Professing Education

 

School Coaching as Educator Development

Jean Haeger and Mark Kostin

The pressure and the need to improve our nation's high schools are arguably the greatest they have been in the last fifty years. Secondary principals and teachers must work quickly, yet thoughtfully, to identify the steps they should take to ensure a high quality education for all students. Traditionally, high schools have been alone in their improvement efforts; however, a growing number have been successful in breaking down the barriers of isolation by working with a school improvement coach. An outside school coach, if properly prepared and sensitive to individual as well as whole school concerns, can provide meaningful professional development for teachers. By balancing pressure and support, a coach can help initiate and sustain meaningful school improvement (Evans, 2000).

The Southern Maine Partnership has developed a coaching model that supports educator and school development simultaneously with the goal of transforming schools and teaching so that every student is fully prepared for college, work, and citizenship. To that end, we support the development of equitable, rigorous, and personalized learning opportunities for all students and have developed coaching strategies to support development in four areas: classroom practice, organizational design and culture, leadership, and community connections. In our role as school coaches, we spend considerable time directly supporting teacher professional growth, particularly in the areas of classroom practice and leadership. In what follows, we will describe the context of our school coaching work and how we continually support teachers' ongoing professional growth, such as deepening their classroom practice, supporting professional learning communities, enhancing shared leadership knowledge and skills, and assisting in the analysis of student learning and school-wide data.

Unlike a consultant, a school coach enters into a long-term agreement with a school. In our case, we work with schools over the course of three to five years, spending as much as 40 half-days on site over the course of a year. This allows us to get to know the school context very well, be responsive to the school's needs, and provide the necessary balance between pressure and support required to sustain improvement. Because coaches sole responsibility to a school is to support school improvement efforts, they have the time and technical expertise required to be thoughtful and responsive to a school. Few school leaders have that luxury. The Southern Maine Partnership school coaching model is based on five core beliefs:

- Schools must establish a bold and clear vision.

- Shared leadership, that shepherds the work, is essential.

- It is necessary to have an action planning cycle that includes reflection informed by data.

- Sufficient and regularly scheduled time for professional development, reflection, and planning must be in place.

- All members of the greater school community should be included in school improvement efforts, including students, parents, community, staff, district personnel, and school board members.

Meaningful, transformational change challenges the deepest beliefs about teaching and learning in a school community, which is often an emotionally charged situation, a tricky one for administrators to lead, as it challenges teachers' competence. An outsider is sometimes in a better position to facilitate that process. While a consultant can often play the role of instigator or catalyst for change, the role of school coach goes a step further by establishing ongoing working relationships with members of the school community to see the change through. Below, we identify three crucial roles that a coach plays in educator and school development:

1. A coach builds trust by building relationships.

In order for an outsider to affect the kind of transformational change most high schools need, there must be a high level of trust; as school improvement coaches, we seek to earn that trust by building strong, open and honest relationships with the leaders of the school, official and unofficial. In addition to the administrative personnel, there are other leaders who influence the work of the school, and it is essential to understand who those individuals are, and what their roles are in the school community. Those "unofficial leaders" often do not carry titles, but carry quite a bit of influence in faculty meeting discussions, for example.

2. A coach is responsive to schools' day-to-day concerns (helping put out fires), while always maintaining the big picture view, the school's vision. In order for school coaches to prove their value to the school in big issues, they must first prove their worth in the smaller issues that consume administrators' and teachers' time. Often it is the willingness (and ability) to get "down and dirty" with the reality of school which is what distinguishes a "coach" who is there for the long haul, from a one-shot consultant or occasionally present university faculty member. As we build relationships and come to understand the school culture and climate, we listen for starting points that will leverage the work of the school and move it forward. We look for the entry points that could lead to a series of actions that will result in effective change for students' learning experiences. We ask ourselves "what will have the biggest, deepest, longest lasting impact on student learning?"

3. A coach includes voices of all stakeholders in the planning and decision-making process. How are decisions made? How do people find out about the decisions that are made? What is the role (really) of students, parents and community members? The process of coming to agreement when including a broad cross-section of stakeholders is much more time and energy intensive; however, when consensus is reached, the process of implementation is much faster and often more effective.

As coaches, we are involved in a wide range of activities. For example, we assist schools in developing a comprehensive action plan, based on their vision; this includes five-year goals, short-term strategies, and concrete action steps with measurable outcomes. And we conduct mid-year reflection based on data related to action plan goals. We serve as facilitators of meetings and workshops, co-planners of professional learning and planning time and other events, data collectors, resource brokers, student and teacher shadows, participants in community forums and school board meetings. We make connections within and outside of school, spread the good stories about our schools within the school and with other schools with whom we are also working. We endeavor to form collaborative relationships among the schools engaged in coaching. In addition, we build leadership capacity by coaching existing school leaders to enhance their effectiveness, periodically providing feedback, asking probing questions, communicating our personal observations of the school's progress toward stated goals, and offering suggestions for ways to leverage the work.

High schools are facing an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Whether it's making Adequate Yearly Progress, demonstrating that its teachers are highly qualified, decreasing its dropout rate while increasing the number of graduates entering college, the stakes are indeed very high. Just as every student needs customized support to be successful, we believe that every high school needs similar support to meet its school improvement imperative. School coaching with an emphasis on supporting teacher professional growth is one way to support the achievement of our nation's school improvement needs.


References

Evans, R. (2000). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.