Guest Post: My Instructional Coaching Journey

I’m going on my seventh year at my current school, eleventh in education. Three years agoSLICE I was teaching a full load and was asked to help out a new Biology teacher.

Informally, I was asked to do what I could to assist her in classroom management and content-based instruction. I learned a lot that year, about managing my time, the importance of starting with building relationships, and fine-tuning conversations around small do-able goals.

The next school year I was given one less class and one additional teacher. In speaking with other coaches, this seems to be a common occurrence. If you do good work, OK here’s more. We had a small, but burgeoning mentoring program that I joined as a content specific coach in the sciences.

I had two vastly different experiences with my two mentees that year. One teacher, John, was open to coaching on day one. He was a solid instructor who had some issues managing his class and other early career issues. He was reflective and made adjustments quickly. The second, Jeff, was not as open to coaching. He was also early in his career and had similar issues as John. But, he didn’t believe he needed any help. What was working with John wasn’t working with Jeff. I finally realized that and threw out what I knew about coaching. We spent the next three months working on what he needed and wanted to work on. I was determined to build trust between us, and it worked. By January we had a strong foundation and began the work of strengthening his practice.

This year, I was given one less class, and coach five teachers, with whom I observe and meet with them weekly. To do this, I really have to be on my game. I took all the lessons I learned in my first two years to make gains this year. I started by simply saying hello.

The first thing I did this year is found every mentee before school started and said hello. I wanted to know how their summer was, what brought them to our school, and how I could help. Did they know how to take attendance? Did they need help making copies? Any questions they had were fair game. I tried to check in a few times before the first day to make sure they were getting settled in.

Our program is made up of two coaches and a director. We have ten new teachers on our staff. Each coach has five teachers and the director oversees the mentees and us. So far, we’ve made it all work by using Google documents to share notes with our Director of Mentoring in real time. We’ve also coordinated schedules of what teacher is free when and who is meeting who when. It’s a bit of a dance, but I think we have it worked out.  We were aware that it wouldn’t be perfect on day one, and that would be OK.

Over the years I’ve refined what I’m looking for in a classroom on day one to three key areas:

  • The teacher should come off as engaging and excited about their class. They should show they are happy students are there and can’t wait to get started.
  • Procedures should be explained, modeled, and practiced. How do students do the things they need to do in that room? Can they use the bathroom? Do they need to raise their hand? Where does graded work go? These are just some of the questions on the minds of students the first day.
  • Finally, students need to be engaged in the course. No student loves to listen to a recitation of the syllabus for forty-five minutes. If a teacher does something simple on day one to get students thinking and engaged, the rewards will be compounded over the year.

Even on day two students know what is going on and most times, they will tell you, especially if they are familiar with you. I had a student turn around and ask me if I am here to help her teacher. I said of course. She then asked me to pass along this nugget, “Tell her she seems uncomfortable up there and that we notice, if she just relaxes I think we’ll be good.” It’s funny, she didn’t want her teacher, that she just met to get in trouble, but as long as she knew I was there to help, she wanted me to help her.

After a lesson, when I sit down with any new teacher, I might have only one thing that I want to convey. I let them drive the conversation with the phrase, “how did it go?” Many teachers can quickly identify what went right and wrong even early in their career, but if not, I can refer back to that one thing we need to begin work on, like a safety net for them. When I was a new teacher, sometimes I didn’t know what to do, and my mentor’s steady hand was key in my growth.

And so the school year begins, with a start centered on building relationships and trust, targeting a few key classroom details, and having focused conversations.

About our Guest Author: Jason Falconio is in his third year as an instructional coach at a small charter school in Philadelphia, where he has been for the past seven years. There, he also teaches Biology and AP Biology as well as runs an after school robotics program. He has received his Masters in Educational Leadership from Penn State and is certified as a K-12 Principal. In the summers he is the site director of a Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer residential program. He lives with his wife and dog, Molly, just outside of Philadelphia. He has recently started a blog and can be found on Twitter @jasonfalconio. He also writes at ASCD Edge.

