“How should we evaluate our instructional coaches?”
We hear this question all the time. Most school districts we work with don’t like the way they evaluate coaches as employees, and few use consistent data and processes to evaluate their overall coaching programs. The issue of evaluation is thorny in education (to say the least), particularly regarding student progress. It’s messy, it’s controversial, and it’s relentless. Evaluating employees and programs may be in some ways a quieter bone of contention, but it’s problematic, too.
Sometimes evaluation is a simpler task. Our younger son, Joe, is a cook. When he was in culinary school, I was jealous of how clear and precise evaluating his progress was for his teachers: He either met the criteria of the cleanliness standards or he didn’t. He either baked a perfect chiffon cake or he didn’t. When he needed to improve, he had clear feedback on what to do differently next time. In fact, the standards and procedures were so clear that he usually knew how he was doing all along the cooking process. His work product clearly demonstrated his learning and his progress on the standards every single time.
Joe works as a cook now, and my envy remains. As we wrote our upcoming book on evaluating coaching, I thought about Joe’s evaluations as an employee compared to the ones that coaches endure. Joe has set menu items that he is required to cook at customer request. He has a procedure to follow for each menu item, and he is provided with the necessary ingredients for each one. If he runs out of a particular ingredient for a dish, that dish is removed from the menu until the ingredient returns.
Instructional coaches, though, usually don’t even have their own evaluation form, let alone specific performance standards or work products. Because their roles are often ill-defined and not aligned with research on effective coaching, districts modify some version of the teacher evaluation form or the non-classroom-staff form to fit the patchwork of tasks that coaches are assigned. Coaches are typically viewed as valued employees, but that means that they’re not often given timely feedback and support in the moment because of the perception that “they’re doing great.” Standards for what a “good” or “excellent” coach is are fuzzy at best and nonexistent at worst, a torturously nebulous situation for hardworking professionals like coaches who want to meet and exceed expectations to support their schools and students.
Joe, meanwhile, feels in control. If a customer orders an omelet, Joe knows his employer’s standards for that omelet. But Joe can also take into account a customer’s specific requests for how to modify that standard (cooked firm, cooked soft, extra cheese, no cheese). If he opens a carton of eggs and eyes a suspicious-looking one, he can throw it out. If the stove is running particularly hot that day, Joe can make adjustments to his equipment and cooking time. As long as he makes an omelet that meets expectations and is still hot when it reaches the customer’s table, Joe has done his job well. When he hasn’t done well, he can throw out the defective omelet and make a new one. On the path to getting that job done, he makes pretty much all of the decisions. Every aspect of his job has a clear start and finish, and he has a clean slate with every new order.
That’s not the case with educators. Teachers have control over many elements of their classrooms, but they can’t throw out subpar instructional materials, unrealistic mandates, and especially not children. Principals have control over many elements of their schools, but they can’t throw out unhelpful state or district policies, and even removing subpar staff members is very difficult. In supporting students, educators have many more variables to navigate, no “clean slates” with each new student. Every student has a history, a context, and a specific set of needs.
Coaches have even less control over classrooms and schools than teachers and principals do, and yet they can be the key change leaders in the building. Because coach roles are often poorly defined but overwhelmed with tasks, evaluating what coaches are doing as employees and what they should be doing to move students forward is challenging. But it’s not impossible.
To examine the complex task of evaluating instructional coaches and coaching programs, our new book, Evaluating Instructional Coaching: People, Programs, and Partnership, attempts to move coaching evaluation to be a clearer, more standards-focused, more student-focused process. We outline a process that helps coaches to improve and that involves ensuring that schools are providing the kind of classroom support that positively (and measurably) affects students. We focus on these elements of evaluation that schools so often say need improvement:
- Evaluating instructional coaches as employees
- Evaluating instructional coaching programs
- Recruiting and hiring instructional coaches
- Retaining coaches and sustaining programs
Over these next several weeks, I’ll provide a post on each of these areas as a preview of the book to come and to address some of the most common concerns we hear from coaches and leaders.
Evaluating coaching is never going to look like evaluating an omelet. Supporting humans in learning and change is more complex than cooking eggs the French way. But evaluating coaching can involve a more specific approach to standards for the profession, to clarity around all aspects of coaching as both a process and a job, and to using evidence on performance to help coaches and programs improve.
The work that instructional coaches do in schools in challenging and often misunderstood. Coaches deserve an evaluation process that honors them, their work, and their impact on students.
Today’s featured author is Sharon Thomas, Senior Consultant at ICG, National Board Certified English teacher, instructional coach, student advocate, and writer. Along with her work in ICG workshops, Sharon developed the ICG Coaching Certification process and co-authored the book The Instructional Playbook with Jim Knight, Ann Hoffman, and Michelle Harris.