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For the Love of the Game: Instructional Coaching

Teachers get support and encouragement to hone their skills and open their classroom doors to help b


You've got an additional $10 million in the budget for next year. Where will you spend it? Technology? Teacher bonuses? More teachers? Thanks to a mill levy, teachers and administrators in Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools faced this "problem." And they opted to hire more coaches.

No, athletics isn't the district's number one priority. What this committee saw the need for was more instructional coaches for teachers. Superintendent Jane Hammond says one retiring teacher's words sum up why the money would be put to good use: "I am a better teacher because of the coach."

In the School District of Greenville County, S.C., teachers have come to rely on coaches just as much. Knowing that the coaching program might be in danger of getting cut next year, an anxious teacher recently asked coach Becky Hughes if she would still have her job. "I said I don't know," Hughes recalls. "And she said, 'Well, we'll just take up a collection!' "

Teachers and administrators in a growing number of districts across the country have hired full-time instructional coaches. And they're willing to do just about anything to keep them. Coaches identify and meet teacher needs in any number of ways, by orienting teachers with a new curriculum, helping them integrate technology, organizing staff development efforts or facilitating collaboration, for example.

These professionals go beyond mentoring, taking a more active role, says Kathleen Madigan, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality and a former teacher, coach and coach trainer. The training most coaches receive gives them the expertise that mentors may not have, and they don't need to carve out time to meet with teachers.

"The better coaching models are focused on elevating the instructional capacity of every teacher," says Lawrence Leak, assistant state superintendent of the Maryland Department of Education's division of certification and accreditation. Placing coaches in schools to improve instruction is a result of this age of greater accountability, he says.

Studies have shown that staff development is better when teacher study groups include peer review and coaching. If you simply train teachers and send them back to the classroom, a small percentage of what they learned will be used. In district-wide efforts of peer coaching and other team-oriented elements, the knowledge transfer rate can soar to nearly 100 percent.

In the 20-plus years Hughes taught, the classroom was an isolating place. "It was, 'Close my door and let me do my thing,' " she says. Placing a coach in every middle school is one way Greenville has encouraged a team environment. Hughes says teachers are realizing that "you have to open your doors to do your business."

The effects of coaching programs transcend the classroom. District-wide efforts foster a stronger link between the central office and classrooms. And, administrators get the chance to re-think teacher leadership capacity. Some coaches may even take that next step and move into administrative positions themselves, but that's not the main point. "The model we really should be thinking about ... is this idea of teachers working together, a professional community," says Kathleen Fulton, director of Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century, a National Commission on Teaching & America's Future initiative.

Part of the Team

Perhaps the greatest factor in getting teachers to open their doors to coaches is that evaluation is not the coach's job. "It's very difficult to establish rapport with a teacher if the feeling is that I'm going to tell on them," says Renate Ford, who coaches mainly at Goethe Middle School in Sacramento City Unified School District.

In Jefferson County, coach Barbara Ellis at Van Arsdale Elementary School says the way her role was initially introduced to teachers helped. The principal made it clear that she wasn't an evaluator, a teacher substitute or a tutor for small groups of students.

So just what is a typical day in the life of a coach? There's no such thing. For Hughes, the day may be scheduled around which teachers catch her in the hallway as she enters Greer Middle School in the morning.

Amy Kines, a coach at Ritchie Park Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., says she often facilitates as groups of teachers from the same grade evaluate student work. Kines also tries to communicate district initiatives without making teachers feel overwhelmed by all that's new.

Ellis, a literacy expert, helps Jefferson County teachers get resources, as well. Van Arsdale Principal Holly Anderson explains that if a teacher has a content question outside of this area, Ellis might bring in another district coach to help. "That's the kind of thing that teachers don't have time to do." The coach also brings teachers together through a professional reading program she initiated.

Teachers generally welcome coaches, especially after hearing colleagues' praise. Jefferson County's high school teachers recently voiced some concerns about why coaches are necessary. The elementary teachers in the room, who had already worked with and been won over by coaches, were asked to communicate their initial reaction to the program. "They laughed and said, 'We said exactly what the high school teachers are saying now,' " Hammond recalls.

When Madigan was a coach, she remembers veteran teachers remarking that they have children older than she. So why should they listen to her? A database coaching model, where the coach records data on student performance during class, can help mediate conversations between coaches and teachers. For example, the data might show how students reacted to positive words from the teacher versus more negative interactions, or how often teachers call on students versus teaching through lecturing. The data promotes active participation as teachers come up with their own solutions, Madigan says.

Because every coach has a unique set of strengths, and each school is different, districts typically leave the daily schedules of coaches up to site administrators. In meetings with other principals in her district, Anderson says they share strategies for how to structure a coach's time. In addition, principals can view the weekly coaches' meeting agenda online, so they always know what topics the coaches are covering.

