8 Things I Learned in 5 Years as an Instructional Coach

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I should begin by stating clearly that these are in no way the ONLY eight things I learned as an Instructional Coach. In fact, I’ve learned so much in the past five years about the art of teaching and the artists who take it up as an avocation, that I would need far more than a blog to give it the depth it deserved. Below are some of the more general impressions that I’ll take with me as I venture back to the classroom to take up the practice again. Why eight? Because nine and ten couldn’t be supported by data.

I should also clarify that these are only my thoughts and feelings and in no way reflect or express the ideas or attitudes of anyone else I’ve worked with or for. Reflection is the cornerstone of good practice and the words below are completely mine and entirely for the purpose of sharing one experience.

So here is what I learned:

1. Change is hard…really hard

Veteran teachers – and by “veteran” I mean anyone who’s been in it for at least seven years – have spent thousands of hours engaged in an endless internal argument over whether or not what they’re doing is effective, impactful, and meaningful. Nearly every teacher I’ve ever known talks about spending their first three years in the profession living with the fear that they’ll be discovered as a fraud and banished from the building. Around year four, they’ve got it more or less figured out and by their fifth year they feel fairly confident that what they’re doing is working. And that’s why change is hard. To ask a teacher to abandon what they’ve spent so many hours shaping and reshaping in order to embrace an untested practice or method is to ask them to voluntarily re-enter the old uncertainty. And who in their right mind would do that?

ANSWER: Anyone who understands that “success” breeds complacency and that complacency is the enemy of excellence.

2. “Success” breeds complacency and complacency is the enemy of excellence

When I was asked to be an Instructional Coach, I believed it was, at least in part, because I was seen as a “successful” teacher. My students passed the tests. They did cool projects that hung in the halls. They said nice things about me to other teachers and principals. Most importantly, I went to all the professional development sessions the school division offered and at least tried to do the things I learned about. I FQL’d and CAI’d and CRT’d until I pulled a muscle. But I know now – now that I’ve observed so many truly successful teachers – that what made me successful was that I was never entirely satisfied with the work that I was doing or the results that I was getting from my kids. I never really felt completely successful.

A teacher who is entirely satisfied with the work they do is one who is finished as a teacher. This is not to say they won’t continue to deliver decent instruction. Their kids may still pass the tests, their outlines and essays may still get turned back in, but they won’t inspire their kids to question and, what’s worse, they won’t be inspired to seek better answers.

3. Expectations placed upon teachers are unrealistic and unsustainable

This is probably obvious to any teachers or administrators who might read this, but the amount of work that teachers are expected to complete in a given work day is absurd. Class sizes keep growing, certification requirements expend, more technology is thrust upon them. And then on top of all that, we want them to be reflective. How much time did Sisyphus spend thinking deeply about that stupid boulder and that damned hill, do you think?

The structure of the teacher workday MUST be rearranged to allow the time necessary for planning to be thoughtful, for feedback to be meaningful, and for their teaching to improve from an intrinsic desire to be better. Asking teachers to “Plan, Do, Study, and Act” when they’ve barely enough time to scarf down a Lean Cuisine and half an apple between a conference with a student and an email to a parent would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

4. Principals and Instructional Leaders are not always the same thing (and they shouldn’t be)

This is in no way meant to diminish the work of building administrators. My respect for the work of Principals and Assistant Principals has doubled and tripled in the past five years as an Instructional Coach. But what I’ve observed is that the demands of running a building, balancing budgets, chasing truants, scheduling classes, mediating differences, checking for compliance, and all the other stuff that goes into ensuring the success and safety of hundreds of teachers and students leaves very little time or energy for being an instructional leader.

All of the rubrics, metrics, and checklists in the world will never allow a principal to observe “effective teaching” in a five minute walk-through. Neither will they give the over-burdened administrator the right words to say to a teacher who is struggling or one who is absolutely reinventing the practice of teaching.

Would we not be better served by placing instructional accountability in the hands of professional teachers who are unencumbered with the difficult work of running a school?

