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Moving from Mentor to Instructional Coach: A Case Study

As I am developing my instructional coaching practices, I have decided to ask a colleague for whom I acted as a mentor last year as he completed his international teaching certificate to work with me in a coaching partnership. Fullan and Knight (2011) emphasize the building of collegial relationships as a foundation for an effective coaching experience. This teacher and I spent several months last year building this relationship that we can now utilize.

Moreover, at the end of the mentoring session last year, we identified several goals for professional development, some of them specific to instruction, as we agreed upon them based on the observed lessons. This coaching assignment (from the Coaching: From Theory to Practice course) provides us with a unique opportunity to actually follow up on these suggestions. Too often I find that feedback provided from supervisors as part of the teacher appraisal process or even from mentors/coaches are then not followed up until the next evaluation session. This way we can see if any of the suggestions were warranted as they were applied in the classroom.

In my pre-observation meeting with Bryn, we discussed what he would like to focus on for the observation that we scheduled for the following week and what our expectations were for the coaching relationship that we are now building. During this discussion, I kept in mind The Collaborative Cycle: Building Independence through Partnership model. Interestingly, as we are navigating the instructional coaching relationship, Bryn commented that it is freeing not to have the evaluation side of mentorship in the balance this time around. As Tschannen- Moran and Tschannen-Moran (2011) point out, “Evaluation and coaching can work at cross-purposes if schools blur the distinctions between them” (p. 10). As a mentor last year, I had to submit an evaluation of the teaching practices that I observed for the faculty of education. Therefore, the observed lesson was structured in a way to show the teacher in the best possible way. This is also the case for teacher evaluation performed by principals in schools. For many teachers, this is their only time when they are observed by anyone in their classrooms. The associations that teachers, therefore, make with observations is not necessarily positive. Bryn mentioned that the first and only time he has been “officially” observed in his four years in the classroom was my visit last year. Now that I come to his classroom as a coach with no evaluative purposes, he felt that he wanted to utilize this opportunity in a more creative way and have me observe him as he tries something completely new that he has never done before and receive feedback on the specific way that he facilitates this experience for his students. Firstly, this takes lots of trust in the relationship that we have already built and the knowledge that I am not there to “fix problems” or to evaluate performance. Secondly, it allows the teacher to experiment and be creative, a concern that Tschannen- Moran and Tschannen-Moran (2011) also point out is missing from evaluations.

As per our agreement, I observed a class and I took pictures and recorded video of sections of the lesson and also wrote extensive observation notes in order to inform the post-observation discussion. Immediately after the lesson, Bryn and I informally debriefed regarding the lesson and scheduled our post-observation meeting for the following day. Throughout the observation and the informal debriefing, I kept the following coaching strategies in mind:

1. Shane Shafir’s essential idea of “balanc[ing] specific feedback with reflective questions” strongly resonated with me. I tried to keep this in mind as I recorded observations and prepared concrete evidence to support the observations throughout the lesson. What larger ideas can these specific teaching instances direct us to discuss? For example, it occurred to me that rather than just discussing the ending of this specific lesson, we should also have a more general talk regarding the sequencing and timing of learning activities. As Shafir points out, “High quality coaching lies somewhere near the crossroads of good teaching and educational therapy.” I realized that an exploration of the therapeutic effects of coaching should receive more focus in my practice.

2. The idea of developing these type of reflective questions perfectly aligned with Bearwald’s ideas about questioning. Bearwald asserts that the goal of instructional coaching is to “focus on reflecting, exploring, analyzing, and digging deeper into good practice. In the coaching process, we hope to change reflections into insights, expand knowledge into wisdom, and evoke changes in behavior that improve performance.”

3. Finally, Jim Knight’s seven partnership principles of “equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, praxis, and reciprocity” provide the framework for the coaching experience that I am trying to provide for my participant. The idea of coaches being trusted, critical friends with whom teachers can improve their practice is very appealing. This is again where I see the fact that coaching cannot be a part of the evaluation of teachers as an essential condition. By design, evaluation lacks these partnership principles, especially equality, choice and reciprocity. Therefore, it is important to continually verbalize these partnership principles to the teachers we coach.

