By Sarah Galey
Last week, this Common Core and Curriculum blog introduced instructional coaching policy as a recent reform designed to create and develop instructional capacity. While last week’s article focused on situating instructional coaching in the broader policy environment, the focus of this week’s article is the “nuts and bolts” of coaching.
Jack of All Trades
In many ways, instructional coaches are a “jack of all trades” when it comes to supporting ongoing policy efforts that target classroom practice. In a review of current coaching policy by Reading Rockets, an organization that supports literacy instruction, they note, “Despite the prevalence of coaching in schools and districts across the country, there is not a standard model or uniform definition of an instructional coach.” A 2007 report on a popular federal literacy initiative called Reading First, which includes coaching in its implementation design, found no less than five categories of reading coaches: data-oriented, student-oriented, managerial, individual teacher-oriented, and group teacher-oriented. The researchers found that, as expected, coaches were engaging in variety of activities to support teacher reading instruction such as leading professional development, observing teachers and giving feedback on instruction, and modeling lessons.
However, even coaches generally engaged in the same kinds of activities, they allocated their time very differently. The data-oriented coaches, for example, spent on average 45 percent of their workweek on data and assessment-related tasks. These coaches described the focus of their work as facilitating data-informed instruction. Student-oriented coaches spent comparatively more time than other coaches, roughly 14 percent, with students, while managerial coaches spent a substantial portion of their time keeping systems running, focusing on meetings and paperwork. Finally teacher-oriented coaches spent roughly half their time working with teachers, either individually or in groups, and saw themselves primarily as teacher developers.
A Multi-Purpose Policy Instrument
Instructional coaches wear many hats for a good reason. The current policy environment does not provide a clear definition of instructional coaching, but rather views coaches as a multi-purpose policy instrument that can be tailored to meet local needs. Consequently, schools and district officials hire coaches for a many purposes. They can, for example, use coaches to facilitate a specific reform across a district, moving coaches in and out of several schools. Other districts may focus instructional coaching efforts only in low-performing schools. At the school level too, they is a high level of differentiation in how principals organize the work of coaches. Coaches may be responsible for training teachers in a specific pedagogical approach or in a particular content area. They may be asked to work exclusively with new teachers to build confidence and address problems that often arise during the first year of teaching. Coaches may also work with all the teachers in the school to generally improve instructional practices or to promote a more reflective, collaborative, and professional culture among the faculty.
One thing that is clear is that the relationships between principals and coaches are important for coaching work (also see here). Principals legitimize and define the role of the instructional coach within the school, which facilitates coaches’ work with teachers. Building trust with teachers and students is important for successful coaching and this process is eased when principals actively engaged in developing those relationships.
In sum, although their day-to-day work can vary considerably and local leaders utilize coaching differently in their plans for school improvement, instructional coaches generally provide ongoing, job-embedded professional development for teachers and there is evidence that coaching improves instructional reform efforts (see here and here). On balance, however, more information is needed about what kind of instructional coaching works well and in which contexts.