Guest Post: Who Sits In the Big Chair? Reflections on Building Collaborative Partnerships with Teachers

Last spring, I attended a day-long session facilitated by Jim Knight on using video as a tool for instructional coaching. Jim started the day with his Partnership Principles. I was equally inspired and mortified. I was inspired to learn more about how I can strengthen the partnerships with teachers I support, but mortified to think of all the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years in my practice as an instructional coach.

                                     Photo by Federica Campanaro    Otranto, Italy

Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles include these “touchstones” that guide the work of instructional coaches: Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Reflection, Praxis, and Reciprocity. I want to be able to carry these profound principles with me into each coaching session, so I’ve organized them into three memorable tips.

A Firm Belief in Equality

With each opportunity to work alongside a teacher, I am reminded that I learn as much, maybe more, as the individual sitting at the table with me. Coaching is not an exercise in educational arm-twisting. It’s not my job to convert a teacher to my way of thinking.

In this partnership, I fully expect to discover the strengths and distinctive values of the teacher, and how she approaches instruction and learning for her students. The primary responsibility for me as a coach is to listen and respond with thought-provoking questions so the lion’s share of the work is done in a collaborative manner.

Four years ago, when I went through a multi-day coaching institute, I remember balking a little at the idea that all the heavy work was to be done by the teacher. “It’s imperative that the coach ask questions that allow the teacher to choose the path for change.”

I’ll admit I struggled with that idea.

Why are they calling in the “experts” to coach and then empowering the teacher to choose? Shouldn’t I be leading the teacher to make the changes I decide should be made in the classroom instruction and practice?

It’s really difficult to admit my arrogance as a “newbie” instructional coach. Thank goodness I quickly realized the expert is and always will be the teacher in that classroom.

Jim Knight paints a compelling picture with his description of the relationship between teacher and instructional coach: “The teacher sits in the big chair and the coach willingly chooses the little chair.”

A Commitment to Choice and Voice

Implicit in this equal partnership is the idea that coaches work collaboratively to ensure teachers make their own personal, values-driven choices. The intentional way I communicate as a coach should empower the teacher to express her opinion about the solutions to specific instructional, management or assessment issues in the classroom.

Recently, I met with a third-grade team and their campus instructional specialist. We took a look at their most recent data and then I asked them to consider some instructional implications based on their analysis of the data.

The response from one of the teachers caught me a little off guard. She made an altogether different connection between the data and instruction than I would have. I was equally surprised at my initial inward response. I found myself thinking, “That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that.”

In the past, my heart rate would have quickened, my scalp would’ve tightened and I would have struggled to control my facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

Instead, I found myself asking questions that facilitated their design of a multi-week unit to support students in mastery of a difficult standard in the language arts curriculum. As I drove home, I was amused at the fact that it’s only taken me four years to learn it’s not my job as an instructional coach to “manipulate” the teachers I support.

(Patience, please–I’m a slow learner.)

An Emphasis on Reflective Dialogue

An effective instructional coach is clear on the importance of dialogue that promotes reflection. Teachers must have the freedom and encouragement to think through solutions and weigh the factors involved in important changes (however small) in their practice.

There’s inestimable wisdom in offering teachers the ability to embrace or reject instructional practices. True, transparent partnerships are defined by the freedom to consider and cast-off. The choice to redesign and individualize content in ways that are most valuable for the individual is critical.

It makes no sense whatsoever for a coach to dictate practices and/or classroom procedures that are an uncomfortable fit for the teacher and her students.

I had the privilege of working with a grade level team last year that was made up of first year teachers. I worried that the pressure of accountability and responsibility for this team would be crushing.

What I observed over the weeks we were together was the sagacity these ladies possessed. They had an uncanny ability to take the ridiculous amount of information and overwhelming tasks for classroom teachers and distill it to the most important bits. They asked thoughtful, discerning questions and then made decisions that simultaneously challenged and supported their young learners.

Amazed and inspired each time I left a planning session with these amazing women, I now consider them as heroes and mentors.

Instructional coaching is tricky work. I’m tempted to fret over the fact that I’m not doing my best to maintain authentic collaborative partnerships.

Not to worry.

Now that I know who sits in the big chair, I think I’ve got this.