During the post-observation meeting, I focused on two main areas that we had agreed to address:

1. The role of the facilitator
2. Ending of the lesson

However, keeping in mind the larger purposes of coaching, I framed the discussion about these two items in a way to address some larger pedagogical intentions and purposes using the specific teaching instances from the lesson as a launching pad.
For the role of the facilitator as opposed to leader of the learning activity, we started out with this question: In what ways did your planning and execution of this lesson succeed?

I encouraged the teacher to talk about what he perceived as a success in the lesson. He commented that ultimately the lesson reached its intended goal – the students indeed were more active in the construction of knowledge in the class. We talked about specific instances that worked really well such as the inclusion of student examples, visuals, and presentations that enhanced the learning experience for the students in ways the teacher had not previously thought about.

Next, I showed some of the pictures and video footage that I took during the observation. I specifically wanted the teacher to look at how his body language and positioning himself in the classroom aided or hindered his intended goal of empowering the students to become experts on their part of the assessment tasks. The teacher himself observed that while the first two students presented, he actually positioned himself at the front of the room with them and when it came time to answer questions, he did not allow the students to answer questions from the class. Rather, he reverted back to being the only source of information in the classroom and answered all the questions. We talked about how this was contrary to his intentions. The pictures and the videos were invaluable in this instance for the teacher to recognize this pattern for himself as opposed to me pointing it out to him. The observation of actual behaviour in the classroom rather than my subjective comments based on recollection of events can truly be powerful in the coaching process.

This discussion naturally led to the next big idea that I wanted to explore: the teacher’s feelings regarding letting go of the control (power) of the lesson and empowering the students to become co-learners/co-leaders in the classroom. Using the specific instances from the observation, we discussed how as the lesson progressed, he became more comfortable with letting go of the control and allowed students to take the lead. The videos were again very useful for demonstrating this change. We explored how other lessons and courses would benefit from these realizations and the teacher made plans on how to be more mindful of this in the future.

The second area of interest was the ending of the lesson. The teacher commented that he thought that the idea of showing students the footage of an actual shadow puppet show was important but unfortunately, he ran out of time to sufficiently show it. When I asked how he felt this affected the learning process for the students, we had a conversation about what the most important core ideas were for the lesson. The teacher then reflected that what he wanted students to take away from the lesson is how to make their own shadow puppet show and that not having time to show the end product was like giving students parts of a car to build a car without actually ever showing them a car. This led to a conversation about the sequencing and timing of learning activities in general – what are the most germane ideas that students need to take with them at the end of the lesson? How does the lesson need to be structured then in order for these ideas/activities to become sacrosanct, meaning these need to be done even if other activities need to be sacrificed? The teacher related that this was the first time he actually thought about lesson planning this way and that now it seemed so obvious that he should have planned to show the puppet show first before the rest of the activities were done in the class since it would have made more logical sense.

At the end of the post-observation meeting, I asked what value the teacher saw in the coaching experience. Bryn expressed gratitude for the close attention that I paid to what he wanted to explore in his classroom, namely how to make his lessons more engaging so that student learning would be improved. He talked about how powerful the pictures and videos were to actually recognize how his actions might be different than what he intends to do in the classroom. He also commented that having a trusting relationship between us was the basis for his openness to the feedback that was provided. He said he felt that we had a conversation that was on “equal footing” which I thought expressed how this experience was different from the evaluative process that we engaged in last year.

As I reflected on the post-observation meeting, I realized that last year I put in the time with Bryn to build the relationship by coaching light which now allowed me to coach heavy as related in Kim’s blog post about difficult conversations. I intended to push Bryn’s pedagogical understanding to enable him to better himself as an educator. He is a good teacher already and he clearly keeps what Fullan refers to as the “moral imperative” of teaching (and leadership) in mind since he wants to try new things to make learning better and more enjoyable for his students. As a coach and an educational leader, I do believe that my ultimate responsibility is to improve student achievement and well-being. Changing practices on an individual or school level in order to achieve this moral imperative is hard. It is an emotional process that requires emotional intelligence (as explained by Daniel Goleman) and a growth mindset (as expressed by Carol Dweck). Therefore, it is imperative to remember to meet teachers where they are in their journey as educators and offer them the support that they are willing and able to take in the given moment.

Image credit:

Math Partners bywoodleywonderworks, CC licensed on Flickr

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