In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting at the conference. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

This week’s interview:  Diane Sweeney

Diane Sweeney’s Learning Along the Way was one of the first books on coaching that I read, and since I first read it, I have been grateful for Diane’s important contributions to the world of ideas around coaching. I’ve been fortunate to watch Diane present on many occasions, I’ve read her books, and I’m thrilled that she has agreed to present at TLC this year.

Diane has been a national consultant since 1999. After teaching and coaching in the Denver Public Schools, Diane served as a program officer at the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) in Denver. Since then she has become an important voice in the field of coaching and professional development with a longstanding interest in how adult learning translates to learning in the classroom.

How did you come to write about coaching?

My colleague Leanna Harris and I wrote our first article on coaching in 2002 for Learning Forward. It was titled, Learning to Work With – Not Against – A System (June issue). It was republished in 2008. In it, we shared some hard lessons that we learned while coaching on a Navajo reservation in Utah. At the time we were working for the Public Education & Business Coalition, a non-profit focused on educational reform in Denver. We had a lot to learn as literacy coaches and thought it might be helpful to share some of our mistakes with others.

My first book, Learning Along the Way, was published by Stenhouse in 2003. In it, I tell the story of an urban elementary school in Denver where I worked as a teacher and literacy coach. It was a dynamic place that was ahead of its time when it came to providing job embedded support to teachers. Most of this was due to a visionary leader and committed staff. I thought that sharing some of the ways we grew as a community of learners might be of interest to others.

Tell me a bit about your publications on coaching and also elaborate on other books

There was a big gap between my first two books because during this time I was working on refining my coaching skills. I wanted to be certain that students were learning as a result of my coaching. This stage in my career led me to write Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals.

Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level came a few years later .  I’ll be the first to admit that coaching in secondary schools is very demanding, and I wanted to write a book that would help tease out the particular nuances of coaching at this level. Take a comprehensive high school, for example. What does coaching look like in that environment? How does a coach work across content? How does a coach engage teachers to see the value of coaching?

Finally, I wrote Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves with Leanna Harris. With this book, we wanted to go further and frame what coaching looks like in action. It’s my favorite book because it’s so real and concrete. It allowed me to take everything that I was doing and make it tangible so that others could be more successful with their coaching moves.

What are some of the core ideas in your approach to coaching?

Framing coaching around outcomes for students is at the heart of what we do. We believe that the standards should be the focus of coaching. Asking teachers, “What do you want the students to know and do?” makes coaching standards-based and student-centered because it is all about moving students forward. It also helps teachers see the value in coaching because it’s about what matters most.

We also anchor our coaching in continuous formative assessment. The way we do this is by focusing on using student evidence to drive decision-making during planning sessions with teachers. We never have conversations without some sort of student work in front of us. While it can be anecdotal, most often it’s something the students just did that makes their learning visible. This real-time decision-making allows us to help teachers be responsive and differentiate for the specific needs in their classrooms.

A recent focus has been on how the coach and teacher work together in the classroom. Student-Centered: The Moves includes several chapters on this topic. It goes back to the partnerships that we know are so important for coaches and teachers to have, but also pushes us further in moving students forward as learners.

What distinguishes your approach from other people’s approach?

Many of my ideas are rooted in a foundation of backward design. Years ago, I was trying to get my head around how to be a more effective coach while I was also learning about backwards design. When I put the two together, I realized that I could embed the backward design approach into my coaching and be much more student-centered in my practice. This is still a foundational concept for student-centered coaching. We start with a standards-based goal and then work backwards to help teachers reach it with their students.

What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

I learn every single day! Recently I’ve been thinking about how we can better support school leaders to lead a coaching effort in their school. The coaching landscape is inconsistent in terms of the results schools are getting. There are a lot of factors, but I think we have overlooked school leaders, making the assumption that leading a coaching effort is easy and straightforward. This is an area that I am exploring through a new book.

What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do?

I like the metaphor of a sherpa helping a climber up Mount Everest. Sherpas have incredible skill and ability, just like a coach – it’s their job to help the climber reach the goal of the summit, and for me coaching is like that. Coaches have strong backgrounds in terms of instruction, but they can’t overshadow the teacher with their knowledge. It’s not about the sherpa when you are climbing, it’s about the climber. I like the idea of sherpas because they provide support when it is needed. They are there to get you to the top, almost in an invisible way. That’s the definition of a true partnership.

What else do people need to know about your approach to coaching?

I often find myself encouraging coaches and principals to take a strengths-based, rather than deficit-based approach to teachers. We know that this is important for our students, but we sometimes forget that it is equally, if not more, important for adult learners. Building a coaching foundation from a deficit perspective doesn’t do a lot to inspire teachers to engage. Instead, they become defensive and feel like they are being unfairly judged or fixed. Taking a strengths-based approach means we coach from assets. This is how we build a strong coaching relationship.

Since our conference theme is it’s all about the kids, tell me a bit about how the impact your work has on children

This is so important.  Several years ago, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking enough about the students. Instead, I was thinking all about systems to get teachers to do things. Reminding ourselves to keep students at the center of our work is essential. I’m really looking forward to this conference.

Can you say a quick summary about what you’re presenting at TLC?

We are going to look at the components of a coaching cycle that is rooted in the standards. We’ll discuss goal setting, how to embed learning targets throughout the cycle, how we formatively assess, and how we spend time in classrooms. By framing the session around a standards-based coaching cycle, we will help participants to understand how to make coaching as rigorous, and student-centered, as possible.

To learn more about the TLC conference, click here:  Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference