What does an instructional coach do?

Source: https://alplearn.com/story/six-reasons-why-you-need-an-instructional-coach/

A colleague of mine was hired by an international school in Spain to be an instructional coach. Sounds interesting, I told her. I realized I was probably making up in my own head, however, what the term instructional coach actually meant. So I asked if we could do a short interview. I am recreating the conversation here, the words are not directly hers, but the meaning is. (And I ran this text past her to make sure it was accurate.) She had been working in the position for a year-and-a-half when we talked.

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is your school’s understanding of an  “instructional coach?”

My main job is to help teachers develop inquiry questions for their own continuing development. I help them with their question, the thing they want to learn more about. Then we get into a coaching cycle. 

A coaching cycle?

We have an initial meeting, I observe in the classroom, we meet together, we talk about strategies for learning more, what the teacher wants to do next. It all depends on the teacher. I might help with resources, I might model in the classroom, perhaps we look at student work together or I help make connections between teachers. 

A coach is not an evaluator, a coach is looking for strengths. We call this asset based coaching. We look for the positive. We are not trying to fix teachers, but rather leverage their strengths.

So you avoid mixing the role of evaluation and support.

Absolutely. We get better as a whole when there is trust. We are built on trust.

Does that mean what you do isn’t reported to a supervisor?

Oh no. We couldn’t do that. That would change everything. The inquiry questions that the teachers come up with are transparent. But the communication between the coach and the teacher is confidential.

How many teachers do you work with at one time?

There are officially 12 teachers who work with me but another six are people who I’ve been working with since last year or who I’m working with on a project on the side, like for action research or unit planning.

I meet with about five teachers a week, so in three weeks time, maybe four weeks, I’ve worked with everyone. Some teachers want more attention, some less. You have to respond to what they need.

Do you know enough about each of their questions to be helpful?

Well, it can feel a bit overwhelming. They all have different topics and of course I’m not an expert in every topic. To be a good coach, though, you don’t need to know everything, you need to know how to listen to people, to be supportive and uplifting.

Of course, I’m not the only instructional coach. When we get the inquiry questions from the teacher we do a bit of sorting based on our expertise and interest as coaches. We try to work with the projects we understand best so we can help the teachers as much as possible.

What sort of projects come up often?

Lots of teachers want to work on classroom management. Usually I try to help them switch to a particular topic in teaching and learning. If the students are engaged and learning, then classroom management isn’t so much of an issue. I think they might gravitate to classroom management because they aren’t sure about how to improve the learning environment, but that is of course more interesting.

I like best the inquiry questions that deal with student autonomy, how to help them manage themselves. Their material, their space. Lots and lots of voice and choice. 

And how do you know if you are being effective?

Well, we look at how the students are learning. Whether or not they are learning. That’s the goal of all of this, after all. 

In one science class the teachers worked with scrum, teaching the students how to work effectively as a group. Because the students learned to organize themselves better, because they could direct their own learning to a pretty good degree, the teacher had more time to watch and listen to know how to help the students better. Just as an example.

I love that example. The students learned how to be autonomous … and the teacher was able to help more effectively with content.

Oh yeah. They learn a lot. I learn a lot. I learn so much. 

How do you know if teachers are into it?

They start to invite me. Instead of me reaching out to them, they start to invite me to class. They are excited about what they are working on and want to share it with someone, they want to take a moment to be proud of what they are doing, or they want to ask questions about next steps. Then I know they have bought in.

This only comes with trust, though, and I’d say that for many of the teachers I work with it took that first year to build the trust relationship. That doesn’t happen quickly.

And one last question. For someone wanting to be an instructional coach, what would you recommend they practice doing?

Make sure you keep evaluation and support for learning separate. That’s the whole reason you need an instructional coach. The communication to teachers about a coach’s role and an administrator’s role should be clear.

Then be an active listener. Really hear what teachers are saying, make sure you are understanding where they are in their thinking, not just where you are. 

And finally, you  have to be an active learner as well. You have to be interested in learning with the teachers you are coaching. You are not fixing, you are not judging. You are getting genuinely interested in what the teacher is interested in. You are learning together. You are standing side by side looking at the possibilities out there ahead of you, looking at the successes behind you.

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I looked at a job description of this instructional coach – one that they created themselves. The first line reads: 

“Collaborate with teachers and teams to establish and grow healthy, productive, trusting partnerships to grow strong instructional practices that impact student learning.”

That made me smile. There is nothing here about which instructional practices, just ones that impact student learning. And there is everything here about relationships. Partnerships. Healthy, productive, and trusting ones. 

One further infographic, probably a poster for the teacher lounge or a flier given out during orientation, reiterates this same theme:

“As coaches we believe in the power of learning that values ownership, choice, and agency.” That is exactly what we teachers want to be modeling for students. And that is exactly the kind of school that I’d like to work in.

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