About our Guest Author: Valinda Kimmel has flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. For the past 7 years, she’s worked as a K-6 facilitator/instructional coach in a large school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in conversations with her on Twitter () and on her blog at

Guest Post: 5 Promises To Make for Effective Instructional Coaching (Put on Those Rose-Colored Glasses!)

Happy instructional coaches wear rose-colored glasses. The education landscape hasglasses become so politically and emotionally charged that is increasingly challenging shut out the din of a thousand competing voices. But, coaches, we must, if we are  to be effective, in addition to happy and the glasses help.

I got an extra-dose of rose the other day as I sat in on interviews for an open teacher position. As I listened to them talk about teaching and learning, gone were politics, gone were mandates, and gone was mistrust. In fact, gone was all lingering negativity from the din of those thousand voices.  

Take a minute to read the words of the candidates. I almost guarantee they’ll make you proud to be an educator.

“If they don’t love a subject or strategy, I always tell myself, they don’t love it yet, but I’ll get them there!”

“Pay attention. Pay attention to what they need and how they need it.”

“Collaborate. Communicate. Learn from each other.”

“Success first. When learners succeed they are prone to more success.”

“Figure out where they are and where they need to go and then help them get there!”

Amazing, right?! Teachers are amazing. As I listened to these teachers talk, my rose-colored glasses deepened by shades.

Later, I realized that the words of these teachers reminded me of five promises I’ve made in order to be a happy and effective instructional coach.

If I had to summarize them, they would be rose-red and read:

Teachers are amazing!

In our work as instructional coaches, we must consciously keep those words in mind. If you don’t believe it, fake it until you make it. See teachers as you know they can be. Hold high expectations for them as you would for the students they teach. Instructional coaches who don’t get that, who don’t really love and respect teachers, cannot be effective.

Below is my list of the five promises I make as an instructional coach. Each comes from a hope-laden, rose-colored place that makes effective coaching possible.

  1.  Remember that Growth-Mindset goes for teachers too! EVERY single teacher can grow, learn, and achieve at high levels.

All teachers want to be successful and guess, what? With some work, patience, and effective coaching, most teachers (if not all) can be!. Spend some time with the research of the brilliant psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck teaches us that our brains are malleable and that humans can actually get smarter. She also reminds us that failure is a part of learning and should be celebrated as part of the process. We have applied the growth-mindset theory to our work with children for a dozen or so years. It’s time to bring this positive way of thinking to our work with teachers too.

  1. “Two, but not two.” It’s NOT us versus them thing. Ever.

I recently read a great book for middle grade students, Pax by Sara Pennypacker. In it, Pennypacker writes about the Buddhist principle of two, but not two. She uses the concept to help two sad and somewhat lonely characters to see themselves as connected to the world. It resonated with me on many levels, but, as a lifelong edu-dork who spends huge chunks of time thinking about teaching and learning, it spoke to me about my role as an instructional coach deeply.

We cannot allow an “us versus them” mentality into any conversation or even our thoughts about the teachers we coach.It is our job to lift teachers’ visions higher, in turn raising their achievement. We do sometimes have to insist that teachers make changes, but we must do it in a way that shows we  support, value, and believe in them. We must be thoughtful rather than frustrated or angry in the face of teacher resistance. In other words, don’t take those rose-colored glasses off. You need them. The teachers you serve (and through them, the students you serve) need you to wear them.

  • Grant Wiggins offers excellent advice on facing resistance
  • Stephanie Laird gives equally valuable advice right here on the Your Instructional Coach blog!
  1. Motivation is key, but it has to be real.

Motivation is not something we give to teachers, it is something we cultivate by helping teachers see their own successes.Daniel Pink has done outstanding work in this area. Pink says that motivation comes from autonomy (teachers want to have some control over their work and growth), mastery (teachers want to get better at their craft), and purpose (teachers want to see how what they do matters in the big-picture.) Motivation comes from feeling good about your work and from feeling supported by instructional coaches. If you only do one thing, watch Pink’s video, if it doesn’t rosify your glasses, I don’t know what will!

