Hitting the Ground Running with Student-Centered Coaching

I am often asked how to get started with student-centered coaching. How might a district prepare coaches, teachers, and principals to make the most out this critical investment in student and teacher learning? What should we be aware of? What are some common pitfalls? While no two districts are alike, and you may need to modify for your own needs, here are a few ideas for hitting the ground running with student-centered coaching.

1) Develop a well-articulated model for coaching in your district
Work with a team of stakeholders to define what coaching will be, and what it will not be in your district. Connecting the dots between coaching, the curriculum, and evaluation is a helpful place to start the conversation. Ask how each of these levers of school improvement will work together and how they are distinct. With a clearly defined model for coaching, it is much easier to define the role of the coach, to hire the right people, and provide targeted support.

2) Hire the right people
Transitioning from teacher to coach can be overwhelming and scary. Not only is it a big leap to move from teaching young people to coaching adults, the coaching framework within districts is often vague and requires a leap of faith. If the model has been clearly defined, then the district is in a better position to fill coaching positions with people who understand their new role.

The following list may read like a job description and that isn’t a coincidence. If your district hasn’t taken the step of aligning the coach’s job description with the model you have developed, than that this an important step to take. Here are some of the characteristics I look for in a coach:

  • An understanding and track record in the use of effective instructional practices,.
  • The ability to frame oneself as a learner, rather than an expert. This takes confidence and requires the coach to be vulnerable and open-minded in their work with teachers.
  • An interpersonal skill set that allows the coach to build trust and rapport with a variety of teachers. This includes a level of professionalism that is demanded by coaching.
  • A strategic mindset that can develop systems and structures for coaching, i.e. recruiting teachers for coaching cycles, managing a complex schedule, possibly juggling more than one school, etc.
  • A well-articulated speaker and writer who communicates well with others.
  • A willingness to put in the time to stay current in order to learn new curricula, research, programs, and instructional practices.
  • A skill set around the use of technology in the areas of instructional delivery and work flow productivity (i.e. Googledocs)

3) Communicate the coaching model
You can never ‘over communicate’ the coaching model. If you intend for the model to be used throughout the district, than everyone needs to understand what it is. A district that I work with recently engaged in focus groups with teachers. They have had coaching in place for several years and were surprised to learn that a group of teachers knew nothing about it. It turned out that these teachers hadn’t been approached about coaching and were out-of-the loop.

Communicating the model is ideally accomplished through a principal and coach partnership. It can be done during a staff meeting, in writing, through a survey, in an online format like this example, or all of the above. (I’d recommend all of the above.)

For me, communicating the model includes an invitation to participate in a coaching cycle as an individual or with a small group. And to keep the ball rolling across the year, I like to remind people about coaching four times across the year. Each time I include celebrations of new learning and an invitation to participate in the next round.

4) Allocate time for teachers to collaborate
Effective coaching requires time for teachers to collaborate. Without it, the impact of coaching will be slight and will only include teachers who are willing to meet on their own time. By now, most districts have some form of team collaboration such as PLCs or Learning Teams. If not, establishing time on the master schedule may be a first step to get coaching off on the right foot. It can also be tricky if the master schedule is set up where most teachers teach literacy or math at the same time. For example, some schools assign all teachers’ literacy blocks in the morning. This presents a challenge for a literacy coach to engage in coaching cycles during the afternoon. A review of the master schedule may make sense in order to be sure that coaching will thrive.

5) Support, support, support
When I was a high school student in Southern California, I worked at a surf shop selling bathing suits. I often joke that I got more training doing that job than I did as a literacy coach. Coaches need a lot of support. They are often isolated in their schools and are in a no-man’s-land between the teachers and administration. They need to come together to learn strategies, to engage in problem-solving, and to reflect on their practice with peers on a regular basis.

6) Celebrate growth and new learning
Coaches can be so hard on themselves when it comes to what they are getting accomplished. Remember to take a step back and celebrate what is happening. Coaching happens one conversation at a time, it’s an incredibly human and personal endeavor. Celebrating helps us avoid getting stifled by worrying if we are doing it ‘right’. 

For more information about getting coaching up and running, please see chapter 2 in Student-Centered Coaching (Sweeney, 2010) or Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level (Sweeney, 2013).  

© Diane Sweeney, All Rights Reserved.