Technology also keeps Greenville's district office in the loop. Gloria Talley, director of professional growth and leadership, says the coaching listserv has been a useful tool for this purpose. "I see the instructional coaches as a missing link that connects the central office with the school," she says. Sherida Peterson, Jefferson County's assistant superintendent of instructional services, agrees. "They are our liaison into the schools, along with the principals."

Dollars and Sense

Proving the value of coaches is a must for administrators who are seeking funding for their programs. In Greenville and Jefferson Counties, connecting the coaching program to the district strategic plan has been crucial. "The plan provides a context for a coaching program," Hammond says. If the program is seen as "a stand-alone, if it doesn't have a framework as part of something else, [it becomes] a program to sell," Peterson adds.

In Sacramento, that context was a decision to adopt a common district-wide reading program. "In order to do something that sweeping ... we would need to offer a kind of professional development support that went way beyond orientation and workshops," says Kathi Cooper, associate superintendent of instruction and learning. "Implementation really happens all day long, every day in classrooms."

Evaluation ensures that coaching programs are worth the administrative costs and coaches' salaries, which often mirror the teacher pay scale. Greenville's original evaluation process, where principals evaluated coaches, is changing so the district can work collaboratively with principals on the process. "When you spend that kind of money, your board of trustees is really holding people accountable," Talley says.

Montgomery County relies on teacher feedback, as well. Darlene Merry, associate superintendent in the district's office of staff development, meets with coaches and teachers mid-year to go over teacher surveys and discuss changes that might be helpful in the coach's approach. Through a partnership with George Washington University, the district gets objective feedback on the program as a whole.

Coaching the Coaches

Initial and ongoing training are cited by districts as crucial pieces in a coaching program. Coaches are "only as effective as they are prepared," says Sharon Van Vleck, director of elementary curriculum, language arts, in Sacramento.

The district chose a coaching model developed by the University of Oregon. Bonnie Grossen, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in Education at the university, assisted in training coaches. It's a hands-on model that includes practice coaching under the direction of a more experienced coach, explains Catherine Bardo, director of secondary curriculum, language arts for the district. Once coaches assume their own duties, Bardo meets regularly with the two full-time and 40 part-time coaches she supervises.

Coaches in Jefferson County meet every Friday for seven hours of intensive training. "[This was] initially a stumbling block for us," Peterson says. A lot of principals were concerned that coaches, who are typically split between two schools, would not have enough contact to establish a place in each school's community, Anderson explains. "But I think everyone recognized that we don't want a coach in our building who doesn't have that [professional development] support," she says.

Montgomery County coaches got an initial 20 days of summer training, followed by two training days per month during the school year. This year, monthly training sessions focus on how to help teachers analyze student work.

Greenville's training focus was on getting the coaches familiar with what a good middle school looks like, Hughes says. The year-long training included a partnership with a middle school principal and superintendent from a Rhode Island district. Talley says the administrators acted as consultants to help Greenville build learning communities within its middle schools, conduct text-based discussions and look critically at student work. At the end of the year, several coaches spent three days in Rhode Island observing practices they were looking to implement at home.

Success Stories

Instructional coaches are quick to point out that the bonds they form during training make a tremendous difference in their coaching. "It's always challenging to be the only person that carries that role within the school. I work closely with the principal, but I'm really by myself," Ellis says. That's why she and other coaches constantly compare notes. Hughes says, "I couldn't do this if I were isolated." The Greenville coaches group is "like a small family," says Talley.

Having Ellis in the school, Anderson says, "provides purpose for what we do." And because she is constantly discussing the program with other principals, coaching has been a way for schools to connect. "We used to be like 100 elementary schools all working individually. ... It doesn't feel like that anymore." Whether it's a textbook decision or staff development strategy for her school, Anderson knows what other schools are doing.

Of course, the ultimate goal for coaching programs is to impact student achievement. Ford's school was "at the bottom of the heap" in reading five years ago. Now, reading is taught daily and separate from language arts. The first year the coaching component was fully implemented in the reading program, test scores went up 14 percent.

Hammond was equally impressed with achievement in Jefferson County. Coaches were first placed in half of the elementary schools. Test results showed that schools without coaches had only about half the gain in scores. These gains are especially important here, since additional revenue from the mill levy that funded the coaching program depends on it. "We get [funds] as we achieve," Hammond says.

Bringing It Home

One of the first decisions a district must make about a coaching program is whether to follow a model or create the program from scratch. Models can provide strategies and ideas, but experts believe districts should modify them to fit their needs. Some other tips on creating and managing a coaching program:

Melissa Ezarik, mezarik@, is features editor.