The terms professional development, specialized learning, advanced education and professional learning all refer to helping teachers improve their instructional practices, classroom management and content knowledge. Hundreds of companies provide training in a variety of formats, claiming to bridge the gap between what teachers know and do and what they need to know and do. Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to determine whether these costly programs really make a difference in student achievement.
For education leaders frustrated with the failed outcomes of in-service days, instructional coaching could be the solution.
Traditional Professional Development for Educators
Historically, professional development for teachers provided by the school or district consisted of daylong seminars in which entire buildings or departments receive training on the same strategies and ideas. But education professors Matthew Kraft and David Blazar note, "As research has found, these programs have little to no effect on teacher quality."
They believe that when teacher development becomes more personalized, as in instructional coaching, both the strengths and challenges of individual teachers can be brought to light, leading to meaningful change in classroom practice.
Effective Instructional Coaching
Instructional coaching could mean anything from regular check-ins with a new teacher to answer questions and calm nerves to meetings with strict agendas and pre-established, programmed "lessons" from an experienced teacher.
Taking a more interpersonal approach, Kraft and Blazar characterize coaching as an "observation and feedback cycle in which coaches model research-based practices and work with teachers to incorporate these practices into their classrooms." This back-and-forth provides opportunities for the coach to observe what may not be obvious to the teacher and for the teacher to raise questions or concerns.
Kraft and Blazar define effective coaching as "individualized, time-intensive, sustained over the course of a semester or year, context-specific, and focused on discrete skills." The dialogue continues from one meeting or observation to the next, as opposed to the one-and-done nature of school-wide professional development programs.
Coaching for Growth, Not Deficit
A key factor of successful coaching programs is buy-in by all stakeholders. Unfortunately, instructional coaching can be a hard sell to teachers because it is often seen as just another way to find flaws. Many teachers, whether experienced or not, are reluctant to form a relationship with someone they perceive as being evaluative or supervisory.
Instructional coaching expert Elena Aguilar has a fresh view of instructional coaching. She suggests that in a healthy relationship, the coach must look at the teacher as the content area and student expert. Aguilar says, "A coach should look at the teacher and think, 'This person has all the knowledge and wisdom. My job is to help them connect with that.'" When coaches are seen as encouragers and consider the teacher an equal partner on the team, advantages emerge. For example:
- Teachers will more likely join a team if they are viewed as professionals who have something to offer.
- When teachers participate willingly, they are in a position to receive more effective support.
- Coaching is not limited to first- or second-year teachers. According to Aguilar, many experienced teachers "strive to be at the top of their game by adding rigor to their instruction, gaining cultural competency, or keeping up with changes to curriculum and standards."
- In a well-received coaching program, teachers not actively involved have the opportunity to request support from a coach already in the building when challenges arise in their classrooms. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight says, "If you set it up so people see others benefiting from coaching and succeeding, and they see that the process is grounded in respect, then they [will also] want to try it."
If instructional coaching is implemented as a support system for teacher growth and not an opportunity to spotlight professional deficits, teachers may just give the idea a chance to develop and succeed.
Success of Instructional Coaching
Instructional coaching is embraced by an increasing number of districts. Kraft and Blazar report that, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey, "By the 2015‒16 school year, 27 percent of public K‒12 schools reported having a reading coach on staff, 18 percent had a math coach, and 24 percent had a general instructional coach."
Kraft and Blazar also found that coaching appears to benefit both teachers and students. Based on their analysis, instructional coaching can make as big a difference in a teacher's professional growth as the difference between a novice and a teacher with up to ten years experience. With this improvement in instruction comes a natural boost in student success.
Building a Strong Foundation for Instructional Coaching
The success of any school or district-wide initiative depends in large measure on the strength of the planning process. Former teachers Jason Stricker and Jason Culbertson, both experts in educational leadership and coaching, believe that "Many instructional coaching programs fail to yield real improvement in teaching and learning because they aren't grounded in a strong, shared understanding of effective coaching" and there are no mechanisms to "coach the coach" or to create a quality control system.
Possibly the most important element of a successful coaching program is strong school leadership. If the principal and lead teachers are not united in their efforts to create effective learning spaces for teachers and students, instructional coaching will be another failed initiative that leaves everyone discouraged and less willing to try anything new. According to Lucy Steiner and Julie Kowal of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, "A successful effort requires shaping the program to meet teachers' needs and to address meaningful goals for student learning."
For experienced educators interested in making a career change into leadership, the first step could be earning a Master of Education in Education Leadership from Louisiana State University Shreveport. Coursework in this all-online master's degree program will enable you to develop a vision of teaching and learning that increase student achievement. You will investigate how to plan an effective professional learning community that benefits all stakeholders.
Learn more about LSUS's online Master of Education in Educational Leadership program.
Sources:The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement: Principal as Instructional Leader
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