Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

Recently, I was asked, “what did you like about being an Instructional Coach?” It took seconds for the words to roll right off of my heart…. “When you are deeply passionate about education, the students, colleagues, and community you serve, coaching is the most meaningful opportunity to make an impact on instructional practices at the district, building, teacher, and student levels. Coaching is an opportunity to show schools they are capable of changing practices while honoring the ones that work for our students. Coaching creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future.”

If we are in education for the right reasons, we are continuously keeping students at the heart of decision-making and are working tirelessly to bring the mission and vision of our organizations to fruition. There are many professional learning opportunities that come our way as we embark on our educational careers. Some are more memorable than others, some you can live with, some you can live without, some you will forget, some you can implement in your classrooms tomorrow and stay with you for the rest of your career. Nevertheless, job-embedded professional learning is an opportunity to have dedicated professionals and thought partners, who are endlessly committed to your communities and can harness the talents of the educators in the systems in which you live. Investing in coaching is a form of professional learning capable of bringing out the best in people. It’s the opportunity to unwrap the strengths of others, lead with empathy, build human and social capital, and cultivate emotionally resilient educators. So, I ask: How can you use a coaching mindset to create the conditions for educators to recognize and develop their talents?

Instructional Coaching Mindsets Move Practice

Over time, I have developed a coaching mindset that is rooted in my experiences that guide this work. Investing in a coaching mindset can create the conditions to shift instructional practice, improve student outcomes, and encourage collaborative, reflective practice. A coaching mindset opens doors to deeper learning, paves the way for consistent application, and values cyclical, timely feedback. A coaching mindset is an invitation to grow, support, and distribute leadership across an organization while keeping the focus on teaching and learning.

My Instructional Coaching Mindset:

  1. We Are All Connected at the Core: All of the people in your organizations are connected. We are all pieces of a puzzle that connect to bring a bigger picture to fruition. Everything we say and do has the potential to influence the present and the future. As a collective unit, there is never one person to blame. Therefore, it is a shared responsibility in working toward meeting your goals.
  2. Meet People Where They Are: Lead the work with an empathy lens. Take the time to actively listen, understand, and value why people are where they are. This provides an opportunity to create targeted goals and shape the work in which you lead. Everyone starts somewhere, but they don’t have to stay there! Refrain from judgment and help that person move forward in their practice with integrity, compassion, and grace.
  3. Trust is the Foundation: Your colleagues will not open up to you about their challenges and belief systems until trust is established. They have to know that you are keeping students and their interests at the center of the conversations. This will take time. Follow through on your words through action, be supportive in your responses, and keep concerns and struggles sacred.
  4. Use Words Wisely: Words have the potential to create the worlds in which you are living in. Be mindful of your word choice when responding to the strengths, hopes, and needs of the people you are supporting. Your vision can only be fulfilled if you lead with intention and speak with purpose.
  5. Be Present and Patient: It is easy to be concerned and frustrated when you aren’t seeing the goals you are working toward happen fast enough. Repeat after me: Meaningful change and growth takes time. AGAIN…MEANINGFUL CHANGE AND GROWTH TAKES TIME! When you work with people and kids in education, time is undefined. It’s the process that matters. It’s the work you are putting into rowing towards your destination. Be present, keep focused on the goals, let go of impatience, and the results will come!
  6. Let the Journey Guide You: When embarking on the coaching journey, understand that there will be unexpected turns along the way. To continue on the journey of transformation, lean into those unexpected turns with kindness, compassion, and curiosity. Be responsive, not reactive and embrace the learning process.

Moving Forward

No matter what your role is in education, how can you use a coaching mindset to bring out the best in those you serve AND how can you become aware of your own mindset before you help others define theirs? Everyone is capable of enhancing their practices. Are you ready to invest in an instructional coaching mindset that creates spaces to reflect on the past, confront the present, and make plans to shape the future of education?

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation and Transform Practice

Reflecting on Observations

This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.

Shifting the Observation Narrative

I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?

I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:

Grounding the Work

An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.

Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice

CLICK HERE to print out the card for discussion

  1. Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
  2. Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
  3. Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
  4. Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
  5. Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
  6. Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation, I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
  7. Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
  8. Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.

Moving Forward

So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.