How Effective Coaching is Rooted in the Lived Realities of Students
In 2014, an instructional coach helped me successfully complete one of the greatest challenges I had encountered in my career. Her coaching changed my teaching and later how I led as a school principal.
Because of under-enrollment that year, my principal laid off some teaching staff. The cuts we made left us short an ELA teacher. I was wiping the sweat from my brow, relieved to still have my job teaching social studies. I could not ignore, however, the learning community’s need for an ELA teacher. In my state, ELA was a tested subject at that grade level. My state presided over a vast opportunity gap between Black students and their white counterparts. Given that my school was nearly 100% Black, I imposed some pressure on myself to help out and produce results.
Later that day, I approached my principal and asked to take over those ELA classes.
“What do you know about teaching ELA?” he asked.
I was the social studies guy. My pedagogy was rooted in primary sources analysis and argumentative writing. “It can’t be that different,” I mused out loud.
“What was the impact of your behavior and decisions on the academic outcomes of your students?”
A week of clunky teaching disabused me of all confidence. I could not guide students in deeply engaging in texts. I struggled with teaching the concepts of theme, tone, and mood. Students did not complete assigned readings at home and bombed the comprehension quizzes. I came back to my principal asking for support. He assigned me a coach with a long history of results in ELA and who was renowned for her coaching expertise.
While others had “coached” me before, it was simply a cover for a transactional process. Submit this lesson plan. Pilot this new curriculum. Make sure to give exit tickets. She was the first to ask me a radical question during all of our time together: “What was the impact of your behavior and decisions on the academic outcomes of your students?”
Her questioning led to a productive time together that honed in on three effective principles of instructional and, later in my career, leadership coaching.
Student work at every meeting to center equity
Again, my coach always asked me “what was the impact of your behavior and decisions on the academic outcomes of your students?” Every coaching session began with examining student work to determine mastery and alignment to standards. Depending on the coaching focus, the type of student work we looked at changed—exit tickets, reading comprehension quizzes, unit assessments, and interim data. Rooting our time together in student work gave the coaching relationship a measurable and results-oriented impact. It also was a forward measure toward equity—our coaching was rooted in the lived, objective reality of our students via work analysis, which allowed us to focus on daily grade-level progress and not move goalposts by focusing on how instruction “felt” or other vagarities.
Coaching relationships endure. Coaching foci are timed.
To this day, my coach remains one of my closest friends. She was even in my wedding party! However, we only had a limited period of time to ensure the students in my ELA class made grade-level progress. My coach strategically set up six-week time blocks to teach me and assess my proficiency on important ELA strategies such as making meaning from the text, close reading strategies, and classroom differentiation.
Self-reflection fuels ownership.
Through analyzing the student work samples and through targeted, timely coaching goals, she asked many questions that allowed me to own both my results and take command of my own pedagogical development. She did not prescribe me an instruction booklet of directions when a stack of exit tickets showed a lack of mastery. She interrogated my lesson design until I arrived at an understanding of my lack of teaching clarity and a plan for reteaching.
My coach’s practices mirror New Leaders' approach to effective instructional and leadership coaching—priming the coachee for adaptive change, offering individualized support, and applying the lessons learned into schools in measurable ways. Leaders can apply these same principles to both instructional and leadership coaching. It helped the novice English teacher I used to be learn how to teach literacy. And as a school principal, it helped me to develop leaders who were focused on the daily, grade-level outcomes of our students—a key move toward pursuing equity.
At the end of that year, 90% of my ELA class scored proficient in the state’s end-of-course exam. Embedded within that success was also authentic literacy instruction. We read novels and long-form essays and spent many essays and debates discussing the author’s craft. I was able to take the skills I learned because of the work of my coach and apply them to my social studies classes by expanding our reading materials and making the course interdisciplinary.
Coaching helped the novice English teacher I used to be learn how to teach literacy. And as a school principal, it helped me to develop leaders who were focused on the daily, grade-level outcomes of our students—a key move toward pursuing equity.
Strong coaching leaves a legacy. Years after supporting my students in getting their ELA results, I used her same coaching skill set in developing teachers and administrators as a school principal. Her influence lived on in the results my team was able to get with their students in all subject areas.
At New Leaders, I now support districts and charter management organizations across the nation in imbuing coaching as part of their professional development framework. It is a vital way to ensure that rigor and equity lives within learning communities.
Every teacher and leader deserves a skilled coach who centers on students and helps them to reflect on the impact of their behavior on the academic outcomes of all students.