Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 2)

By October 28, 2015 December 8th, 2015 No Comments

Last week, I visited a district with whom Inquiry By Design has been working for about three years. I was facilitating a series of peer learning labs (link to previous post). We were a group of about ten teachers and district leaders. Our morning teacher host introduced herself and summarized for the group what we would be seeing in her classroom that day. She provided a little background on how things have changed since first beginning implementation of the Inquiry By Design microcourse, Creating a Text Based Culture, two years ago.

I remember during the initial training feeling like “there’s just no way my kids are going to be able to do this. It’s too hard.” Last year, I kept feeling the need to create all this supplemental material to help them through the difficulty, but they really surprised me with what they produced, and I was able to let go of more and more control in my classroom. And that’s hard for me! This year, I decided to see what would happen if I really set them free and stopped doing the work for them, and again, the discussions and the writing they are producing is so far above anything I’ve ever seen from my students. But I have to admit that I was not on board at the beginning.

I chatted with this teacher after the lab to find out how and why she had changed both her mindset and her pedagogy, even though she “was not on board at the beginning.” She cited two reasons, both based on collaboration, support, and feedback.

1. She received the ongoing support of her district coaches and opportunities to observe peers and receive feedback through a series of peer learning labs. She knew she wasn’t on her own and she was able to collaborate with her team to share successes and challenges.

2. The entire district was implementing the Inquiry By Design microcourse at the middle school grade levels, so she felt like everyone would either sink or swim together. Whatever happened wouldn’t reflect on her alone, so she felt safe to try something new. She had nothing to lose and was willing to believe she might have something to gain.

Would this teacher be experiencing the same current successes if she had been handed a stack of materials, given a pat on the head, and sent off to figure it out on her own? Not likely. And yet, teaching has traditionally been an isolated profession. In fact, in my initial years of teaching, my husband and I had a running joke in our house. He would say, “How was school today?” I would respond with some new quip, like: “We built weapons of mass destruction,” or, “We performed a variety of religious rituals” or, “We watched R rated movies all day.” I joked because it seemed like no one really noticed what was going on in my classroom or cared. I didn’t have a sense of whether I was good at my job or not when the sum total of feedback and guidance was a once-a-year evaluation based on a 20-minute observation. I felt completely isolated. Yet, even though I longed for feedback, I also feared it because I didn’t have any sense of my efficacy. Luckily, in the last decade, our educational culture has been shifting toward a much more collaborative environment. Resources and opportunities abound for improving our practice, coaching being one of the most valuable.

In last weeks’ post, I quoted Atul Gawande’s The New Yorker article Personal Best. For that article, Gawande visited with Jim Knight of the Kansas Coaching Project. Knight asserts that decades of research point to teacher quality as the biggest factor in how much students learn, and that’s why he is committed to coaching as the best approach to educational reform. He reports,

California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.

As someone who conducts professional development workshops for a living, that research could prove discouraging, if it weren’t for Inquiry By Design’s commitment to providing not only curriculum workshops, but ongoing support through classroom coaching, modeling, co-teaching, peer learning labs, and student work studies: practices supported by research to promote adoption and success—even for those of us who aren’t always “on board at the beginning” of change.

Next week, read a teacher’s perspective on what her coach specifically does that is helpful, and how her work with her coach has impacted teaching and learning in her classroom.


Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 1)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 2)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 3)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 4)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 5)