Knowing Where We Are Paves the Way for Change: The Impact of Coaching

I often tell audiences during keynotes and workshops that my role isn’t to tell anyone what to do, but instead to get educators to think critically about what they do. It would be foolish of any speaker or presenter to do so, considering that we don’t really know the people who we are blessed to speak with, let alone the specific culture in which they work.  The fact for many in education is that we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led.  In some cases, this might still be effective. However, the opposite is more often true, and helping others come to this realization can be a tricky process.

Where I see the most change from my work is when I am fortunate to work with districts and schools on an on-going, long-term basis. This allows me to really get a pulse on the culture, understand the challenges that are faced, make observations, collect evidence as to where practices are, and ultimately build relationships in the process.  Trust and honesty are key, which compels me not to hold back when engaging both teachers and administrators in dialogue on feedback.  Often, we are blinded by our own bias or comfortable where we are. No matter the case, both can be detrimental to growth.

So how do we begin to move the needle? It starts with analyzing how feedback is given.  What I have learned from past experiences, and currently, when working in schools, is that a tendency remains to tell people what they want to hear as opposed to pushing them with critical conversations on practice. The latter might sting at first, but it is needed to create a sense of urgency.  Making people feel good is always crucial, and a critical component of a positive culture. However, it shouldn’t come at the expense of shying away from the problematic and thought-provoking conversations that are needed to drive change at the individual and systemic levels.  

One of the best ways to help others know where they are and lay the groundwork for meaningful changes to practice is through coaching.  Currently, I have several projects around the country where I have assumed this role. Last year alone, I visited over 1000 classrooms and pretty much followed the same process.  At the conclusion of each day, I submit a detailed report that contains general commendations and recommendations for growth to each school. If I am there for an extended period of time, the district receives a comprehensive report within 24 hours of completing my last school visit.


In addition to general feedback, I script what I see by classroom while aligning evidence to support the ratings for how I chart data across five indicators. This allows me to provide some simple data for districts and schools to get an idea of where their practices are. Here is how I code each lesson after scripting and providing recommendations for growth:
Now, these are meant to be black and white in terms of whether it can be seen or validated with evidence (i.e., questions, assessments, tech used by kids for learning, student work, etc.). However, I always stress that there is gray inherent in what I provide and encourage dialogue and support between coaching visits. It goes without saying that these visits are just a snapshot and, by no means, are indicative as to what happens during the entire lesson or regularly throughout the year. It is up to the school and individual educators to make that determination. There is one non-negotiable that I establish, and that is an administrator or teacher who has to accompany me. The reason being to coach the individual(s) later on providing feedback and to ensure interrater reliability (do we see the same thing).

I am fortunate to be involved in several long-term projects where I have been able to document growth over time. Over the years, I have shared all of the wonderful things happening at Wells Elementary, as I am now in my third year as their coach. Other schools and districts are beginning to follow suit. One, in particular, is the Corinth School District in Mississippi. The stage was set over the summer for me to work six days in each of their three schools to assist with teaching, learning, and leadership associated with their 1:1 implementation.  Following the protocol described above, I facilitated coaching days.

Even though I have a few stories of significant growth to share, I want to focus on just one. During my first visit to the high school in August, I spent the entire day visiting classrooms and then providing feedback to the admin team. They, in turn, then shared recommendations for growth with their teachers.  One teacher took the feedback and ran with it. 

The next time I met with the teachers, I facilitated a workshop on digital pedagogy.  Something from this day and the feedback from the classroom observation clicked him. During my third visit, we saw him implementing a choice board with his economics class. Going from direct instruction primarily to this high agency approach represented a dramatic shift in practice.  I again provided feedback both in the form of commendations and recommendations for improvement, specifically when it came to assessment.  I can’t begin to tell you how pleased and excited I was during my fourth visit. When we visited his history class, he again had the students working on a choice board. The main difference from last time was that there were six different rubrics to go along with the activity.  

The growth story of this teacher is one of many in the Corinth School District. His colleagues across all content areas at the high school have begun to implement an array of innovative strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, self-pacing, digital check-ins with students, and the purposeful use of technology aligned to effective pedagogy.  The middle school has begun to make impressive progress with blended learning, especially at the 6th-grade level. Last but not least is the elementary school where evidence has been collected, demonstrating tremendous growth with high agency strategies.  To be honest, I could fill this post with picture after picture as validation.

We can’t allow ourselves to stick our heads in the sand or cuddle up to the status quo.  Sometimes a push is needed. In all the schools I work in, the catalyst for change is always the first coaching visit.  Using an unbiased and non-judgmental lens, the stage is set for assisting educators in coming to a determination as to where they are.  Initially, this can be a tough pill to swallow. However, the fact remains that nothing about public education is perfect. Sometimes it takes an outside view to help come to that realization.

If you would like to know more about our coaching process and on-going work for schools or districts, shoot me an email (esheninger@gmail.com).