Can Coaching End The Achievement Plateau?
Part 1/n: can principals really be coaches?
Coaching has exploded as the preferred method of professional development in education. At my school, we have access to instructional coaches, technology coaches, leadership coaches, and school climate coaches. There’s even a coach for helping us improve student attendance.
The meteoric rise of coaching’s popularity begs the question this newsletter (blog?) loves to ask: will it end the achievement plateau? For now, I want to focus on principals as coaches because, in addition to the many coaches listed above whose sole role is coaching, principals are also expected to be coaches.
Before I begin, I should say that I’ve got lots of friends and close colleagues who work as coaches. I’m not setting out to malign them or their work. Rather, in the spirit of constant reflection and continuous improvement that we preach to teachers when we coach them, it’s important to analyze and autopsy every intervention we try in the quest to improve public education.
Instructional coaching started to become popular in the early 2010s, with articles like this New Yorker piece vaulting Jim Knight, the instructional coaching guru from The University of Kansas, to education fame.
The author of the above piece, surgeon and author Atul Gawande points to studies that show traditional teacher workshops (think large groups of teachers watching a presentation on a teaching skill) have low implementation rates — teachers rarely take such learning and use it in their classroom. The irony of teaching teachers in a classroom setting proving an ineffective means of learning aside, individualized instructional coaching was shown to be far more effective in getting teachers to change their practice.
Individualized instructional coaching is also incredibly expensive and time-intensive. According to another instructional coaching guru, Elena Aguilar, full-time instructional coaches should work with no more than 12 teachers at a time. That allows coaches sufficient time to observe teachers, review their data, analyze student work, and build what Knight calls for: a partnership approach.
For the first five years of my principalship, there was 1 principal for 40 teachers. That’s more than 3X Aguilar’s recommended caseload size. It’s far too many to practice authentic instructional coaching.
Principals are also tasked with evaluating teachers, and evaluating someone’s work, attaching a numerical score or grade to it, implies a hierarchy, not the true partnership that instructional coaches aim to develop. Evaluation, especially when tied to pay or job security, often makes teachers less likely to acknowledge their areas of growth and suppresses coaching’s effectiveness.
Given that, I’m not sure principals truly have the capacity to be instructional coaches. We can evaluate teaching and perhaps even give occasional bits of feedback. Providing truly authentic coaching, though, requires ongoing observations and feedback — weekly if not more frequently. That’s time that I simply don’t have given the many other responsibilities and strategies for improving our school. In that way, we’re sort of like a baseball team’s General Manager who can occasionally stop by batting practice and give technique tips to some sluggers, but whose myriad responsibilities don’t allow for them to be the hitting coach who works daily with players on their approach.
Even with careful calendaring of my week (shoutout to The Together Group for helping me on my “togetherness journey), I’ve always struggled to consistently coach a cohort of teachers over an extended period of time — and I know many other principals who share that struggle. Other “big rocks” always get in the way. For the last month, for example, I set aside classroom observations and feedback to focus on hiring for next year. We had 11 vacancies, a result of two resignations, a teacher leaving the profession, a few teachers transferring to different schools, and some added positions. Recruiting, interviewing, and hiring is full-time work, and I do believe I can best improve teaching at my school by signing the best free agents, not by helping current players improve their swing plane.
Honestly, in the last six years of giving teachers feedback — and I’ve given a lot of it, from modeling to co-teaching, to real-time coaching and extensive practice sessions — I’m not sure any it has really transformed teachers’ practice.
My concern about dubbing principals “coaches” is that we’re watering down the term. Principals’ responsibilities are vast and growing, and pushing us to focus more of our time on coaching potentially distracts us from managerial duties, like hiring and vision-setting and staff culture, that might yield more overall school improvement than coaching individual teachers.
Finally, regarding the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas: I’m so damn angry. We can pass laws in a matter of weeks banning the teaching of race and gender in our schools because we’re (unnecessarily) afraid teachers will “indoctrinate” our students. But massacre after massacre — both in schools and outside them — and our country can only offer thoughts and prayers.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.