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September 2010  |  Return to issue home

The Teacher's Teacher:
Coaches Who Provide Support Need Support Too

"Dan" knew what to do in a classroom. He was a 14-year veteran, the respected head of the English department at a Puget Sound middle school. But when his district—on an ambitious mission to improve student outcomes in reading and writing—selected him to be a part-time literacy coach, he found himself in unsettled waters.

Intensive professional development sessions provided him great take-away ideas on powering up his own classroom practice. What wasn’t clear was how to influence the practice of others in his school. The challenge, he told researchers from the University of Washington’s College of Education, was trying to think "with two heads."

In one head, he said, he had to think about what to do for his own kids. In the other, he had to figure out how to help other teachers engage new practices. "And it’s not always the same thing," he said. "It’s hardly ever the same thing." An expert in diagnosing the difficulties his students were having, Dan now had to become skilled in diagnosing the challenges other teachers faced.

Like many novice instructional coaches, he was caught in the awkward position of having to teach new instructional ideas, even as he was absorbing them and trying to make sense of them in his own practice.

Dan’s story is told in a new UW report that examines the question of how instructional coaches learn to do their work—a topic that has been largely ignored in research literature on instructional coaching, says College of Education research assistant professor Chrysan Gallucci, who spearheaded the research behind the report. "Most of the literature right now suggests coaches need training. There is not much in detail about how coaches are learning on the job, and nothing about their actual professional development."

Their numbers, however, are rapidly swelling. Across the nation, elementary and secondary schools have invested heavily in instructional coaching as a way to grow a high-quality teaching staff—a key goal of new state and federal reforms. Meeting that goal is especially challenging in high-poverty, racially mixed schools, which statistically have the highest teacher turnover rates.

"We’re focused like a laser beam on those struggling schools, trying to build layers of support for teachers’ work. Instructional coaching is one of those layers," says Gallucci.

Despite demand, there is minimal understanding of the instructional coach’s role and how to build professional support for it, the UW research suggests. And there are often limited opportunities for coaches to learn about the critical areas of co-planning, modeling, co-teaching, and using evidence-based feedback. "Most professional development is built around teaching students, not coaching colleagues," says Gallucci.

The UW report uses data from a longitudinal study of leadership and professional learning in three school districts, each engaged in reform efforts and partnered with the UW-based Center for Educational Leadership, a support organization that helps districts and schools improve the quality of classroom instruction. As part of the study, Gallucci and colleagues examined what instructional coaches learn, how they learn it, and how organizational structures and policies support them.
They found that some administrators expect coaches, hired for their subject-matter prowess, to be ready-to-go experts in the difficult and often ill-defined job of instructional coaching. "We expect people who enter the role of instructional coaching to be well-prepared to support the learning of others, but they themselves may be learners in reforming contexts," says Gallucci, who is co-director of the College of Education’s Masters in Instructional Leadership program, for teachers who aspire to teacher leadership roles such as coaching.

The idea that instructional coaching can transform a school’s teaching practice is compelling, though research has yet to definitively link coaching to student achievement. Still, studies suggest coaching can boost teachers’ instructional skills as well as their confidence in those skills. National educational researchers Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, authors of the book Student Achievement Through Staff Development, report that while 85 percent of teachers sitting in a presentation will understand what they’ve heard, and 15 percent attain the skills, only about 10 percent will try to apply that learning in the classroom. However, if teachers are coached and receive feedback, the understanding and skill attainment increases to 90 percent and 80 percent of teachers can apply their learning to practice.

Instructional coaching takes many forms. There can be data coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, or "change" coaches helping implement new reforms. Coaches may be part-time, full-time, on staff, or come in as an outside consultant to restructure systems or lead content and pedagogy transformation. They may report to a district or directly to a principal. "When school principals have the autonomy in hiring, then the coach may be the strong teacher—or the teacher with lots of social capital," says Gallucci.

In her research, Gallucci has concentrated on what she calls "instructional-focused teacher leadership." These teacher leaders, usually subject-based specialists, take on coaching roles that are non-supervisory, at teacher-salary pay—possibly with a small stipend. Typically, their jobs include classroom observation, gathering student information, demonstrating model practice, team-teaching, pre- and post-conferencing with teachers, and providing data-based direction for classroom performance. In many cases, they also provide curricular input and the bulk of professional development in a school. It’s a labor- and time-intensive job—what Gallucci calls "cognitively demanding professional development work."

One thing the teacher leaders don’t do is evaluate peers. While this gives them greater credibility among staff members, it also means that they must exert influence through their expertise and relationship-building skills. That can be difficult when they’re trying to engage veteran teachers used to running their own show, the research suggests. "For teachers who are used to working in isolation, opening up their practice to scrutiny is very difficult, and that’s a large part of what coaches help them do," says Gallucci. "The idea is, 'We’re all learners here, what we do is open to discussion and group-think.'"

In the Marysville School District north of Seattle, where Dan was assigned to be a literacy coach, the district has been studying how to approach teachers who don’t see the value of coaching. Assistant superintendent Gail Miller says it is important to consider how the system views and responds to these resisters. "We’ve done that work with our coaches. When teachers say ‘I don’t really need you’—you don’t take that as a last response. That has begun to make a real difference."

Even with resisters, however, the district has more demand than supply when it comes to instructional coaches. "One of the challenges for us is that more people want the coaches’ services than the coaches can fit in, so people are kind of jealous, and the coaches feel pulled," says Miller.

Breaking through walls of resistance can be especially difficult if a coach’s role is ambiguous and loosely defined, which the UW research shows it often is, and if coaches must make up their job as they go along, which research suggests they often do.

When roles are unclear, principals may view the new coaches as Jacks and Jills of all trades and assign them playground duty, after-school tutoring, or put them in charge of testing. "Many coaches report that their building principal does not understand what they do or how to support them, and does not know how to communicate to teachers that ‘This is what we’re doing here now.’ Then it can all fall on the coach," says Gallucci.

Coaches are likely struggling with those issues themselves. "All over the research literature you hear ‘I don’t really know what my role is, I’m betwixt and between. I’m supposed to carry reform messages into classrooms, but the job is more complex than that,'" says Gallucci. "This is an incredibly challenging job, and it requires a lot of support."

The districts in her study worked hard at providing that support, with abundant professional learning opportunities. Classrooms were periodically turned into working studios, and summer school often became a professional development laboratory, with experts modeling sophisticated new practices and advising coaches. Consultants brought in from the Center for Educational Leadership led small-group discussions, taught demonstrations in studio classrooms, and orchestrated professional development planning.

For Dan, the new literacy coach, these investments offered opportunities to learn new techniques and practice them under expert guidance. He gradually began to work with "two heads," developing more sophisticated coaching skills and diagnosing instructor practices based on the specific needs of others’ classrooms—not his own. He began leading meetings with coaches and teachers, organizing full-day professional development sessions for language arts teachers, and demonstrating teaching practices using coaching strategies he’d learned throughout the year.
The enthusiastic leader quickly advanced to the role of district literacy coach, teaching the teachers of teachers the tricks of the trade.

September 2010  |  Return to issue home

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