5. Data-driven decision making is the best and worst thing that ever happened to education

I used to think “data” was a four-letter word. I no longer believe, as I once did, that teaching and learning are far too nuanced and subjective to be quantified with data. I see now that carefully collecting and considering a variety of data is an important tool for recognizing trends and patterns and adjusting our practice. Having admitted that, I also believe that it’s becomes far too easy for over-burdened teachers to rely on a cursory examination of assessment scores to declare that a lesson (or a student) is (or isn’t) working.

Balance is everything and cold hard data does not provide balance. The truly nuanced and intangible factors that experienced teachers know but cannot empirically prove are as important now as they’ve ever been. Decision-making, when it comes to the success of a child in a classroom, can never be left solely to numbers. We have to remember who they are, who we are, and how few of our human actions are truly quantifiable or predictable.

6. Kids will always work when they find the work meaningful

Observing students at work has been one of my favorite duties as an Instructional Coach. Being less directly invested in the workings of classroom culture and the success or failure of a given project, it becomes possible to see the child separate from the intended result. And I’ve learned that if kids are provided a clearly articulated reason for the work they do, and if they can be made to see the importance – both the immediate and the delayed – they will work diligently for hours to not only complete the task, but to exceed a teacher’s expectation.

I’ve spent mornings at our vocational tech school watching students sand and prime auto body parts and afternoons in an advanced engineering class where kids designed suspension bridges and computer apps. I’ve gone from middle school strings classes to cooking classes for high school students with special needs. And in the classes where teachers are teaching the meaning, the looks on the student’s faces is almost always the same. It’s a look of focused concentration, of satisfaction, and of contentment. It’s the look of the worker who is enjoying their work.

7. PLCs concerned primarily with “common pacing” and “common assessment” are a waste of everyone’s time

A Professional Learning Community is only as good as the level of support and stimulation it provides for its members. I’ve seen PLCs that were dedicated to nothing more than the dissemination of information – what lesson to teach when, what day to give the assessment, what shared TPA goal to finesse into something that looks meaningful – and the work of those meetings could almost always have been accomplished in less time via e-mail.

Conversely, I’ve seen PLC meetings – though too few – where the members had deep and meaningful conversations about the kids they share in common and how they’re growing or struggling. Together they study their lessons and projects and evaluate student work. They brainstorm alternatives to things that aren’t working or things that are stale. They support each other’s individual goals for the improvement of the learning community. These are, I think, what PLCs were created to do and hopefully, in time, it’s what all of them will become.

8. The most essential qualities of effective teaching can’t really be taught…but they can be shared

I enjoy the company of kids. I find them endlessly fascinating and even when they test my patience to its limit I want to help them. I want to help them figure out the problem, whatever it may be, and get on toward being a happy, thoughtful person. I don’t know that I ever “learned” how to be this way. It just is. I suppose it’s something I inherited from my mother. So it’s been a source of frustration coming to terms with the fact that I can’t really teach another person what it is that made me an effective teacher. I can’t instruct someone how to trust teenagers who don’t entirely trust themselves. I can’t teach another teacher how to surrender control of the classroom when they truly believe it would lead to anarchy and the demise of civilization. I can’t show someone else how to genuinely care about someone who may not always care for them in return.

But here’s what I can do. I can live it, model it, write about it, share it in words and pictures and videos. I can find other teachers who share the same passion for kids and connect them with one another through technology or in person. I can tell stories about the amazing things I see teachers doing in their classrooms and the things their students are learning and producing. This has been the best part of being an Instructional Coach – the sharing. Coming in contact with so many gifted people who have dedicated themselves to being guardians, guides, facilitators, mentors, explainers, and motivators has made me a better teacher and, with any luck, has inspired some of the folks I’ve worked with as a coach.

Through the sharing I’ve learned so much more than I’ve taught and I’m truly grateful. As I come to the end of my coaching tenure and look forward to returning the classroom, I also look forward to inviting Instructional Coaches in to share some more and to help me continue growing toward the teacher I want to be.

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One thought on “8 Things I Learned in 5 Years as an Instructional Coach

  1. Great post and insight! I’m coming to the end of a year long Fellowship coaching teachers in innovative classroom practices. I can relate to so much of what you say here. This also explains why instructional coaches are so important in education!

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