“Coaching is becoming popular, in part, because many educational leaders recognize the old form of professional development, built around traditional in-service sessions for teachers, simply doesn’t affect student achievement” (Knight 2006).
Instructional coaching alone doesn’t necessarily support teachers to be more successful with their most struggling students. Just as great teaching requires more than content knowledge, instructional coaching for equity requires more than pedagogical expertise. To support a teacher to learn and grow, we need to really know and understand them.
What is this teacher excited about? What do they care about? What motivates them? How are they thinking about their work? What are their beliefs and assumptions about their role as teacher?
As their coach, we have to take the time to build a trusting relationship where we know the real answers to these questions. Many teachers are assigned an instructional coach and view it as a punitive measure. By taking the time to observe, assess, and validate their experience and expertise, we show that we are authentically invested in their success.
Engaging a teacher in this reflection does more than set the stage for a positive coaching relationship – it demonstrates a new kind of relationship that is possible between teacher and student – which can translate into powerful new relationships in the teacher’s classroom. Building trusting relationships with the teachers we coach also helps us to productively challenge our teachers to examine their own biases and mental models.
Uncover Mental Models
To effectively shift a teacher’s practice, the instructional coach must assess the teacher’s mental models – the underlying beliefs and values she holds about her students. Without addressing these beliefs and values, the teacher will always default to teaching practices that align with that belief.
“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” – Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
Shifting a teacher’s practice usually won’t happen without productively challenging their thinking, assumptions, and interpretations of their current classroom reality.
Why do you think this particular student/these students are not responding? How are you feeling about it, and how is that shaping your decisions? What other possibilities are you open to considering? What more might you learn?
Good Decisions Beat Best Practices
Many teachers do need support in implementing instructional “best practices.” But best practices are just one part of their toolkit, and pushing popular teaching strategies doesn’t result in achieving equity in the classroom. Instead of focusing on best practices, begin with supporting teachers to learn about and from their students. How can we help teachers implement formative assessment practices (from assessing how the student is experiencing the teacher or class to assessing the student’s thinking about a particular task) to make better instructional decisions?
The most critical practice for raising student achievement is instructional decision-making – accurately determining the next skill that the student must master in order to progress and how to teach it in a way that helps the student learn it. It is this insight that helps create more equitable outcomes for struggling students.
What is working? With all of your students or just some? Why? How do you know?