructional coach for each of the 10 schools in our district, but we’re trying to create a supportive environment with a variety of opportunities for collaborative professional growth. To that end, we of course expect our administrators to be instructional coaches, even if unofficially.

But we also work to foster peer-to-peer coaching, because sometimes a teacher may admire a colleague’s approach to a particular aspect of teaching. Maybe they learn better by collaborating with a peer on a new lesson or classroom activity. Perhaps they are experiencing a challenge particular to their content area and want another math teacher’s input instead of their coach’s, who may have an English Language Arts background.

Video is a powerful tool here as well. Teachers may not be able to ask a fellow teacher to observe them in person, but it’s easy enough say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this. Can you watch my video and give me some suggestions, please?”

5) Don’t be afraid to change.

If you want to realize different results, you have to do things differently. It seems obvious when you say it out loud, but it’s easy to fall into thinking that each individual piece of your approach to something as complex as professional development works, or should work, even when the whole thing together is not producing the results you want.

As administrators, the PD practices in our schools and districts are usually there because we like them and we believe in them. It can be difficult to let go of those things sometimes, but we have to look at the data and see what’s working and what’s not, and try new things, even when they’re hard.

Professional development is all about change. It’s about helping teachers change their practices to create positive change in students’ lives. To do that, we have to be open to change ourselves.

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