Years before I wrote my book, “Courageous Edventures,” and helped develop an instructional coaching model used in schools across the country, I served as a district leader supporting instructional coaches. As part of this role, I hosted visitors from across the globe who wished to see our teachers’ innovative work.
After several visits I realized that, while we were proud of every teacher we worked with, we didn’t show off every classroom. In fact, we relied on a small percentage of teachers—around 20 percent—who were truly engaging in innovative, pedagogical shifts. My realization left me with one perennial question: How can we successfully ensure all teachers have the confidence and skills needed to transform learning in their classrooms?
Our coaches needed to be activated as change management leaders to truly make transformational change across their schools
In my search for an answer, I tried everything in my toolkit: after school PD, sending teachers to conferences and even implementing accountability measures. But after years of inconsistent progress, I understood something was missing from their practice. And the time they spent with instructional coaches seemed key to moving the needle.
While our coaches were providing support around skills and knowledge, they in turn needed support to help teachers believe that they had both the ability and also the desire to fundamentally shift their practice on behalf of their students. Our coaches needed to be activated as change management leaders to truly make transformational change across their schools.
Coaches as Change Management Leaders
The first step in activating our coaches was to rethink how they supported teachers. I began to work on a coaching model to reimagine this position to create both powerful skill and mindset growth. Through this work, I saw that when properly activated and supported, coaches can be the key leaders in systemic transformation.
In my role as an instructional coach—and my subsequent experience overseeing a coaching program—I learned that there is more to activating a coach who can lead systemic change than meeting regularly with teachers and offering guidance on strategies to improve practice. This kind of transformational coaching has a few key elements. Thus, truly transformational coaching:
Focuses the coach on growing teacher mindset as well as skill set: The program should not only empower the coach to help teachers develop stronger pedagogical skills. It should also help them adopt new mindsets about what teaching and learning should look like—as well as a willingness to take risks and move out of comfort zones to adopt new instructional strategies.
Begins with teacher goals in order to address larger system goals: The coaches should create a strong sense of buy-in from the teacher by addressing her immediate challenges. So if she’s struggling with classroom behavior, focus on that first. Achieving victories in an area that is crucial to them helps the teacher see the value in pedagogical shifts, witness immediate benefit from trying new strategies and build deeper trust in their coach. This allows them to dig in when it comes to addressing larger systemic goals and reduces the level of pushback when coaches introduce novel strategies.
Sets the coach up for success: Too often coaches were left on their own with no structure or guidance or community, fending for themselves. A strong coaching program should provide clear supports for the coach to continue growing her knowledge of the most recent developments in educational theory and available tools to support learning. That could mean access to expert mentorship, online supports and group learning events such as coaching conferences. It should also offer access to guidance for when the coach is faced with difficult situations, and systems to help her stay organized and make the most effective use of her time.
Makes coaching visible: To truly activate the coach as a leader in change management, it must be a team effort. The building leader should be bought in and involved in creating a culture and climate that supports this work. Additionally, the teachers who are excited to lead change should be activated to support the coach in her transformation leadership. They should share examples that will raise awareness of what is possible and motivate others.
When these elements are present, coaching can be leveraged to achieve the school-wide instructional change our students deserve.
The Dynamic Learning Project
A well-activated coach can be the secret weapon in achieving sustained instructional growth and improved learning and engagement
For the past two years, Google for Education, Digital Promise and EdTechTeam have been working to put these theories to the test. They partnered to develop the Dynamic Learning Project to demonstrate the transformative impact of truly effective coaching. In short, the DLP is a multi-year program that enables school leaders to leverage instructional coaches as change agents to drive system-wide impact. In the past two years, the DLP team created and implemented the tools, structures and supports scale this concept across 100 pilot schools in seven states across the U.S.
And it's working. As Digital Promise's research report states, “At the end of the first year, 86 percent of the [coached] teachers stated that their technology use was more frequent this year than previous years.” While frequent use in and of itself isn't the end goal, it does show that the vast majority of these teachers were willing to take risks and try new things with effective support.
Additionally, the research showed that this kind of program had impact that reached beyond teachers who were directly involved. The report continued, “This [increased tech use] was also the case for 76 percent of teachers who didn’t participate in the DLP, suggesting that there are benefits even for non-coached teachers, perhaps as a result of culture shifts, access to the coach, increased peer collaboration and principal and district support.”
All told, this is well above and beyond the 20 percent impact my schools were seeing.
The DLP is now expanding its reach to support more schools on a broader scale. What started as a pilot of 100 schools has become a proofpoint to this theory that a well-activated coach can be the secret weapon in achieving sustained instructional growth and improved learning and engagement.
As educators, we are constantly striving to improve our systems and practice to better serve our students. Our coaches may just be the hidden heroes we’ve been waiting for.