  1. Remember, classroom management is absolutely foundational to teaching and learning.

Excellent teachers know how to run a classroom, how to manage children, how to differentiate instructional experiences, and how to proactively ward off poor choices. Building relationship with students is key to effective management. Differentiated instruction is too. If you are working with a teacher who cannot manage a classroom, helping her/him with that, is job-number-one! Look back at the quotes from the interviewees above. Those quotes apply to our work with teachers. Support teachers where they are. Be where they need you to be. Helping with classroom management is a gift we can give teachers who struggle and we should give it freely and without judgement.

  1. NEVER stop learning and model continuous learning for teachers.

Instructional coaches, we cannot allow ourselves to put on know-it-all airs. There is no room for ego in coaching. Reach out to other teachers. Build a professional learning network, tag a mentor or two for yourself, and never be afraid to admit that you have questions or need help. Study, read, write, talk, reach out! Use Twitter, Pinterest, lesson plan wikis, Google Docs (the list is endless) to share ideas and ask questions. Keep learning in low stress ways and show teachers how to do the same.Effective coaches are reflective learners. Reflection leads to questions. Do not be afraid to ask them!

Those are the promises that have served me well in my work coaching fellow educators. As the new school year draws closer, I will continue to shine my rose-colored glasses and wear them with pride. I hope that you put yours on too!

About our Guest Author: Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn.

* For a version of this post as it relates to teachers coaching children, click here.

Guest Post: Coaching Heavy vs. Coaching Light

When we coach teachers we are hoping to create change in their practices that will make growththem more successful, but are we coaching for long term effect?  New coaches often face barriers of trust and perception.  As a new coach several years ago, my first objective was to get to know the teachers in my school and build relationships.  I talked with teachers about their personal lives to find common ground.  I visited their classrooms and let them talk to me about their practices and areas where they wanted to improve.  Teachers are territorial and they have to know you before they will let you “touch” their classroom willingly.  

Many times coaches also struggle with perception of the coaching role.  When the coach walks in it’s bad news and there must be something wrong.  I tried to distribute my time among all teachers to keep that at bay.  I observed their classrooms, met with them to reflect, and essentially crossed them off my list until I came around to them again.  I can honestly say I probably confused teachers more than anything because there was no follow-up.  Observe, reflect, check!

My first two years as a coach were spent what I now call “Coaching Light” and that is ok as a first step.  I probably was not ready to do much more at that point and the foundation for coaching work must be laid before anything more can happen.  At the beginning of my third year I began to sense a need to take my coaching a step further and do something more meaningful with teachers.  I had been working on my own agenda and I needed a way to better meet the needs of the teachers I served.   I was introduced to Diane Sweeney’s Student Centered Coaching and the idea of a coaching cycle.  Coaching cycles are when the coach and teacher partner together and work over a period of four to six weeks toward a common goal.  I was eager to try this but also hesitant at the response.  I created a coaching invitation, placed it in all the teacher’s boxes, held my breath, and crossed my fingers.  I got a few responses from teachers I had helped before.  I knew that in order to break the perception of teachers I needed to get “that” teacher on board.  You know her.  The one everybody looks to.  The go to.  The superstar.  Luckily for me I found my gamechanger during that first round.  We worked together closely for six weeks planning, co-teaching, reflecting, problem-solving, and celebrating.  What I found is that she was my best advertisement.  She told her team about our work.  The word was out and the perception of my role had changed.  Suddenly, when I sent out invitations again, I got many more responses.

The coaching cycle approach is what I call “Coaching Heavy.”  The time spent with teachers in the classroom, planning, and reflecting allows for a shift in practice and learning on all sides.  I think this model of coaching is successful for several reasons.  First, and most importantly, it is the teacher’s choice.  Teachers choose to engage in work with the coach.  They set goals for themselves and their students.  It’s their agenda not mine.  I’m just an extra set of hands and a sounding board.  Second, it is organized.  With the teacher, you create a schedule: a time to plan weekly and days in the classroom to model, co-teach, and observe.  Third, you prove yourself as a teacher.  You show the teacher you’ll get in there with them and actually teach.  No more just talking about teaching.  I’ve even had model lessons in cycles flop in front of teachers.  Despite being cringeworthy moments, the teachers see that it happens to you too and that strengthens your relationship.  Finally, you have time.  As a coach you devote a large portion of your days to working intensely with those two to three teachers and it pays off.  There is time for reflection, gathering resources, and planning for long term success.  

