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A research-based approach to instructional coaching

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Dr. Atul Gawande, an acclaimed surgeon and research scientist, wrote in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” In contemplating his own professional development, Gawande researched instructional coaches — providers of job-embedded support — and found compelling proof of the positive impact that coaching can have on growth in any industry.

However, what is most important about Dr. Gawande’s words — and what has stuck with me in my roles as an educator, administrator, and chief academic officer — is that it is specifically coaching “done well” that really makes the difference. As findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project show, coaching done poorly can actually make things worse.

The idea that coaching must be high quality in order to be effective at improving practice may seem obvious. But delivering useful coaching in practice is not always so simple. Many instructional coaching programs fail to yield real improvement in teaching and learning because they are not grounded in a strong, shared understanding of what effective coaching is. Too often, instructional coaching programs are implemented haphazardly, without a clear plan and, more consequentially, without an appreciation for the science behind coaching and what it takes to be successful.

More research is required

Despite the emphasis that today’s educators place on evidence-based instructional practices, there is a woeful lack of research on effective coaching initiatives and verified characteristics of a highly qualified coach. One problem, explained in a report from The Education Alliance, is that there is no official job description for a coach or consensus regarding what “coaching” entails. Initiatives may vary drastically from one school to another, making it difficult for researchers to study instructional coaching programs and strategies, and for school leaders to find and apply relevant research in their buildings.

Another troublesome but common practice is recruiting teachers to be coaches solely based upon high performance in the classroom. While it may seem logical and sufficient to base hiring decisions on instructional efficacy and experience, the reality is that great teachers do not always make great coaches.

Though understandable and in many ways unavoidable, the lack of relevant research and widespread assumptions that schools make while appointing coaches is an indicator that the field not yet fully recognizing instructional coaching as the unique discipline that it truly is.

Coaches must master context and content

Instructional coaches are ultimately educators, but their craft is distinctive and twofold. Successful coaching initiatives require a precisely balanced focus on both context and content.

Context: Coaching simply cannot be effective without deliberate attention to the dynamic environment in which it occurs. Connecting coaching to the existing priorities, curricular programs, and instructional expectations is an important and often ignored aspect of alignment. The result is isolated support, at best, and at worst conflicting messages sent to the teacher.

Content: Instruction cannot truly be improved without regard to the content it covers. College and career readiness requires teachers to provide opportunities for application of content across disciplines and to the real world. It also demands that we prepare students to be problem-solvers who are reflective enough to know when a strategy is not working. We must equip students with multiple approaches to solving content-specific challenges, and we must teach them to seek information from multiple sources and assess that information for its validity. This requires teachers to be masters of their content.

Naturally, these notions have major implications for coaches and the skill set they must possess in order to be effective. To play the dual role described above and serve as organizational change agents, coaches must not only have a strong understanding of specific subject matter and research-proven instructional strategies, but must also possess the ability to form positive, productive relationships through open communication and trust. To put it another way, they must be masters of walking the walk and talking the talk at the same time.

The value of good coaching

I’m a firm believer that an effective coach can be one of the most valuable resources for professional growth at all levels. Not just for teachers, but for building leaders and central office administrators as well. I’ve known this to be true throughout my entire career in education, and believe it is perhaps most evident when instructional coaching is done right. Apparently others, like Dr. Gawande, agree. But for coaching to live up to its potential, it must be appreciated as a distinctive, nuanced discipline and implemented with attention to the multi-faceted science behind it.

Jason Stricker is a cofounder and the CEO of Insight Education Group. With extensive experience in education as a teacher, staff developer and consultant for UCLA’s education reform program, Jason brings to his work a deep understanding of organizational change and its impact on stakeholders at all levels. You can follow him on Twitter at @stricktlyjason.