This Coaching Letter is about Coaching! I think a lot about coaches and teacher leaders, and how to leverage them better. These educators tend to be really strong teachers who also have other great qualities—they are hard-working, reliable, committed to student success, committed to their own improvement, credible to their colleagues, and have good people skills. One of the things that has become increasingly clear to me over the last few years is that we ask these people to take on instructional improvement tasks without always creating the conditions for them to be successful.

What do I mean by this? Often, leaders start with a theory of action that says that if we identify strong teachers (with all those other desirable traits) to be coaches and teacher leaders, and ask them to work with their colleagues on improving instruction, then student achievement will increase. I would not argue against that, but I would say that without significant elaboration, it’s a weak theory of action. Does the plan to hire coaches include training, and if so, in what? A lot of coaching training doesn’t actually get at the kind of coaching that districts want coaches to provide, nor does it address coaching educators on different parts of the learning curve. Do principals understand the role of the coaches, and are they suitably prepared to support them? Do teachers know why they are being asked to engage in coaching, or are they left to wonder whether they have been labeled as deficient? Will the coaches actually get to coach?

Sarah Woulfin at UConn has published several articles on the role of coaching (she has studied coaching in multiple states and districts and also has experience as a reading coach), and she and I just submitted a manuscript to Ed Leadership for an upcoming issue on coaching. Who knows whether it will be published or not—it’s really hard to get into Ed Leadership, partly because there are so many submissions, and partly because a Big Name will always take precedent. Nevertheless it is awesome to get to work with a researcher to find where the peer-reviewed research aligns with our experience working with districts and schools. Here is what we came up with.

A culture conducive to coaching is important. But it is not different from a culture conducive to any kind of instructional improvement. We drew from the work of Douglas McGregor, who wrote about two opposite sets of beliefs about people, which he called Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X is the foundational belief that people are fundamentally untrustworthy, so you have to monitor them, motivate through competition, keep them in line. Theory Y is the opposite, that people bring their best selves to work and are motivated to improve, and leaders should, consequently, create a supportive, learning-centered, collegial culture. I have two favorite articles that illustrate these opposites: Microsoft in the bad old days, before it got rid of stack ranking, andGoogle’s experiment on teams (here is a printer-friendly version—thank you, Bridget). (No coincidence that Amy Edmondson referred to the latter article in her talk during the Reading for Leading Soirée—which was magic, by the way.)

A coaching culture is wasted unless you also put other conditions in place. To wit:

  1. A strong model of high quality instruction: as Spillane et al (2018) point out, “Without an agreed on instructional vision, it is difficult to build an infrastructure to support instruction and its improvement in the first place.” Amen to that. This premise is foundational to the Center’s work in general, and it’s particularly true in coaching. Sarah points out “coaching is only loosely tied to existing structures in districts and schools and, as a result, may not be fully leveraged in service of instructional improvement.” (Woulfin & Rigby 2017)
  2. A strong model of coaching: we are working with several districts right now on their model of coaching and how it connects to their district vision—kudos to them and more on that later.
  3. A strong model to build capacity for coaching—Sarah’s research suggests that not only should coaches receive training in coaching, but also in adult learning, policy, strategy, and school operations. Further, it’s not only the coaching who should receive training in coaching. Leaders need coaching skills so that they can support coaches more effectively, and so that they can be better leaders.
  4. A strong system of logistics: time, scheduling, support, teaming—all these things are crucial, and you must get them right, but making coaching part of your strategy for instructional improvement cannot begin and end with logistics.

Just a couple of other things. Sarah very kindly uploaded some of her research articles on coaching to a Google folder—if this Coaching Letter has helped you think a little differently about coaching, these articles will help you go deeper. I just got off the phone with a principal who was telling me about the successes his school has had with coaching (thank you, Joe, and good job!). If you have experienced success with coaching, whatever your role, I would really like to hear from you. Finally, when I’m working on these Coaching Letters, I spend sometimes way too much time looking for cool articles and videos to connect to. But I couldn’t find exactly what I was seeking for this CL, so instead, please will you watch this TED Talk of Temple Grandin talking about different ways of thinking? What she says has relevance for education in lots of ways; and it will push your thinking about what it means to include a diversity of thinking on a team.

I would love your feedback on this Coaching Letter. I am always grateful when readers respond. Enjoy the rest of your day! Best, Isobel

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