On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 

 

 

  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []

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