My next layer of coaching in 2016-2017 is starting the year with cycles.  I already have teachers booked for the beginning of school.  I also introduced a coaching menu in the spring of last year.  I plan on sharing this again to increase my range of who I can reach in short term experiences while still in coaching cycles with others.  I never want teachers to think that just because I can’t take on another cycle at the moment, I don’t have time for them.  So in a sense I’ll be doing a mixture of Heavy and Light Coaching and I think there is a place for both.  Some teachers only need or want a little while others want more.  It’s all about what they need  

Take a moment and reflect where you are in your coaching.  Are you Coaching Heavy or Coaching Light? What steps are needed to take your coaching to the next level?

About our guest author: Briana Wright is a Reading Instructional Coach at Holly Springs-Motlow Elementary School in Campobello, SC.  She spent 8 years as a self-contained special education teacher before shifting into a coaching role.  This will be her fourth year as a coach.  She hold a Bachelors in Comprehensive Special Education, a Masters in Elementary Education, and is on track to graduate in May 2017 with an Ed.S in Administration and Supervision.  Briana is passionate about reading instruction and has a special interest in RTI for struggling readers at the primary level.  Follow Briana @WrightBrianaJ or her blog .

Guest Post: Take Me out to the Ballgame: Reflections From the Stands

This is the first summer my son has played on an All-Star baseball team.conversation We have been in
the bleachers watching him play baseball since he
was five, but he hasn’t ever really been passionate enough about the sport for our family to commit to him practicing every night and playing in tournaments all weekend throughout the entire month of June. This year something clicked, and he decided he enjoyed baseball more than he ever had before, so we decided to give it a shot. He made the All-Star team and began the nightly practices, even landing a spot as one of the team’s pitchers.

I am a terrible baseball mom. I’m not sure if my teaching background has anything to do with it, but I get really anxious when those precious boys are in high pressure situations and I can barely handle all the chatter. There is CONSTANT talking, from parents, from coaches, from the players, from other fields, and as I watched his game the other night, I was struck by how difficult it must be for these kids to filter through all the talk and focus on the voice they most need to listen to in game situations.

Some of the things that are yelled out during the games are downright comical. Well-meaning parents offer advice and affirmations, critiques and cautions that could leave even the most level-headed 12-year-old athlete slightly discombobulated.

“Be a wall!”

“Get there, get there!”

“Big hit, Buddy!”

“Baseball ready!”

What do those things even mean? Kids that have been playing baseball for eight years surely know that they need to get to the base. They know to try and hit the ball. How is being, “baseball ready” any different than just actually being ready? It seems to me that if we asked the kids, they could likely tell us they understand WHAT needs to be adjusted, what they probably need to work on is HOW. The 2nd baseman surely knows he should have grounded the ball properly and made an accurate throw to first base to get the runner out. He does not need us yelling it at him in front of his teammates and their families. What he may need is repeated practice, a technical adjustment, or perhaps even watching a video of himself to see if he can identify the issue independently. The true transformation seems to come when the coach is talking to the player on the sidelines, modeling correct form, making authentic eye-contact, and respectfully implying a belief in the player’s ability.

Isn’t that how it is for teachers? Teachers are bombarded with ever-constant chatter: from parents, from students, from the state, from their administrators, from anyone who has ever attended a school. The talk they overhear is often as ambiguous as it is in the grandstands. Well-meaning educational leaders, authors, curriculum writers, self-proclaimed experts, and even perfect Pinterest boards all add to the noisy narrative that teachers have to navigate as they make their place in the education world.

“Innovate, differentiate, document!”

“Utilize technology in an authentic way!”

“Get back to the basics!”

“Rethink rigor!”

Might we all just shut up for a minute? What these teachers need is some silence. Some calm and quiet in an educational arena that cannot stop talking. A little hands-on modeling, maybe some authentic eye-contact, and even the respectful implication that we believe in their abilities. In reality that is not going to happen. As surely as those parents will continue hollering from the stands, teachers will continue to be assailed with questions, criticisms, initiatives, and, “novel” ideas. And really, it is fine. They can handle it. Teachers want to constantly look forward. They want to look ahead, look up, continually search for better ways to reach more kids. Teaching in the Information Age is exciting. It holds the promise of authentic audience and increased collaboration.

