As PK-12 education has evolved in the United States during the past 20 years, there has been an emphasis on creating career ladders for classroom educators. This is in response to two needs. First, as adult learners, expert or master teachers have a natural need to expand their practice beyond their classrooms in order to continue their own growth and to remain fulfilled in the profession. Also, in traditional school hierarchies there were only two basic instructional positions at the building level, teacher and principal. With all of the measured requirements for achievement and supports that students require in modern schools, the development of support positions, like instructional coaches, was an essential and necessary outcome.
Now that instructional coaching has emerged, the question is “What should coaches do?” Existing in a world between teachers and school administrators have a unique function and fill an important role. By definition, as coaches, the provide feedback instructive feedback to their partners, in this case classroom teachers, about their practice. However, almost unequivocally, coaches do not hold formal evaluative authority over teachers. This creates the need for skillful practice in providing feedback that will be used without have directive authority to command compliance. Coaches rely on relationships, the power of knowledge, and mutual respect to achieve their coaching goals. Because of the nature of their positions and their closeness with the instructional staff, coaches have the power to significantly impact instruction in a building, if they are properly supported.
A February 2015 article in the Journal of Staff Development titled Principals Boost Coaching’s Impact highlights the importance of the role of instructional coaches in school buildings and the conditions that must be present in order for them to flourish. Immediately, the author, Les Foltos, notes that coaching can only be effective in a school with the correct culture. Foltos identifies the optimal school culture as one that embraces collaboration, has strong teacher leadership, has two way communication for improvement, and one that supports innovation and risk taking. Foltos is right, in the type culture that he described, and ones that are striving to achieve these practices, instructional coaches exist as a natural part of a school culture that is focused on continuous improvement to support increased student achievement.
Once the culture is primed, principals and coaches must clearly define what the coach will “do” on a day-to-day basis. Foltos defines this as establishing a practice of collaboration, co-planning, modeling and team teaching, peer observation, and reflection. From my school experience, I can attest that this normally takes place in the form of routine meetings that are held by grade levels or content areas, depending on the organization of the school. These meetings are typically termed small learning community or professional learning community meetings. The function of these meetings is to bring teachers together to collaborate on instruction. Examination of student work samples, instructional planning, and development of common assessments are the meat of the work in these sessions. Team norms support the expectations which promote effective practice while embedding the normalcy of routine. When adhered to with fidelity, this format will improve instructional practice in the building and improve student achievement. Some of the strongest schools in districts that I have led had strong instructional coaching as a pillar of their instructional practices.
In closing, collaboration is the heart of effective practice in schools today. The dynamic relationships between school administrators/principals, instructional coaches, and teaching staff are directly impacted by the quality of collaborative practice in a school building. School principals must set the environment/culture for collaborative practice to take place. In setting this culture, school principals must collaborate with instructional coaches to clearly define their work and communicate this to staff so that all stakeholders understand the expectations and share in the responsibility for the work as it moves forward. With well-planned structures in place, and the support of principals, and trust of instructional staff, instructional coaches are positioned to have significant impact on student achievement in the schools they serve.
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