Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Value of the Teaching/Learning Coach

Many school systems employ the role of teaching/learning coach. This role is met with varied responses. For new teachers, when the coach is well skilled, helpful, and open minded, the coach is a welcome resource. It's very difficult to teach for the first time, and to have a helpful coach at your side is awesome. For teachers with a few years of experience, I imagine that the coach is similarly helpful. For veteran teachers, the math coach can present a number of challenges since those teachers have been teaching for a long time and may have more expertise and experience than the coach who is assigned to helping them. Yet, there's always more to learn.

Rather than a coach position, I prefer the hybrid role with regard to teacher leadership. In the hybrid role, a teacher retains responsibility for student learning by teaching regularly, and also assumes responsibility for coaching or co-coaching colleagues with regard to the teaching and learning. I find that the hybrid role is a role that keeps teaching and learning real since too often coaching roles that don't include responsibility for teaching students on a regular basis become administrative roles rather than co-teaching and coaching roles. And, I'm one that believes we need fewer administrators and more teachers spending time-on-task directly with students. In today's tech-savvy world, we can have less overall leaders and more time-on-task teachers who are sharing their expertise, attention, and direction with students.

With that in mind, however, I wonder if moving to a coaching position from teaching holds good challenge for veteran teachers. After all you've been teaching students for years, and now can you respectfully use that knowledge and experience to support teachers in the classroom? How might you do that? Why would you do this?

For starters, it's important that you are invested as much or more than the teachers you coach. On a few occasions, people in coach-like positions have confided that they took the job because it is easier than the classroom teaching job. A comment like this will not endear you to the people you coach, however, what will earn you respect is if the teachers in the classroom see you taking on a similar or greater level of responsibility for student learning. What will also lead to respect is utilizing a "servant-leadership/partner" attitude that demonstrates that you're working for and in tandem with teachers to serve every child well.

What does serving every child well look like from both coaching and teaching positions?

Open, Inclusive, Transparent Communication
First, it's important that communication is regular, inclusive, and transparent. When you work with a large team, it's essential that the whole team know what's going on in transparent, accessible ways. This prevents rumors, favoritism, untruths, and misunderstanding. Regular weekly updates that describe what you've done, are doing, and plan to do as well as invitations for share help in this regard. The more the whole team is in the know, the better everyone will do to teach children well. Open, transparent share of good ideas and practice will build team capacity, and developing a sense of team and capacity matters when it comes to teaching children well.

Goal Setting
Next, goal setting is imperative. To set good goals begins with letting everyone know where the team stands now. For example, the teaching team should understand the overall team strengths and challenges. A coach might report that the entire team did a great job when it came to teaching traditional algorithms, but problem solving and vocabulary overall were weak points for the team. Then the coach might ask, What do you do to strengthen problem solving and vocabulary when you teach? There could be an opportunity for online and real-time share in this regard. Then there could be goal setting with formative, informal assessment check-in points so the team can assess how they are doing with the goal. When goals are set by the team for the team, investment grows, however, when goals are set only by coaches and other administrators, the investment is never as strong.

Share Your Work Goals and Efforts
After that, the coach should share his/her individual goals and practice with the team so that the team knows what to expect. For example, a coach may tell the team that 60% of his/her work is devoted to teachers with five or less years experience and the other 40% is devoted to students throughout the grade-levels that fall two or more years below the grade-level expectations. To know the coach's main priorities, efforts, and result helps the team to understand the coach's work and how the coach might or might not help the teacher out. This kind of communication leads to realistic expectations and evaluations of the coach's work.

As a classroom teacher, I have worked with a number of educators in coaching or coach-like roles. Those that communicate well and have a hands-on attitude toward teaching and serving children well have served to inspire and inform my work in ways that matter. Coaches who are less understandable or helpful have been a difficult add-on with respect to work expectations. In some ways, when the coach doesn't have a students-first attitude and action, the coach has become an additional responsibility for the teacher rather than a helpful support.

The coaching role reaps multiple opinions depending on whom you ask and how systems utilize this role. Some systems use the role as a way of distancing leadership more from teachers, and in a sense, the role is one of evaluation and administration. Other systems utilize the role to empower educators with a servant-leadership/partner lens and action. In these systems, the coaching role is a welcome addition. I'm not a big fan of the add-on role of coaches in schools as I believe in hybrid/co-coaching roles instead where teachers teach students and then coach each other with regard to their strengths and experience. I believe that supporting greater team and co-coaching/hybrid roles is one way to serve more students well, however, I'm only one teacher with one set of experiences so I'm open to others' opinions, thoughts, and experiences in this regard.

How does the coach position work in your school? What benefits and challenges does that role bring? How are the results of this role measured and shared? I'm open to learning more as I think ahead to working with coaches and perhaps becoming a hybrid/co-coach one day in the future.