Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Journey as an Instructional Coach

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz,
 "La Pyramide Inversée du Louvre"
In my current job, facilitating professional development is an expectation. But, I hope to do more than that: I hope to facilitate professional learning.

The differences are huge: PD is something done "to you" or it's the next big thing that's happening in education and is often disseminated in a "top down" manner. Professional learning, on the other hand, is largely self-directed; you choose your own adventure in learning. It's inherently "bottom up". And, because you have chosen to engage in some form of learning, if the process is agreeable and authentic... well, then the learning should follow.

Fundamental to the notion of engaged professional learning is the assumption that teachers directly impact student achievement. I think John Hattie's meta-analyses, Visible Learning, prove this assertion. Thus, if teachers hope to positively affect student achievement, they need to adjust their teaching to best meet the needs of the learners. Of course, there is no one magic instructional strategy that will drastically change student achievement; teachers need to experiment and use research-based strategies and approaches that will meet the needs of their students. In my view, this is great fun: try a new teaching/ learning strategy! Run an experiment! Your students are the guinea pigs! (I'm somewhat metaphorical here -- it's not like we're conducting science experiments on them.)

One of the ways I hope to engage teachers in their own professional learning is through coaching, which is relatively new in our board's secondary schools. More specifically, I hope to do this using an appreciative inquiry stance, as advocated by the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) Network (more about this in part 2).

For a couple of years, I have been involved in my own learning as an instructional coach. Much of the learning has been through reading a variety of references (especially Jim Knight's Instructional Coaching) and practicing with colleagues (thanks in part to a Teacher Learning Leadership Program [TLLP] funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers' Federation).

Additionally, I have frequently been exposed to the notion of collaborative inquiry, especially as espoused by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack. They argue for "clear and defensible foci" and instructional leadership to help pursue "collaborative inquiry that challenges thinking and practice" (7).  In fact, Katz and Dack argue that "learning is a permanent change in thinking or behaviour" (vii); unless PLCs, collaborative inquiry projects, or any other initiatives are helping teachers make permanent changes to improve their practice, then really, what has been learned?

We continue to offer large scale PD sessions, mostly as they are seen as cost-effective means of disseminating ideas. We pull together the appropriate audience, deliver a message, ask them to plan how to use the ideas in their schools, and then attempt to monitor the implementation of the ideas. Intentions are great: people try to implement, but messages get lost, or people were "voluntold" in the first place... Some learning occurs, but often, we don't have the impact we should.

Knight's instructional coaching approach facilitates change in teaching practice through "working one-to-one, listening, demonstrating empathy, engaging in dialogue, and communicating honestly" (8). Moreover, instructional coaching, which uses "seven principles of human interaction: equality, choice, voice, reflection, mutual learning, dialogue, and praxis" (14). Fundamentally, I like this approach: I love the job-embedded nature (bottom up) and the problem-solving approach which focuses on student need (and therefore impacts student achievement). I also like that it focuses on trust-building and self-direction. Theoretically, it's a partnership approach whereby participants are viewed as equals; ideally, both are situated as learners or co-learners. However, in practice, too often the coach becomes positioned as an expert in instruction. Rather than co-learning about an instructional strategy or learning approach, the coach is instructing the coachee.  I think this starts to detract from the self-directed notion.

Over the course of the year, the application of my learning led me to conclude that I needed something different -- a new approach that will work with the structure of collaborative inquiry and PLCs, but will engage teachers on a personal level, while maintaining the co-learner stance (I don't like being positioned as an expert on anything -- I am still learning, too!). Thus, I began my journey with the PLP Network as a Connected Coach.

please see Part 2: My Journey with the PLP Network


Hattie, John (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Katz, Steven, & Dack, Lisa Ain (2013). Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice. Corwin Press.

Knight, Jim (2007). Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction. Corwin.