Going Deeper with Embedded Coaching

After any professional development workshop, the most common questions concern follow-up. Workshops are incredibly valuable to convey foundational knowledge for new professional learning. At ICG, we want to ensure that our workshops are clear, engaging, grounded in partnership, and ever improving. Those workshops are critical in explaining our coaching model, the 20+ years of research behind it, and the benefits and challenges that arise when implementing it. However, workshops alone are not enough.

What Is Embedded Coaching?

Several years ago, Senior Consultants Ann and Michelle began providing follow-up for our workshops in the form of “embedded coaching” days. Embedded coaching days provide embedded professional learning on the spot, in school buildings, with real coaches, teachers, and administrators. In those sessions, the school or school district determines the agenda based on the needs of their coaches in implementing the Impact Cycle coaching model.

Because no two school districts or even two school buildings have the same needs, the agenda items vary on embedded coaching days. Schools or districts typically (but not always) request activities that fall into any of four categories:

  • “Live coaching” in which either the ICG consultant coaches a classroom teacher while small groups of coaches and possibly leaders watch, or a coach within that district coaches a teacher while the ICG consultant, other coaches, and possibly leaders watch. After the teacher-coach conversation, the small group discusses what they saw and examines specific aspects of the interaction.
  • Examining specific Impact Cycles within the school at different stages of the process and troubleshooting issues surrounding those cycles (Where are coaches getting stuck? How are teachers responding to coaching? Does a specific coach have questions about a cycle involving a challenging teacher?).
  • Meeting with school and/or district leaders in which the ICG consultant responds to questions and concerns about coaching and the Impact Cycle model.
  • Watching coaching video as a group to examine various elements of coaching interactions

Preparing for Embedded Coaching

Working with ICG to set up workshop days is a fairly simple process with few steps. Once those workshops have concluded, schools and districts will find that setting up embedded coaching days requires more planning than workshops days do. In collaboration with the ICG consultant (often in several phone conversations), the school or district considers who and what to include on those days.

The guiding question for planning is, “What can we do on those days that will be most helpful in moving coaching forward?” That question has many facets to consider.

  • Will the ICG consultant and coaches view live classroom instruction or video of classroom instruction? (And has the teacher granted permission for either?)
  • Will the coaches want to see the ICG consultant coach a teacher, or do the coaches want the ICG consultant and others to watch their coaches coach a teacher? (And are teachers voluntarily participating in that?)
  • Should school or district leaders observe these interactions? (And have the coaches and teachers agreed to that?)
  • Do the coaches want additional practice in collecting data or analysis of their data collection methods?
  • Do the coaches want a “Q and A” session with the ICG consultant, or have coaches identified specific areas of concern they want to address?
  • Does the school or district want to videotape these embedded coaching sessions? (And has everyone involved granted permission for that?)
  • Can the agenda have some flexibility so that, as important issues arise that day, the group has time to address them?

Fostering Partnership in Embedded Coaching

Our company, like our coaching model, is grounded in partnership, so words like “feedback” and “giving direction” tend to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks. On embedded coaching days, concerned school or district leaders may hope that we do just that: give feedback, guide, give direction. To ensure that coaches know that those days are about their self-identified needs to improve their coaching practice, we encourage an environment that involves the Partnership Principles.

Coaches may genuinely want feedback on their coaching, so we ensure a partnership approach to that request in several ways.

  1. Focus on one small group of coaches (and possibly administrators) at a time in those sessions. Be sure that the coach who has requested feedback knows (and approves of) who will be in the room contributing to the conversation. Larger districts with many coaches can divide their coaches into smaller cohorts who work together on different embedded coaching days. Many people in a room dissecting one person’s performance never feels like partnership, even with the best intentions.

  2. Establish a structure for the communication. Using a Fishbowl approach for the conversation is helpful, as is using our Listening and Questioning Checklist to establish communication norms. Staying focused on “being a witness to the good” and on the areas where the coach has specifically requested feedback are crucial to maintaining a partnership environment that fosters change.
  3. Be sure that teachers who are involved are clear about the live coaching process and who participates in the conversation, and teachers’ participation should be voluntary. One added partnership benefit of embedded coaching days is that teachers see that coaches have coaches, too. Embedded coaching days should only enhance the teachers’ sense of a partnership-coaching culture and their sense as an equal member of the school team.
  4. Consider the two sides to asking administrators to participate. On the one hand, school and district administrators benefit greatly from seeing the Impact Cycle model in action and from hearing coaches discuss it. On the other hand, the presence of administrators can feel evaluative if everyone in the room is not absolutely clear about why leadership is there and what their role is in the day. Once those days feel evaluative for coaches, those conversations are not as likely to foster improvement in coaching. Embedded coaching days should not be evaluative and should not feel evaluative to coaches.

What We’ve Learned from Embedded Coaching

For the past year, the topic of addressing embedded coaching more explicitly with schools has come up in our team conversations again and again. In those meetings, our leader, Jim Knight, has stressed that he sees embedded coaching as one of the key elements in how deeply a district implements the Impact Cycle. Just as teachers benefit from instructional coaching to make meaningful instructional changes, coaches need coaching, too.

When watching an ICG consultant or one of their own colleagues coach a teacher, coaches see nuances of coaching interactions that they had not previously considered themselves. Stepping away from their own participation in the interaction alerts them to aspects of their coaching style that they want to improve or minimize. Talking about specific coaching situations and goals gives them an authentic task in which they can navigate the complexities of coaching and see their own practice more clearly.

Coaches are not the only ones who learn on embedded coaching days. Our ICG team examines what we learn in these interactions to improve what we do as an organization in supporting schools. Through this work with individual coaches, we gain a better sense of coaches’ understanding of and system support for the coaching model. This awareness helps us in conversations about further follow-up and helps us to identify misconceptions that we need to address as an organization. Both recent changes to our workshops regarding practice with PEERS goals and the process of writing our upcoming book on the instructional playbook directly involved understandings we gained from embedded coaching.

Involvement in real coaching interactions in schools helps us to hone our own coaching skills as well. Those authentic conversations help us to remember how coaches feel in difficult conversations about student progress and how challenging setting a goal can be. We are able to be more metacognitive in thinking about the model when working with actual teachers, and  that helps us to be clearer in explaining the model with everyone.

Importantly, embedded coaching also helps us to understand more fully the environments in which the coaches are coaching. We can see the challenging circumstances they face in terms of time, resources, teacher resistance, and system support, and we can see the ways they navigate those challenges to make coaching work for teachers and students. The seventh Partnership Principle is Reciprocity, and embedded coaching brings about as much learning for us as it does for the schools and coaches who are our partners.  

Schools never have enough time and resources to do everything they need to do to move students forward. As a result, even though most educators know that “one and done” professional development workshops don’t bring about real change, schools often feel like they don’t have the time and resources to provide necessary follow-up. They hope that “one and done” may work this time.

What we’ve seen with embedded coaching is that the result of this form of follow-up is much deeper implementation of the coaching model and thus improved instruction that leads to student improvement. Once coaches have a foundational understanding of the Impact Cycle, embedded coaching is the next logical step for coaching programs. It’s the connection that coaches need between the workshop and the classroom.

Contact us to bring embedded coaching to your school or district