Stuck in the Middle: Navigating the Middle School Experience
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Site-based instructional coaching is becoming a more frequent (and sometimes mandated) form of support and leadership. But is it effective? A 2019 article published by the online education news site Education Dive came up with some insightful answers to this question.
In the article, education reporter Linda Jacobson examined the growing use of instructional coaches before zeroing in on some emerging best practices. Before we look at her findings in more detail, let's take a moment to explore the central motivations behind the instructional coach model.
Why instructional coaching?
Instructional coaches are typically pulled from the ranks of a district’s classroom teachers and tend to be veteran educators primed to provide solid feedback to their peers. According to Jacobson, coaching has “spread in recent years as a preferred professional development approach” in part because it involves tapping into veteran teachers' expertise.
Another Education Dive piece from 2019—this one written by Shawn De La Rosa—painted instructional coaching as a collaborative leadership model that “gives veteran teachers an opportunity to grow into shared leadership responsibilities” while continuing to focus on the work they love (namely, teaching).
De La Rosa went on to cite New York City’s Teacher Career Pathways Program as an example of a well-regarded, partnership-based approach to coaching in which teachers who take on a mentorship role are given a stipend. In addition to providing experienced teachers a way to share their knowledge, De La Rosa explained that the program is designed to increase access to “highly effective teaching” for both students and educators.
According to Andrew Miller of the Singapore American School, the instructional coaching approach to professional development is gaining traction among teachers, administrators, and other site-based staff. And yet, in a 2019 piece he wrote for the education resource site Edutopia, Miller argued that “coaching is a resource that could be better leveraged.”
For one thing, Miller opined, coaching tends to be most effective when it is optional. Citing Jim Knight, an instructional coaching expert based at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, Miller asserted that “teachers who choose to participate are eager to learn.” The approach advocated by Miller and Knight is far different to what De La Rosa and others have called the “sit-and-get” model, wherein teachers passively absorb top-down lessons on how to improve instruction simply because they are required to do so.
Echoing Miller's sentiments, Peter DeWitt—an Education Week contributor who also referenced Knight's work—described teacher buy-in as step one of the “coaching cycle” before going on to assert that not only should teachers be able to opt into coaching, they should be able to pinpoint the specific aims on which they’d like to focus as well. In the absence of specific aims, DeWitt recommended that teachers who opt into coaching “co-construct the goals together,” as this process can lead to a more engaging and personal brand of professional development.
According to the advocacy site EL Education, successfully personalized coaching can be achieved through a cyclical approach that involves the following elements:
Goal-setting: As noted by DeWitt, successful coaching journeys typically begin with the identification of clear, attainable goals.
Learning: Coaching is all about creating opportunities for teachers to hone their practice in accordance with both their personal goals and the wider institutional aims of their school or district.
Observation and data collection: In the words of EL Education researchers, providing teachers with “focused, descriptive, non-evaluative feedback” can nurture growth without seeming judgmental or limiting.
Reflection: This phase of the coaching cycle should be focused on identifying solutions and critically assessing all data, feedback, observations, and questions that arise during the coaching process.
Although the framework outlined above may be the best approach in some situations, the EL Education guide to coaching asserted that the cycle does not have to unfurl itself in any particular order. After all, the overarching purpose is to empower and engage teachers so that they, in turn, can empower and engage their students. With this in mind, participants should feel free to, for example, precede goal-setting with observation if it makes more sense to do so.
Put relationships first
According to a post on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development website by educators Amy MacCrindle and Jacquie Duginske, relationship-building is an essential attribute of instructional coaching.
“Building relationships in instructional coaching is the most integral part that must be in place to ensure success in any coaching model,” the duo wrote. Echoing the EL Education guide, MacCrindle and Duginske went on to assert that such relationships must be undergirded by “trust and respect,” thoughtful data collection, non-judgmental feedback, and the “knowledge of high-impact instructional practices.” Once these key elements are in place, coaches will be well positioned to assist teachers in putting evidence-based best practices to use in the classroom.
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