By Jacy Ippolito and Rita M. Bean, authors of Cultivating Coaching Mindsets
There is much being written about the dire need for better teaching these days. Much of the rhetoric places the burden squarely on teachers’ shoulders. But where are teachers supposed to turn for support and guidance, once they have completed their initial teacher preparation? When they face classroom dilemmas or work with challenging students? When they want to “experiment” with new ideas or strategies?
Our work in schools—as teachers, specialists, coaches, professional developers, and researchers—suggests that coaching can be one of the strongest ways to build and sustain a culture of professional learning.
If done well, instructional coaching can lead to improvements in teaching and learning. But coaching work is not so easily undertaken, nor is it automatically effective, without structural and cultural supports.
When Rita and I first began our own work as reading specialists and literacy coaches in schools, there was very little guidance about the roles, expectations, and practices of coaching. We both forged our own way, leaned on colleagues, and learned through trial and error how to facilitate professional learning. We made plenty of mistakes, but we also quickly figured out how to gain teachers’ respect and trust—to learn from and with them. Now, years later, we both spend the bulk of our time preparing and supporting a wide variety of literacy leaders across grade levels and roles.
Our book, Cultivating Coaching Mindsets, is our way of sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Below we share a few brief ideas from the book.
First, we’d like to dispel a pervasive myth. Formal instructional coaches (whether literacy, math, or otherwise) are not the only educators in schools who hold coaching responsibilities. In our work, we have found that many teacher leaders, department heads, assistant principals, principals, specialists, and others engage in coaching work. Many educators in schools support the professional learning of colleagues. In many of our country’s best schools, all educators hold some responsibility for supporting professional learning and instructional improvement in the school.
In other words, while not all educators are formal instructional coaches, many educators may need to adopt a coaching mindset in order to improve teaching and learning schoolwide.
Second, from our work in schools, first as coaches and then as researchers, we have found time and time again that all those who hold coaching responsibilities struggle to define their roles and determine how best to spend their time and focus their energies. Thus we have devised a framework that we believe supports anyone in a school who takes on coaching work.
Cultivating Coaching Mindsets: A Framework for Thinking and Working like a Coach
Our framework has four primary components, each of which supports coaching work in schools:
- Thinking about individuals and systems simultaneously
- Adopting coaching mindsets and roles
- Differentiating professional learning experiences
- Developing a culture conducive to coaching
Thinking about individuals and systems simultaneously
All too often, we find that coaching work never moves beyond individual classroom work with colleagues. However, to make a bigger impact, those who coach must work one-on-one, with small groups, and with large groups, always keeping in mind the larger vision for where the school is headed.
Coherent instructional improvement does not always emerge from one-on-one coaching work.
Adopting coaching mindsets and roles
Those who coach are well served by adopting four different mindsets and ways of working, that of a: leader, facilitator, designer, and advocate. These four mindsets each have implications for ways of approaching colleagues respectfully, professionally, and in ways that bring about significant shifts in teaching and learning. Each mindset is supported by theory, research, and years of practice in schools.
Differentiating professional learning experiences
One size rarely fits all. This is certainly true in coaching work. Professional learning must meet the needs of both individuals and groups of adult learners. Always respectful, and often peppered with good-natured humor, coaching work must take into account the context-specific needs of teachers, leaders, and students and adjust accordingly.
We believe that coaching begins with developing relationships of trust, but such work, although essential, is not sufficient for generating changes in teaching practices and student learning. Our “Levels of Intensity” continuum provides ideas about how coaches might begin to differentiate their work with colleagues.
Developing a culture conducive to coaching
Finally, all coaching work is cultural work. Building and supporting a collaborative culture of continual improvement (say that five times fast!) is a key to effective coaching work. Cultural work is relational work: making the most of meetings with school leaders, choosing discussion-based protocols and facilitation moves that match teachers’ needs, balancing responsive and directive coaching moves to ensure positive change. Shifting culture is tantamount to shifting teaching and learning.
At this time of year, as the new school year approaches, it is imperative to ask ourselves:
- What can we do this year to cultivate our own “coaching mindsets”?
- What would it mean for our work with colleagues if we took seriously the four major tenets of the above framework?
- What steps might we each take to more clearly work as leaders, facilitators, designers, and advocates this year?
We wrote Cultivating Coaching Mindsets as the book that we most needed when we were working as literacy leaders in schools—we’d love to hear how it supports your own work!
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We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.