The very most effective baseball players on my son’s team are the kiddos who have such a sense of the game that it’s almost hard to describe. These are the kids who can filter out all the noise and nonsense and rely on their own knowledge of the sport as they are making game-time decisions. They clap at the pitcher on their way to steal second base, they run from third and slide into home plate even if their coach tries to hold them back. Maybe they will score and maybe they will get called out because not every player is right 100% of the time, but how fun it is to watch a kid exude confidence in their abilities for the good of their team.

The very most effective teachers that I have encountered are the ones who have such a sense of the profession that it is almost hard to describe. These are the teachers who can filter out all the noise and rely on their own inner voice to guide their daily classroom decisions. They read, discuss, reflect, and constantly adjust their practice to ensure the most optimal learning environments for their students. They smile knowingly as the next presenter presents the next presentation. They will take the parts that will help their kids and confidently ignore the parts that will not. They will try an new approach even if their administrator tries to hold them back. Maybe it will work and maybe it will fail because not every teacher is right 100% of the time, but how fun it is to watch a teacher exude confidence in their abilities for the good of their students.
I love this quote by Leo Ernest Durocher, American infielder and MLB manager, Baseball is like church. Many attend; few understand.” Huge crowds show up to participate in educational conversations. My hope as an instructional coach is to empower more teachers to truly understand, to exhibit faith and confidence in their training. I want teachers to trust their own intentional decision-making and the power of reflection to improve practice. I hope to enable teachers to dial down the noise and focus on what is good for kids, to value relationships over worksheets, choice over power, and to stand up for the students in their care. Teaching is not for the weak. It is not for the casual attendee. Be brave, teacher friends, and get out there on the field! We are all rooting for you!

About our guest author:

Mandy Taylor has spent seventeen years in the elementary classroom, teaching grades Kindergarten through 3rd grade. She recently transitioned into an Instructional Coaching position and has a passion for literacy, a love for learning, and a fascination with public speaking. She also has become a Teacher Consultant with the Central Texas Writing Project where she serves on the Leadership Board. Her beliefs center around the importance of relationships, humor, authenticity, and love. She is a connected educator who reflects on her practice by connecting with others on Twitter, Voxer, Google, and with actual real-life humans.

Connect with Mandy:

Guest Post: Thriving In Your Work and How An Instructional Coach Can Help


I recently read an article in Fortune Magazine entitled, “Research Shows People Need These 5 Things To Be Happy At Work.” I don’t often agree with happiness gurus because growthmost of it to me comes off as very self centered and non collaborative, which as a coach, is inherently not me at all.  But this article caught my attention and while the primary audience is the business community, I saw reflections of an educator in the list. Here I offer 5 tips for using your instructional coach to help you thrive happily in your work.

Discover work that challenges you

“Reach outside your comfort zone” has become a buzz phrase in education. What does it mean – really? It means you are always working on something new. Think about what happens when we reach. We stand taller, become mindful about our balance, we focus on what it is we want to obtain, and when we cannot reach what we want by ourselves, we ask for a boost. Your instructional coach can offer the leg up. It’s hard to keep ourselves working on something new when sometimes, we feel it may be all we can do to keep our heads above water. Coaches can have a unique 30,000 foot view that connects your classroom practice to building and district vision. He can provide you with suggestions that can bring you into alignment with the expectations that push in. She can partner with you as you try a new and exciting strategy. Ask your coach to help with some of the legwork and barrier removal that halts us when we wish to take a risk.

Grow a sense of progress

A coach can be the perfect partner for formative assessment of your instructional progress. Much the same way you monitor your students’ progress and adjust accordingly, an instructional coach can help you capture data that provides a perfect jumping off point for reflection on your craft. Look at student work together and explore celebrations or imagine powerful tweaks. Set up a regular class visit for your coach where he or she can capture what you cannot in the midst of teaching. Ask for a script of your questions or one of student to student conversations. Your coach can use video or live notes over the course of weeks to capture your progress toward an instructional goal in a non evaluative way. What a great way to combat the “hamster on a wheel” feeling that can rear its ugly head in education. Finally, because we do not want to remain in a constant state of experimentation with student learning (that can stop progress too) coaches can help guide you through reflecting conversations in order to identify the right times to try new and hard things.

