The Next Great Tool for Teachers? Instructional Coaches


“When teachers stop learning, so do students.” Jim Knight, Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction

Instructional coaching might be the best non-technological advancement to the field of education since the advent of the classroom. Many other industries see the benefits of coaches on a personal level. We often seek the counsel of personal trainers, financial advisors, and life coaches. With the rapid evolution of the ways we access information and the variety of ways students can demonstrate learning, teacher utilization of professional coaching is long overdue.

How can educators possibly keep up with all of the research, technological advances, and mandates? This is where instructional coaching made a marked difference in my teaching practice and now, as an instructional coach, I continue to seek feedback and learn from members of my team.

Instructional coaching is a non-evaluative partnership between teachers, coaches, and administrators. These relationships are mutually beneficial to all participants. While most instructional coaches are experienced educators, they are not experts in all aspects of teaching. Instructional coaches learn alongside teachers to stay up to date on research-based best practices. Moreover, instructional coaches can help visualize practices in the classroom via modeling, co-teaching, or video recordings. Instructional coaches can help teachers reflect on and discover unrecognized intricacies of their practices through coaching cycles, which include a learning piece. During this learning piece, instructional coaches work with teachers to make effective pedagogy a tangible entity.


Additionally, instructional coaches can serve as a liaison between teachers and administrators. Now, this is the part that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. The thought that pops into people’s minds often is: “Wait … I thought you said instructional coaches are nonevaluative?!” Well, rest assured, we are. Many school districts have strategic plans, and building, team, and individual teaching goals. Administrators and coaches alike have a responsibility to ensure the entire faculty understands the district’s vision and works together to achieve those goals. The difference between administrators and instructional coaches is that administrators are 1) evaluators and 2) have about 1 million other things on their plates. Coaches can focus their attention on individual teachers/teams and work as partners addressing components of The Big 4 as outlined by Jim Knight: classroom management, content, instruction, and assessment.

We do not exist in isolation in any facet of our lives. We reach out to others for a variety of reasons: child care, advice, recommendations, etc. As a professional educator, reaching out to your instructional coach can render the same results. As an administrator, leveraging the capacity of instructional coaches will help guarantee you meet your personal and building goals. Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, when you collaborate with an instructional coach, you have an impartial partner in a shared journey to best meet the needs of students. Together you and your instructional coach can determine your goal(s) and put them into practice.


This post originally appeared on The Otus Student Performance System blog.

Read other posts on the powers of instructional coaching herehere and here.

Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right. 

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

I must admit, I love a good challenge. I love the learning that comes from trial and error. I love hitting roadblocks and finding detours. This probably explains why I also I love differentiating instruction. I equate differentiation to a giant jigsaw puzzle with student needs being the pieces. Once I fit the first pieces together, the next few pieces fall into place. There are moments of frustration as mistakes I inevitably make mistakes and completing the puzzle may take a while, but the result is always worth the effort.

Like puzzles, differentiating instruction can be a complicated endeavor. In fact, a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute found that 83% of teachers nationwide believe that differentiation is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement. Subsequent differentiation statistics support the 2008 finding; educators continue to consider differentiating instruction as strenuous. These results are not surprising. As one of differentiation’s foremost experts, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains,”I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy.”

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is a career that requires a physical, emotional, and mental commitment. Teachers are used to things being “hard”. So, why should differentiating instruction be the exception? This leads me to wonder: “Is watching students struggle because their needs are not being met easier than differentiating?”

In January of 2015, educational expert Rick Wormeli tweeted, “far from being a detriment to student learning [differentiated instruction] is the only way we can teach all students, not just the easy ones.”

Wormeli’s tweet is a call to action. Differentiation is our puzzle and as dedicated educators, we certainly can solve it…one piece at a time. We just need the right pieces. Ironically, I have found this is precisely the issue with many educators’ perception of differentiation. They have the wrong pieces of information. Teachers operating under a set a fallacies will often disregard differentiation entirely or ineffectively implement with no clear benefit to students.

To avoid exerting coveted time, energy, and resources for naught, I would like to clarify some common misinterpretations of differentiation.

#1: “Differentiation means I have to plan something different for every student.”

Clarification: Differentiation means that your students are engaged in learning that is appropriate for their readiness level, and they can learn at their pace. Differentiation also considers student interest and preferred learning style. These criteria can be addressed without planning for each student individually.

Now, what?  Pre-assess students. Look for patterns of performance to initially group students. Then, formatively assess students and regroup them as their needs change. To incorporate student interest, look at The Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 framework as a gift. The majority of these standards are concept or skills-based rather than rooted in specific content. Use standards as a springboard for planning relevant, skills-based learning experiences. Allow students to have an influence on the content by asking them targeted questions to determine their interests relative to standards being assessed.

#2: “I differentiate by grouping students by reading ability and giving them leveled readings.”

Clarification: This may seem like differentiation, but in actuality this is tracking within the classroom setting. Leveled texts don’t necessarily address the specific needs of students which are often unrelated to reading ability. All students deserve access to challenging and interesting material. Differentiation comes into play with how students interact with the text.

Now, what? Differentiate the process (task) and product (how learning is demonstrated) for students. Consider the level at which students will engage with the text and how they can best show their understanding. The same text can be used by most students by compacting the curriculum for high-achievers and scaffolding for students who need more support. Refer to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and Bloom’s Taxonomy in conjunction with student conferencing to co-evaluate student progress and co-design their learning process. Not only is conferencing a type of formative assessment, but it is an opportunity to model effective questioning, gain insight into students’ thought processes, and offer students ownership of their learning.

#3: “I can differentiate effectively using one data point.”

Clarification: Impossible. First of all, there is quantitative data (think numbers) and qualitative data (think observations). To differentiate most effectively a combination of data types should be used. Additionally, multiple formative assessment results need to be examined to allow for flexible pacing and grouping which are the hallmarks of differentiation.

Now, what? Think about the data you are currently using. Is this data giving you information about the whole child on a day-day basis? What does this information tell you? What other information do you need? Work to eliminate meaningless data points, offer a multitude of formative assessment types, and use academic data as well as affective data to get a clear picture of each student.

#4: “Differentiation is easy, just give the high students more and the low students less.”

Clarification: Differentiation is not more or less. Differentiation is challenging a student just enough so that it neither impedes learning if too hard or causes apathy if too easy or redundant. (Cash, Richard).

Now, what?  Think quality over quantity. It is quite possible that one high-level question is more challenging than twenty low-level questions. Plus, being asked to show mastery of a concept or skill twenty times builds frustration for high-achieving students because they don’t need the practice and similarly produces frustration for struggling students because they are practicing the skill incorrectly 20 times.

#5: “I don’t need to change anything about my instructional practices to effectively differentiate.”

Clarification: Frankly, the factory model of teaching is not appropriate for today’s learners. If at any point while reading this blog post you thought, “Well, I can’t do that because what would the rest of the students be doing…?” this misinterpretation may be subconsciously preventing you from truly differentiating for your students.

Now, what? Don’t beat yourself up; you are not alone. The first step in change is recognizing the issue. Take small steps and allow yourself time to learn and practice. If your district employs instructional coaches, partner a coach in an authentic coaching cycle.  If your school district does not have instructional coaches, partner with a colleague. Engage in a book study and try something together. Lastly, I encourage everyone to build a global PLN (professional learning network) by connecting with other educators on social media.

As you begin the school year, try to reconcile these misconceptions by attempting to implement one of the clarifications. Be patient and if a piece isn’t fitting, reflect and try another piece. Differentiation may never be easy, but it will always be worth the effort.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman.

Boys will be boys

little girls boys editedLast week I participated in the Twitter #tmchat moderated by Aziz Abdur-Ra’off and Connie Hamilton Ed.S. The topic “addressing the needs of boys in our classrooms” is one that is near and dear to my heart as I have a grade-school aged son who defies the classic definition of a “good student”.

The chat was well-attended and participants were eager to discuss the needs of our male students. I was happy to be surrounded by articulate and creative educators who are bound and determined to see that male students are successful.

Right from the get-go some contributing teachers and administrators suggested learning style differences between boys and girls as one explanation for discrepancies between male and female performance in school. Connie Hamilton quickly cited the work of John Hattie in Visible Learning which shows a negligible effect size (d= 0.15) of male/female learning difference and this nominal effect actually favors boys.

On pages 89-90 of Visible Learning, Hattie references a study done by Psychology Professor, Janet Hyde. Hyde summarizes 124 meta-analyses of millions of students. The results of this study showed that boys and girls do not inherently learn differently. Rather, as a whole, boys and girls receive a higher effect from different characteristics and skills. Boys had a slight edge in the categories of achievement, social/personality, negotiation, helpfulness, and outcome. Girls had an edge in the categories of communication, effort, attention, and ability to manage impulses.  As Hattie writes, “the differences in how students learn is not related to their boy or girl attributes, and while the labeling of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ may appease some, it is not based on actual differences.”

I was pleased that Connie pointed this fact out as I think that many educators falsely assume that there is a physiological difference between how boys and girls learn. There is not.  However, this information gives educators yet another reason to rethink “one size fits all” teaching and learning.

This all being said, almost a week later, one of the chat questions is still so prominent in my mind that I felt compelled to write more than my original 14o character answer:


My goal is not to offend anyone with this answer. Furthermore, I am not accusing anyone of intentionally crushing male students’ motivation. But, because of outdated teaching practices and the confusion of student skills vs. academic performance, inevitably, the crushing of boys motivation occurs.


We crush boys motivation by implementing behavioral systems and consequences that disproportionately target them. We crush boys by fearing and managing their propensity toward restlessness and exuberance. We crush boys by not tapping into their natural curiosity. We crush boys by requiring them to read novels with female protagonists when they want to read non-fiction or assuming they want to read about “boy” topics.

As I was preparing to write this blog post, I looked up the definition of “motivate”. While I was not surprised by the definition, I was caught off-guard by the sentence example:

motivate snagit

I took this example as a sign that this post was meant to be. I then asked myself: “Is it the job of a teacher to motivate children?

After much thought and reflection, I stand firm in my opinion that it is not the job of teachers to motivate children…it is the teacher’s job to discover what intrinsically motivates children and tap into that natural inclination.

George Mason University Psychologists, Martha Carlton and Adam Winsler in volume 25 of The Early Childhood Education Journal describe how children are born with an innate curiosity to learn. This motivation is intrinsic, and the child requires no outside rewards for its continuation. However, as children start formal schooling (even preschool), much of their motivation has been lost or replaced with extrinsically motivated learning strategies. Here within lies the problem.

So, why, with no physiological difference in the way boys and girls learn, and no need to use external motivators to appeal children, do we as educators think we need to motivate boys?

I go back to my original answer:


We need to celebrate the skills and interests boys arrive at school with on the first day of kindergarten. We need to implement instructional strategies that don’t favor students with strong impulse control. We need to celebrate boys’ inclination to negotiate and offer them learning opportunities where negotiation is mandatory rather than penalized. We need to harness boys’ intrinsic motivation. We need to stop trying to change boys’ display of enthusiasm only to later try and rebuild it with extrinsic forces.