How to open doors: Starting an Instructional Coaching program

As is often the case, I get inspired in my professional practice through Olympic level eavesdropping and spying. I spy on Twitter what my friends and colleagues are doing and think, “That is such a good idea. Could I do that?” I look at blogs and posts by educational leaders and consider, “Is that out of my wheelhouse? Would that work for me?” In most cases, I bookmark the link or save the doc thinking that it will be useful to me tomorrow or the next day and then, 9 times out of 10, I move on. But, that one time that it sticks, that one time that I can translate an idea that I overheard or read in the dark corners of Twitter or in the hallway or at the lunch table, it’s an amazing feeling.

In most cases, it might be an approach like how I can improve my feedback in my English class on a stack of essays. Or, it’s an emphasis on mini lessons or integrating reading time into my daily plan. But it’s not too often that I get inspired to translate what I heard or read into a year long action plan. Yet here I am, writing about just such a case. Last year my former colleagues at Lakefield College School talked about a pedagogical coaching program they were initiating, and I was inspired. I’ve always tried to collaborate with my colleagues, but normally that was limited to within my English department. I’ve aspired to observe not only members of my department, but also to go into different classes and see how teachers across our community deliver such incredible lessons in so many varied ways.

The question was how to do it. How do I get the doors to our classrooms open?

With the support of my school’s administration, I endeavoured to pilot an instructional coaching program that would allow me to learn how to observe, support, and challenge not only my colleagues, but also as a means to improve my own practice. This idea is still in its infancy, but so far the results have been solid.

My first step was to do some reading and research. I relied on a number of blog posts and scholarly articles and resources from peers and colleagues (thanks @ddoucet and Colin!). One text that proved useful is by Jim Knight, called Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction. 

Next, I reached out to colleagues who might be interested in trying this out. Not surprisingly, I quickly found a group of 7 or 8 teachers who were keen to let me into their classrooms to observe some lessons. These professionals teach everything from Spanish to Math to English and AP Seminar! The basic model is that I’ll meet with teachers and discuss what they would like me to observe. I ask them questions about what they want to improve in their teaching, challenges they face with creating student-centred learning, classroom management, integrating 21st-century methodologies, and how they build positive relationships with their students, among other things. Next, I observe their class. I try to remain quiet and unobtrusive. I’ve created a fairly simple template (part of which is pictured below) that focusses my attention on key areas: evidence of student learning and engagement, teacher actions, class observations, and my questions. This is still a work in progress, and I know that I need to improve how I track this data. Finally, I try to follow up with the teacher, and we share notes and observations.

Here is a chunk of the observations from one of my Instructional Coaching sessions, in a senior math course

Thus far I have been into one class and have made arrangements to observe three others before the Christmas break. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Good teaching takes many forms.
  • A student who is quiet in an English class can be engaged and participate fully in a Math class. How do we build on that so his or her engagement crosses over?
  • I need to summarize my data for both myself and my colleagues who I’m observing. How do I do that effectively?
  • Building a culture of collaboration is a slow process and it depends on TRUST.
  • The ‘coach’ needs to be impartial and non-judgemental. It’s not about making suggestions for improvement; it’s about making observations that align with the colleagues’ personal goals and self-identified challenges
  • Observations are for the colleague and should normally not be shared with the administration.

I have a long way to go, but my ultimate goal is to have teams of teachers working in small PLCs from across different departments who regularly observe each other, perhaps once per term or month. I believe that once I get a critical mass of success that the word will spread and all of our doors will be open to our colleagues in an effort to be transparent and comfortable showing our vulnerabilities as professionals.

If you have some suggestions for me, please share them by replying to this post or tweet me @brentmhurley. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “How to open doors: Starting an Instructional Coaching program

  1. Hi Brent,
    This is such a great idea and Jim Knight’s approach is world class. I am most likely going to have the development of an IC program as my action plan, and with all the work you have already put into this I suspect it will be part or all of yours? We should definitely touch base! Looking forward to returning to your post in the light of day and with coffee in hand. Thanks!

  2. Hey Brent,

    @lfarooq is absolutely one to have a conversation with IC about. She turned me onto Jim Knight last year and it helped to inform my limited foray into this key growth area. As part of my CAIS Innovation Plan last year, I created an interesting template to assist with observations that also combined the work Bev Freedman did on Learning Walks. The problem I encountered is that in a small school I was part of the administration team and this conflict of interest didn’t always create an objective environment. Let me know your availability and we can have a chat.

  3. Hi Brent,

    Super interesting blog post. What stands out to me is your statement “Good teaching takes many forms”. Too often is the expectation of “good teaching practices” to be uniform or universally applied. I look forward to going through the rest of your Inquiry Project.

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