12/12/2019 by Michael Brosnan |

Creating a Coaching Culture in Schools

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If you know someone who plays golf regularly, you likely know someone who has been obsessed with the minutia of the game — the thick book of rules, the evolution in golf equipment, the endless quest for the right golf ball, the elements of the golf swing and the variations needed for all the finesse shots, and, of course, the impossible art of putting well.

If you’re not a golfer, I’m guessing you’re already rolling your eyes. If you think the game is just slow and boring, or you despise the game for its link to the superrich, I wouldn’t blame you for tossing this aside.

But as one who once slid fairly deep down the golfing rabbit hole in the quest for lower scores on weedy public courses, I’ve come to see this quest’s connection to the art of teaching. For one, both teaching and golf are difficult, if not impossible, to master. They also both draw on a variety of skills. Top golfers can pound the ball more than 250 yards down the center of the fairway while also having the feel for sand-trap shots and downhill, sideways-bending putts. Like teachers, golfers also need to draw on the deepest possible well of patience. Being frustrated or angry doesn’t solve much in the classroom or golf course. Golfers and educators must also be masters of adapting to the world around them.

What top golfers do more often than most teachers, however, is turn to experts to help them steadily along the path to improvement. Very few professional golfers today got where they are without significant help and fewer stay there without ongoing support. Serious amateur golfers will devour lessons online and read tips in magazines. They practice skills that they can eventually take to the course with confidence. Pros, meanwhile, are constantly fine-tuning their already excellent skills. There’s no such thing as resting on one’s laurels.

I was thinking about this — daydreaming a bit — while attending a recent education conference session on instructional coaching. I started wondering why teachers don’t seek support, guidance, and advice more often than they do. The session focused on the value of trained coaches in keeping teachers current and at the top of their game — and the more I listened, the more I wished I had had such a coach in my years in the classroom.

The session speakers outlined compelling reasons for instructional coaching. First, 21st-century learning requires sophisticated forms of teaching to develop student knowledge, skills, and social emotional resilience. It’s less about imparting content these days then it is about learning the art of adaptability. And this work requires teachers to have a deeper understanding of human development, educational technology, cultural competency, social-emotional learning, and more. The goal is to be as effective as possible with a wide range of students in a culture that is evolving steadily, if not rapidly.

While I’m sure that having the help of a professional coach would be great for any teacher, teachers also benefit from having a strong connection to and support from colleagues. In other words, the “coaching” can come in the form of simple and steady observation and conversation among like-minded colleagues.

A new study from researchers Simon Burgess, Shenila Rawal, and Eric S. Taylor underscores the value of teacher peer observation. Evidence from a field experiment in British secondary schools makes it clear that both the observed and observing teachers benefit from the process of low-stakes observations. More important, students benefit as well. A less scientific observation — me talking with educators around the country — supports this notion that not going it alone both improves one’s practice and one’s enjoyment of teaching. Some of the best school-based support systems seem to be those with the lowest stakes. In one school that does this work well, a highly experienced teacher spends time visiting numerous colleagues in multiple disciplines over the course of the school year. After the observations, the observer and observed teachers sit down over coffee (or beer) and talk about the class. That’s it. No write-up for the files. No administrative involvement at all. Just a thoughtful sharing of ideas among colleagues.

Even occasionally visiting colleagues’ classrooms to observe them in action is a valuable form of self-coaching. It’s a matter of learning how others approach teaching and learning and how they present your subject matter. It also flat-out feels good just to connect with colleagues you admire.

The work is not touchy-feely. There is, as with golf, an intellectual and practical aspect to improvement. For teachers, for instance, it helps to have a way to break down classroom instruction into its various parts so we can better understand what we are doing well and ways we can improve. Authors Anita Archer and Charles Hughes in their book, “Explicit Instructions: Effective and Efficient Teaching,” note 16 essential instructional elements that teachers should focus on. These include sequencing skills logically, breaking down complex skills and strategies into smaller instructional units, providing step-by-step demonstrations, using clear and concise language, providing both affirmative and correction feedback, and more.

Teachers today are also using coaching to develop new approaches to their subject; improve their ability to instill a growth mindset in students; gain skills in addressing diversity, equity, and justice in the classroom, curriculum, and community; learn how to co-teach interdisciplinary courses; shift classes to make them more student-centered, and more.

The bottom line is finding a way for professional connection and interaction — as an ongoing, essential element of school life. Some schools are hiring outside instructional coaches. Some are hiring coaches to be part of the teaching staff. Other designate master teachers as observers. Still others find more informal, low-key ways to get teachers into each other’s classrooms.

The advice from the conference session I attended on this topic is that schools interested in this work should focus on five essential matters.

  • First, school leaders need to be on the same page about the form and shape of the instructional coaching.
  • Second, coaching must always be connected to the mission of the school.
  • Third, coaching and an overall growth mentality should be embedded in the culture of the school.
  • Fourth, the school community must value adult learning as much as it values student learning.
  • And finally, schools committed to ongoing improvement must be willing to set up professional learning communities (PLC) for ongoing self-support.

This work is more about steady evolution than revolution — about small tweaks rather than whole scale change.

All in all, schools that value a steady stream of supportive feedback are schools where teachers tend to perform consistently at a high level and to be deeply satisfied with their profession. These are also schools that have a highly collaborative, respectful, learning-centered, trusting culture and tend to evolve steadily with the times.


Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor with a particular interest in education and social change. He writes often on the intersection of racial justice and education. His latest book of poetry, “The Sovereignty of the Accidental,” was published by Harbor Mountain Press. He can be reached at www.michaelabrosnan.com.

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