Springboard Not Scarlet Letter

Last August, my boss and I traveled across East Central Illinois visiting rural school districts, pitching the idea of instructional coaching to district administrators. We explained the philosophy behind coaching and the logistics of a by-contract coaching program. The heads across the table nodded as we spoke, and occasionally they asked questions, the most frequent was Which teachers do I choose to participate in coaching?

Of course, coaching works best on a volunteer basis. We don’t want to coerce teachers to collaborate because teaching can be personal and private. However, sometimes administrators want to support their new teachers and struggling teachers with coaching. Simultaneously, we want all teachers to gain expertise through practice, supported by an instructional coach. (Robert Marzano writes about how teachers gain expertise through “deliberate practice.”)  I don’t think there’s any wrong way to start up a coaching program in a school. However, administrators in particular must be aware of the messages their decisions send to their staff.

Many educators (administrators included) assume or believe only new or struggling teachers need a coach. And they do benefit from collaboration and support. This is true. However, every teacher could use extra support. Sydney Clark Jensen published “The Instructional Coach: A Springboard, Not a Scarlet Letter” in ASCD this month. She claims that our veteran teachers stagnate when instructional supports are removed. Some schools assume that these teachers don’t need the support because they have experience on their side. Experience is invaluable; however, Jensen asserts that, to foster a culture of coaching and to support instructional expertise, we must treat teaching like a team sport by affirming the strengths of all teachers, improving the weaknesses of all teachers, and supporting all teachers to reach their instructional goals. When we recognize that our most veteran, experienced, and expert teachers also need coaches, we paint instructional coaching “as a springboard for growth rather than a scarlet letter” (Jensen).

This semester, as my boss and I travel to the school districts to discuss coaching options with them again, we’ll hit hard on the perception of the coaching program and the purpose of instructional coaching. We will encourage administrators to see coaching as a springboard, and to paint it that way to their teachers, too.