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.

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

For other posts on differentiation, read these posts:

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.