Most instructional coaches start their journey in the classroom. Many of us are classroom teachers that find themselves either seeking out coaching roles or being asked to move into the role. Having successful experiences in the classroom does translate well into the coaching role, but there are some differences. It’s important to think about what knowledge you already have that you can bring to your role as a coach, but it is also important to think about what new skills you will need to nurture so that you can be just as successful as a coach.
For me, I am currently in a split role. I have four classes of 6th grade math and two release periods to serve as a math coach for teachers in my 6-8th grades middle school building.
Being new to coaching, as well as still having one foot in teaching, gives me an opportunity to reflect on the similarities and differences often. Here’s my take:
One of the biggest overlaps between teaching and coaching is the fact that both depend heavily on relationships. To be successful as a classroom teacher, it is important to build relationships with your students. As Rita Pierson says so well, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” This goes for coaching as well. Teachers won’t want to learn from and with you if they don’t like you! Building relationships with teachers is key and you might find many of your “coaching conversations” are actually an informal conversation in the hall. It might start with talking about their weekend, their kids, or just how the day is going and can turn into a thoughtful chat about pedagogy or a new idea to try in the classroom. To help me build my conversations skills, I’m diving into a book by Jim Knight called Better Conversations.
On the flip side of this will be the moments when your relationship with a teacher is strained or difficult in some way. Just like we need to be patient with students, we need to be patient with adults as well. Perhaps the tension is coming from the fact that the teacher is nervous about change or sees working with a coach as signifying a weakness in their teaching. Whatever the source of the tension, be patient but available. Watch for little moments to connect over something outside of school and take advantage of informal conversations to show that you are open and willing to work together professionally.
Perhaps you have heard of moving teaching practice from being a “sage on the stage” to being a “guide on the side.” For me, I think there is a place for a little of both in the classroom. However, I definitely have shifted my teaching practice to being more of a facilitator of learning. I think about how to design a lesson to give students an experience that helps them learn rather a lecture and note-taking lesson.
Many times, as a coach, you are asked to lead professional development (PD). Thinking of how to lead participants through a professional learning experience, as opposed to listening to you “lecture” is important. Think about the most beneficial PD that you have attended. What made it good? Resources shared? Conversations? Something that pushed your thinking forward? Try to design that type of experience for teachers.
We work in a time where you almost can’t go one day without hearing the word “data” mentioned in a school. Data is important but what it is used for is really what matters most. In our classrooms we set goals for ourselves as teachers and for our students. We should have a desired outcome for learning and our work should move us towards that goal.
Goal setting is equally important in coaching. Sitting down with teachers and hearing what they want to accomplish helps frame the work that you do together. While you might have some goals in mind, make sure that you don’t lose sight of the goals that teachers have as well. This also goes back to that relationship that is so important and also building trust.
One thing that is very different for me between my role as a teacher and coach is my experience level. Many of us had quite a few years in the classroom to refine our practice. For me, it’s been twelve. Now, as a new coach, I’m a little outside my comfort zone because I’m trying something new. Sure, there are the overlaps between the roles, and I certainly don’t feel like a first year teacher. However, the inexperience with coaching does lead to the worry: am I doing this right? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of yes and no. I’m sure there are things that I am doing right and I have gotten some good feedback from teachers and administrators. However, whenever you are trying something new, you are going to make mistakes. I’m learning to be patient with myself as I learn this new role, but also to seek out ways to learn more. I’m reading books, finding other coaches to talk to and observe, watching videos or webinars, and reflecting daily. There is always room to learn and grow, especially when something is so new.
Another difference between the roles of teacher and coach is learning to accommodate the needs of adult learners. An instructional coach’s role should be non-evaluative, which is very different from the role of a teacher where you will be giving a grade. I borrowed the idea of giving teachers feedback in the format of “compliments and considerations” from another coach in my district. I like the structure and even refined it a bit so that I mostly try to give “considerations” in the form of questions. For example, instead of saying “you should have a bellringer,” I say something like “what is something students could do so that learning begins when they first walk into class?” Asking more questions, instead of giving suggestions, has helped me shift from acting like an expert with all the answers (not my goal at all!) to being more collaborative. When I’m working alongside a teacher, the feeling is now more of a peer-to-peer and our ideas are better than what either person would have come up with on their own.
I wrote about the issue of the difference in schedules on my blog a little while ago. It’s important to be aware of the possible tension this can cause so that you can address it as it comes up. Teachers’ schedules are not flexible. You have kiddos in your room at certain times, so good luck if you need to use the restroom! It’s no joke that teachers have bladders of steel. In addition, every part of the day is scheduled with contact time, meetings, and maybe a half hour for lunch. It’s hectic and busy! Coaches are still busy, but tend to have a little more flexibility. This is important so they can meet the needs of the teachers with whom they work, however, it can make some teachers feel like saying, “must be nice to be so flexible.” I can assure you that there is not one coach I know that abuses this flexibility. In fact, many are running themselves ragged going from teacher to teacher (or building to building)!
I think being a successful teacher gives you some great skills that you can translate into your role as coach. Build on those strengths, but be ready to learn some new, different strategies as well. If you have made the transition to coach from teacher, what overlaps have you experienced? Can you think of any differences to add to the list?
About our guest author: Annie Forest has been teaching middle school math for 12 years and is a National Board Certified Teacher. This is her first year working in a split role as a 6th grade math teacher and math instructional coach. Her work as a coach includes working with teachers in a 6-8 middle school building. Annie is passionate about giving all students an equitable mathematics education.
She received the 2014 Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics Award for Middle School Teaching and is an Illinois state finalist for the 2015 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She blogs at www.showyourthinkingmath.blogspot.com or you can follow Annie on Twitter @mrsforest.