April 30, 2023
Friends, welcome to spring! Every year it feels like the view out my window shifts from brown to green overnight, and this year it felt even more abrupt because it happened while I was out of town. Thank you for the huge response to the last Coaching Letter on Ted Lasso—I was initially really disappointed at the lack of response, because I thought it was a pretty good Letter, and then I realized that I had a ton of emails in my junk folder! So if it took me a while to respond to you, that’s why! Also, clearly many of you have been sharing the Coaching Letter with others, as readership continues to climb (welcome, Fairfax County!) so thank you for that, I really appreciate it.
There are so many interesting and exciting things going on that I’d like to write about. But a book with my name on it came out this week, so I should probably write about that. (If you ordered your copy through Teachers College Press, you may have received the book two or three weeks ago. If you ordered through Amazon it should have just arrived, or is just about to.)
First, I am a co-author on the book, so tip of the hat to my most excellent colleagues Sarah Woulfin (who is lead author and did most of the writing and also most of the behind-the-scenes interfacing with the publisher and who kept us on track) and Kerry Lord (who is one of my closest collaborators and who partners with me on facilitating our coaching workshops). I just wanted to be up-front in sharing the credit, as the rest of this CL is written from my point of view.
I have wanted to write this book for a long time, because it has been clear to me for a long time that coaching is an under-utilized mechanism for improving the skills of individual educators and also for supporting the improvement of the school or district where it is deployed. I also want to be up-front in saying, We are not arguing for MORE coaching. So when I say “under-utilized” I don’t mean leaders should employ more coaches or increase the amount of coaching; I mean that coaching is time- and labor-intensive, therefore it is very expensive, and leaders making a multi-million dollar investment in coaching as a means to meeting their goals should probably invest some time and resources in making sure that they get the greatest return from that investment. So that’s what the book is trying to do: provide a guide for how to make the most out of coaching.
Let me give you some examples of coaching executed poorly as an organizational practice (as opposed to examples of bad coaching), just to make my point. I know these may seem extreme, but they are all true.
- The district’s response to low reading scores was to hire literacy coaches. In the years before the recent legislation requiring different programming for students, this was a common practice; perhaps it will continue. Then the superintendent got upset when reading scores did not, in fact, increase, and refused to include the coaches in work the district was doing on creating a shared understanding of high quality instruction. I don’t think she used the term “throwing good money after bad”, but that was clearly what she was thinking.
- The district espouses as one of its goals improving equity in the district. There is a requirement for all principals to ensure that their staff go through “equity training”, which includes work on constructs such as identity, socialization, implicit bias, stereotype threat, and so on. Instructional coaches attached to schools are included in this. But the district also has coaches that are not attached to buildings, including technology coaches and special education coaches, so they are not included in the training.
- The district espouses an institutional value that everyone can benefit from coaching—no one bats an eye at the idea that sports champions, for example, all have coaches. But the superintendent lets slip at an administrators meeting that his mental model of coaching is that coaches are there to fix bad teaching, and this bit of news travels across the district like wildfire. Now no one wants a coach.
- The district has coaches, and has had coaches for as long as anyone can remember. But there is no shared understanding of high quality instruction in the district, and no shared understanding of the role and function of coaches (although there is a “coaching binder”!), and no common practice across buildings for what each of the coaches is doing on a daily basis. Coaching, therefore, actually increases the amount of variation across classrooms and schools, rather than reducing it.
I understand that I am cherry-picking the worst examples; I am not making blanket statements about how coaching is deployed everywhere. But I would also say that when we work with all the coaches in a district, they never say that their role is sufficiently clear and well-understood. We advocate—and you should read the book for the details—that districts have:
- A district strategy that includes equity, high quality instruction, the role of leaders, and how coaching is connected to all these. Oh, and I co-authored a book about that, too.
- A position on equity that is central to the work of the district. Equity is not a separate body of work from the core mission of the district. It cannot be delegated to coaches (despite much of what is out there right now on “coaching for equity”), nor to anyone else.
- Leaders who understand what coaching is. Many school and district administrators were coaches at some point in their career, but many were not, and misunderstandings abound. You might find this article from Harvard Business Review useful, especially if you have to convince others of this: Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn.
- Teachers who understand what coaching is. We believe that there is huge benefit in providing teachers with some insight into the goals, theory of action, and practices of coaching. Apart from anything else, they are similar to the way teachers are being asked to think about teaching: center student thinking, ask good questions, provide lots of wait time, build trust, and so on. But mostly it is because clients in general, not just teachers, are better clients when they have a better understanding of coaching; in other words, we are trying to position clients to make better use of their coach because they are more knowledgeable about what coaching can do for them.
- Plans for creating the conditions for effective coaching. We created a kind of generic coaching model in response to multiple requests. Please use it, and note that, quite deliberately, there is more in there about creating conditions for coaching than there is about coaching itself.
- Routines for improving coaching, and routines for drawing from the insights of coaches to inform strategy. We talk about continuously improving coaching, and coaching for continuous improvement. This example is in the book, and so shout-out to Michelle Bonora, who is a great strategic thinker and makes about the best use of coaching of anyone we’ve worked with: when she was a middle school principal, the coaches were assigned teachers to work with on a regular basis. Then Michelle met weekly with the coaches to learn from them “what aspects of instruction were or were not being implemented. They did this not to monitor compliance or hold teachers accountable, but to inform plans for professional development. Specifically, they used data to make good use of time set aside for support of teachers…” (p. 110). I would also like to pay tribute here to Kristin Vollero, a terrific principal, spouse, and mother, who died late last year. I interviewed her when she was still working with Michelle about the coaching practices at her school, so she is my source for this example.
If you are an educational leader, whether or not you were a coach earlier in your career, you should come to our Coaching for Leaders workshop, July 25-27 in Litchfield County. A very few seats left! It includes a copy of the book! We’ll be talking about what coaching is, and isn’t, how to think about feedback now that teacher evaluation is shifting, and how to think about coaching as a support for your school or district strategy for improvement.
We provide all kinds of other services related to coaching, so if you want to talk about any of this, don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is more information on Partners’ website, and the website we created to accompany the book. And please share this Coaching Letter with anyone who might benefit from these resources!
Finally, there’s a book launch party in New Haven on May 18—Bridget has the details if you don’t already have them and would like to come—please contact her. I hope to see you there! Let us know if you need anything else. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023