Ignore fear

What if I fail? So what if you do? What did you learn about your students and yourself through the process? How will that impact your instruction going forward? As a coach, it is one of my greatest pleasures to provide a bubble of security around a teacher willing to take a risk. I see it as my job to make sure administrators and fellow teachers keep a judgment free zone while a teacher is growing him or herself. A coach can keep evaluation at bay so teachers can ignore the fear of having the plan not reach expectation. Your instructional coach can help you focus on the learning that can come in spite of outcomes that fall short. In the end, you become more resilient and daring. You may inspire a colleague, reach a student in need, shift the thinking of your administration, or reignite the passion that called you to teaching in the first place, all the while able to celebrate and vent with a thought partner (your coach).

Claim your autonomy

Do you really trust yourself as a capable, expert educator? Teachers too often relinquish the responsibility of their own thriving to others. We tend to think we are unsuccessful if we do not reach every student, do not score “distinguished” on every criteria of our teacher evaluation, do not get a check on every box on the walk through document, do not get recognition from our peers, parents, administrators, or community. We don’t control these things, yet our career self-worth can be wrapped up in them. Your coach can help you claim your autonomy by reminding you to focus on the things you can control. She can help track the impact of those things down to the student level. Once you see the data that tells the story of your decision making and effectiveness, you can trust that your decisions and expertise have impact. This is the road to claiming your autonomy.


Feeling that we belong in the classroom where we spend so much time, energy, and concern can be incredibly empowering. My coaching conversations with teachers often revolve around remaining centered in beliefs about education, helping to connect with like minded educators, and helping identify areas of greatness worth sharing with others in the profession. As a coach, I try to assist teachers who feel isolated with developing connections to a tribe. Developing a professional learning network in person and/or virtually can be a key ingredient to a sense of belonging. Developing this sense takes effort and practice. This can be the role of your coach. Coaching partners can identify, question, validate experiences and feelings as you grow understanding around your practice. They can work with you to identify your own judgment and biases which can pave the way for acceptance of others – the only true path to belonging.

All of the suggestions I offer in this piece rest on the assumption that you first, have a connection to an instructional coach and secondly, that the coach is trained in instructional coaching and can facilitate thinking rather than simply consult with you on improvements. If your school or district has not yet grown a culture of coaching, be certain to connect with instructional coaches by reaching out to me on Twitter @JenniferHCox or through the Connect and Contact page here at

About the author:

Jennifer Cox serves in the role of Goal Clarity Coach at Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville, KY, working with staff and administration to facilitate the purposeful intersection of data, instruction, professional development, and student success. Prior to this, Jennifer served as Instructional Coach for Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, KY  where she assisted in leading building and district professional development and as facilitator for PEBC’s Thinking Strategies Institute in Shelby County.  Her work with teachers centers on increasing meaningful  literacy instruction across content areas, differentiation, and on increasing the efficacy of discourse between teacher/student as well as among students.

Jennifer’s research focus is growth mindset for teachers and students, workshop model of instruction, and leadership roles precipitating school turnaround.  She has taught in the middle and high school settings since 1997. During that time, she served as a PEBC Regional Lab Host Classroom and was Shelby County Public Schools Middle School Teacher of the Year, Ashland Teacher Award Winner and Kentucky Teacher of the Year Finalist.  

Her academic background includes undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky in Middle School Education, Master’s work at Bellarmine University in Middle School Education where she was a Nancy Howard Merit Award recipient for Excellence in Graduate Education.  Her latest endeavor was at the University of Louisville where she earned her Ed. S. in Educational Leadership and was awarded U of L Ed. S. Outstanding Graduate.


Guest Post: Differentiation just makes sense!

It’s no secret that there are two things I love: education and analogies. lisa1 Oh, and people and shopping.  Ok… that’s four.  Luckily, for the purpose of this blog these items fit together quite nicely.

