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: Joellen Killion

Having Joellen as my first interview is not by chance.  Joellen has presented at TLC more than anyone other than me, and her ideas, and commitment to teachers and students inspire and educate me. When we were just beginning TLC more than a decade ago, Joellen generously gave her time to help us lay the groundwork for the conference we are offering now. Joellen’s openness, curiosity, and deep commitment to learning profoundly shaped the culture of our conference and TLC would not be what it is without her many contributions.

 Joellen is Learning Forward’s senior advisor and served for many years as the association’s deputy executive director. As senior advisor, she leads initiatives related to the link between professional learning and student learning. She has extensive experience in planning, design, implementing, and evaluating of professional learning at the school, system, and state/provincial levels. She works with coaches, principals, district and state leaders to facilitate and support standards-based professional learning that advances educator learning. She is the author and co-author of numerous books and articles about professional learning.

How did you come to writing about coaching?

In 1997, my colleague Cindy Harrison and I wrote an article for the then Journal of Staff Development where we talked about the eight responsibilities of a central office staff developer. Later we found that people who were hiring coaches or creating the position of school-based staff developers were using that paper to guide their work. Because the coach’s role was more narrow, we revised the article to focus specifically on the roles of coaches. We identified nine roles at that point.

For one school year, we focused on each of those roles in articles published in Learning Forward’s newsletter called Teachers Teaching Teachers. So, as a result of writing that series of articles, the editor said to us, “Gosh, you should make this a book” and we did. From that point on, we added a tenth really important role that we had forgotten; the role of learner. So that’s how the first book, Taking the Lead: New Roles for Teachers and School-based Coaches came to be and the second edition of Taking the Lead is currently in the hands of the editor. We expect to see that completed and published by the end of the year.

 Tell me a bit about your publications and books relevant to coaching? 

I would say that there are essentially four that I’ve done that are relevant to coaching. The two that are specifically focused on coaching are, Taking the Lead: The New Roles for Teachers and School Based Coaches and Coaching Matters, the second book, co-authored with a team of colleagues whom I worked with for many, many years in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, just north of Denver, Cindy Harrison, Chris Bryan and Heather Clifton.

A big part of coaches’ success rests in how coaches are supported and how the coaching program and coaches are evaluated. So, Assessing Impact, for which I have just finished a third edition is another book related to coaching. It focuses on evaluating the effectiveness and impact of a wide variety of types of professional learning programs. I use many examples from coaching in the new edition, particularly because it is something that I am familiar with as well as something that many schools and school systems are grappling with.

The fourth book that is relevant to coaching is The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning. It talks about a distinctly different approach to feedback. Rather than feedback being something that is given and received, it describes a feedback process in which the learner constructs knowledge. Those would be the big ones.

What would you say are some of the core ideas behind your approach to coaching?

One involves recognizing that we can’t say what coaches do until we define the purpose and the outcomes of a coaching program. Then and only then can we determine what the work of a coach looks like. We also think it’s really important that the work be fairly narrow and that it encompasses everyone on a school staff rather than some school staff.

We also stress the importance of building agreements between the principal and the coach and the teacher and the coach so that there are no surprises. We talk about the critical role of principals in the coaching process; how they support coaches and how they advocate the values of coaching within their schools. We stress the importance of how coaches are prepared and how they are selected and supported on an ongoing basis. Those would be some of the core ideas.

What distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching?

I think the biggest distinction is the recognition that there are multiple different roles and that those roles are defined not by the coach’s determination but by the determination of the entire set of goals and the purpose of the coaching program. That is an often missed organizational decision. Another difference is that coaching is often occurs one-on-one yet a good deal of coaching also occurs in team settings rather than only in individual settings.

We believe engagement in coaching is the responsibility of every member of an organization from the top down. It is for everyone including the superintendent and president of the school board as well as every member of the school or staff. Coaching should be a transparent process. One of the responsibilities that coaches have is to transfer what they know about coaching to others so that coaching can occur continuously.

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

I have become increasingly aware that coaches coach for their own benefit. They coach because they think that they have right ways of doing things and they want others to implement those right ways. That gets them in hot water with their colleagues when they hold a belief that their job is to fix, rescue and solve all of the problems of the world through their own lens rather than one that is viewed as a joint body of work. I go back to Judith Warren Little’s definition of joint work, which is, we both come to the table empty-handed to co-construct. Teachers, I think often do this better with students than they do with each other. I am focused on the notion that we can benefit from being more reflective; not just on practice but also about the beliefs and values that drive our practice. Those are some of the things that I think are core for me.

What would you say is a good metaphor for what coaches do?

 When I was growing up as a kid in Michigan, we would drive over the Blue Water Bridge from Port Huron, Michigan into Canada. One of the things we liked to do was walk on the swinging bridge. For me, that’s an image for coaching. That bridge moved every time a step was taken on it. It was terrifying until one got used to it. When I stepped on to it, for the very first time, I thought I could never cross the bridge. But with a lot of prodding and childhood teasing, I ventured across that bridge. What I discovered in summers upon summers of doing that was that it became easier and easier. I even found it enjoyable. I became one of those big kids on the bridge making it move to scare some of the little kids and make them find comfort in that discomfort. And that would be the metaphor.

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

I think there are some core aspects of our approach to coaching that are critical. I hold a lot of responsibility for the success of coaching in the hands of the decision makers who are teachers, principals and central office staff. They make decisions about the importance of coaching. I find more and more some of the key decisions are responses to basic questions. What is coaching? How do we determine what it is and isn’t? How do we select and prepare coaches? So many of those elements are missing in many coaching programs and are difficult to recover from if they are not present.

Our conference theme is, “It’s all about the kids.” Tell me a bit about the impact your work has on children.

I will say to coaches that it is insufficient for you to say that your work is about teachers. It is about the quality of teaching that impacts student learning. One of the first things I teach on the very first day of the very first session for coaches is the answer to the question, “What’s the purpose of coaching?” It is important that coaches learn the right answer very early on. It is all about student learning and student success. Many coaches see their work as working with teachers. I occasionally test out my theory when I ask the question, “What is the purpose of your work? How do you describe your work?” If they say that it’s about supporting teachers, they are missing the point. I was delighted to see that theme of the Fall TLC conference is It’s all about the kids.

Can you please give us a quick summary of what you are going to present to TLC.

One of the topics of my session is outcomes-focused coaching. I hope to help people learn a protocol for coaching that links educators’ professional goals with students’ learning goals through a coaching process. I hope to help them raise things that coaches are often afraid to do and that is to use the performance rubric. Often, coaches are afraid to put those in front their clients when they are engaged in a coaching conversation. Those conversations are more short-term focused rather than long-term focused. The conversations need to be focused on more long-term outcomes. I want to share the protocol and help coaches learn how to use it and consider how it might be helpful or valuable in the work that they are doing.

Next week I’ll post my interview with Gary Bloom, the author of Blended Coaching, a book that really helped me deepen my understanding of what coaching is and what it can be, and Powerful Partnerships, a handbook for principals mentoring assistant principals.  In the interview, Gary talks about the new book he’s writing about coaching.

You can learn more about the Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference here: Teaching, Learning, Coaching