Instructional Coaching In 20 Seconds Or Less


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

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger 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 have always wanted to be an instructional coach.

In fact, I wanted to be an instructional coach before I truly knew what an instructional coach did. Several years ago, when I first entertained the idea of pursuing an instructional coach position, a principal asked me, “If you were riding in an elevator and someone asked you what an instructional coach does, what would you say in 20 seconds or less?” As I inarticulately tried to put instructional coaching into words, I should have cut my losses and quoted Einstein instead:

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

A few years later, my school district listed an instructional coach position, and I wanted this job. I strived to have my elevator speech down pat should I once again need to describe the role in 20 seconds or less. To prepare, I studied the work of Jim Knight, the foremost expert on instructional coaching. I read and annotated three of his books (Unmistakable Impact, Instructional Coaching, and High Impact Instruction).

What became readily apparent was while I could, in fact, perfect my elevator speech, just being able to describe what a coach does is very different from actually performing the role successfully. Take, for example, the following parts of a coach’s job description and my initial thoughts:
  • Coaches are responsible for forming partnerships with teachers to align their practices to research-based, high-impact, instructional strategies. So, what if a teacher has a goal that has nothing to do with high-impact instructional strategies?

  • Coaches should enroll teachers in coaching cycles which include multiple meetings. How do I make coaching cycles compelling enough for teachers to share their most coveted commodity (time) with me?

  • The single most important thing a coach needs to be successful is her principal’s support. Yet, coaches must tread lightly as not to become too close to the principal or teachers may resist (Knight, Unmistakable Impact). How do I strike this balance?

Where Do I Begin?
In September 2015, I read Peter DeWitt’s blog post 4 Reasons Why Instructional Coaching Won’t Work. The post was timely (I had just started as a coach) and enlightening as well. Item #3 on Peter’s list especially piqued my interest,  “coaches lack credibility.” I had found my starting point.

I needed to gain credibility. Just because I may have been a “good” teacher didn’t mean I would automatically be a good coach. Moreover, I didn’t want teachers to work with me or principals to endorse me because they “should.” I wanted teachers to partner with me and principals to support me because I had proven added value.

But, what is credibility exactly? defines credibility as “the quality of being believable or worthy of trust.” I trust people when they are real, dependable, and humble. As a coach, I was confident I could establish credibility by remaining true to myself and by using the same strategies I had previously used with students: determine need/want, collaboratively figure out the best way to get there, and remember that our work is about them and not me. My “students” were now my coachees and my building administrators were now my students’ “parents” (always wanting what is best for their staff).

I decided I would continue to be the educator I have always been. I would respond to my colleagues in a similar fashion to how I responded to my students. I would build my credibility with actions like the following:

  • Sharing my passion: “Thank you for inviting me into your classroom! I LOVE how excited your students are to vote for ‘quote of the week.’ I wish I would have done that in my classroom!
  • Modeling continued learning: “You know, I am not that well-versed with complex math instruction and I am interested in learning more. Give me a few days, and I will get back to you with more information.”
  • Being consistently consistent: “You have a partner in this entire process. You worry about teaching and your students’ needs. Let me worry about the logistical hurdles. I promise we will figure this out together.
  • Being honest: “Hey, Building Principal!  A few teachers have asked me the same question about our new student learning objective plan. I think I need to deepen my understanding, can we chat about this part?
  • Not taking myself too seriously: “Kudos to you for recording yourself teaching a lesson. I still cringe when I watch certain footage of myself. But, the truth is, I always learn something from the recordings. Minimally, I know what outfits I should never wear again.

A Second Chance
Last October, I was a guest moderator for #LeadupKatycast, an inspirational and informational podcast hosted by three savvy building administrators, Chris Bailey, Dr. Jake LeBlanc, and Mark McCord, from Katy, Texas. Our podcast explored a singular question: “What is the role of the instructional coach?

Oh no, that question again.

This time I had my elevator speech ready (and it takes much less than 20 seconds):

“Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial, partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles focused on teachers’ goals.”

Deep breath.

Only… I didn’t need the memorized script. Instead, we talked and learned from each other’s experiences, successes, and struggles. And, by sharing on a larger scale, we collectively help build credibility for instructional coaching programs on the whole.

As I listened to how passionate these principals were about coaching, I was reminded of an insight my own building principal, Allison Stein, shared with me on the day I accepted my instructional coach position. Allison said:

“Remember, we are all on the same team.”
It’s amazing how one simple sentence can be so impactful. As a coach, viewing an organization as a team rather than a hierarchy erases so many of those initial fears.

I no longer worry about the reasons teachers seek to work with me. Because teachers always come to me with the best interest of their students at heart. Then, I help them determine and implement appropriate strategies.

I no longer worry about teachers being too busy. Sometimes teachers just are too busy, and that is ok! Teachers will reach out to me when things settle down.

Most importantly, I have stopped worrying about how teachers view my partnership with my principal. Because, as Allison said, “we are all on the same team.”

On our team, we each play a different and equally important role. We win when our students succeed. Principals are the instructional visionaries and teachers execute that vision. Coaches are simply the choreographers.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

*Special thanks to my Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer for helping me to continue to define my role through exceptional training and coffee talks about praxis. To Mark McCord for the invitation to co-moderate #LeadupKaty, to Chris Bailey and Jake LeBlanc for their hospitality, humor, and promises of Texas BBQ. And, most importantly, thank you to all of the amazing teachers who have trusted me as your partner; I learn the most from all of you.

‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too


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

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger 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.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.