This week marks the completion of my first year as a differentiation instructional coach.  As I look back, I am amazed by how much I have learned in one year alone.  I often need to take a deep breathe when I start thinking about the fact that I don’t even know how much I don’t know.  However, I do know that I am excited to keep learning and growing as a coach.  I have found blogs of fellow educators to be a source of inspiration and knowledge.  I would like to give back to my virtual PLN by sharing some of what I have learned about instructional coaching and differentiation this year.

Prior to being a coach I taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS.   As a classroom teacher, I always viewed teaching as a form of sales.  My students were my clients and their learning was the product I was selling.  As a teacher, I continually asked myself the question: what do I need to do to make sure that all of my students value the product (learning) and become repeat customers (continue to learn)?

This analogous relationship presented an answer to my question.  Just as a savvy salesperson adapts their approach for different clients, I needed to do the same for my students.  I needed to differentiate. Truth be told, when I started teaching I had never heard the term “differentiate”.  I just knew that in order to satisfy all of my students I would have to determine the best approach for each of them.  

During my thirteen years in the classroom, I spent many hours reflecting on my practice.  I looked for patterns in learning and patterns in personalities.  I wound up developing a strong understanding of how to create and implement an effective differentiated practice.  I was able to see the powerful impact differentiation had on students’ learning, engagement, and disposition.  

As a coach my customer base has shifted from students to educators.  The product I have to offer is providing and supporting meaningful professional learning.  Now I ask myself the question, how do I ensure that my coachees value the product (professional learning) and become repeat customers (reflect, refine, and reach their goals)?

After a very short period of time in my role as a coach I realized that my approach to collaborating with teachers would not be the same for everyone.  I have colleagues that are veteran teachers, new teachers, part-time teachers, teachers on multiple teams, teachers who teach multiple content areas.  I have colleagues that prefer to communicate in different ways, have different life experiences, and different dreams.  My colleagues have varying proclivities for the topic and delivery model of professional development in which they want to engage.   My goal is that teachers find value in coaching cycles and are satisfied customers.  To accomplish my goal I must, once again, differentiate.

I try to differentiate my approach in a variety of ways.  I look at the impetus for the cycle, input from teachers, and the teacher’s goal.  Furthermore, I try to select the tools (video recording, modeling, co-teaching, checklists, etc.) that will be a good fit with what the teacher is trying to achieve.  I try to be cognizant of teachers’ time, mindset, and approach to teaching and learning.  I try to ensure that the tools are helpful and  informative not intimidating or complicated.  I look at the customer, what they want, when they need it, and what I have in my “store” that matches items on their shopping list.  

The type of coaching (individual, team, small group) informs the way I differentiate.  When planning and facilitating small group PD, I like to use Katie Martin’s The 10 Characteristics of Professional Learning.  I use the characteristics Katie outlines to question my planning. Will the teacher feel safe? How can I model this? Is the learning action-oriented? How am I encouraging inquiry? Will participants find this content purposeful?  Then, I mindfully try to plan sessions that affirmatively answer these questions.  This usually means that the sessions will include a variety of formats and plenty of structured choice.


When I am planning for a coaching cycle with an individual teacher, I again consider many pieces of information.  I have found that the single most significant factor that allows me to differentiate for my coaching partners is the same factor I found most important when I differentiated for my students:  relationships.  By building strong relationships I am better able to use questioning to help enrollees goal set and reflect.  I am better able to determine the appropriate tools, methods and support to help my partners achieve their goals.  
Throughout this post I chose to use the words “I try”  rather than “I do” because I know that while I always attempt to meet the needs of my colleagues there is always room for improvement. When success eludes me I will reflect and try again.  Feedback from administrators, teachers, my family, and my PLN have been instrumental contributors to my growth as a coach.   I welcome your feedback about this post and would also like to hear about your coaching experiences.  

Lisa Westman is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation at a middle school in a suburb outside of Chicago.  She enjoys delivering applicable, engaging professional development and writing her blog “Put me in, Coach”.  Prior to being an instructional coach, Lisa spent thirteen teaching gifted humanities, English Language Arts, and Social Studies.  You can follow Lisa on twitter @lisa_westman and read her blog, Put Me in, Coach.