I used to think it was just my school that did it. I thought we were the only school that felt so under pressure, so responsible for every single thing every day, that we treated everything that happened in the building like an emergency. Every issue that arose—a tense parent conference, a spill in the chemistry lab, a traffic jam in the line to buy Homecoming tickets—was perceived as an equally dire metaphorical fire alarm toward which everyone ran at full speed.
After spending the past few years working with school districts all over North America, I see that pressure everywhere, now more than ever. That sense of urgency is one of my favorite things about educators. They want everything handled; they want it all to be OK.
The downside of the weight of that responsibility is that it causes most people to default to a top-down mindset, to react instead of respond, to give orders, to think “I have to take of this myself, or nothing will get done.” The workplace research on a top-down approach versus a partnership approach is clear, but for most folks, once another emergency (real or perceived) occurs, the need for control takes over.
This mindset has an enormous impact on instructional coaching. A top-down mindset places all sorts of barriers in the way of coaching making the difference that it can make for teachers and students. Top-down mindset assumes
- That coaching can’t be confidential (“As a leader, I need to know everything that’s going on.”),
- That coaching can’t be voluntary (“If I don’t tell people they have to do it, no one will do it.”),
- That teachers aren’t capable of choosing worthy goals and instructional strategies for their students (“The coach is the expert. Teachers can’t handle that responsibility.”).
All of those assumptions are false, according to our research, but they persist. A collaborative culture grounded in partnership is the way through.
Why We Changed the Process
In creating Entry 2 for our revised ICG Coaching Certification process, we knew two things:
- Collaborative culture is a critical element of instructional coaching success and must be assessed as part of certification, and
- The way the pilot process assessed collaborative school cultures was not working as well as it needed to for coach-candidates and for scorers.
The pilot process involved 7 separate portfolio entries, one for each of the 7 Success Factors for Effective Instructional Coaching Programs, the research-based components of coaching that are present when coaching can be tied to student growth academically, behaviorally, or in student engagement. Organizing that way was “clean” in terms of communicating the “standards” for the process, but isolating elements such as the “Communication” entry from the “Impact Cycle” entry and the “System Support” entry, for example, made separately scoring each entry problematic and did not communicate the extent to which all of these elements are interconnected.
Thus, we reorganized the process into two entries, Entry 1, dealing with the Impact Cycle process itself and Entry 2, dealing with the issues of partnership communication and approach both in Impact Cycles and throughout the school.
Entry 2 Evidence
What types of evidence show us that this kind of collaborative culture exists and that the coach-candidate is continuously working to enhance it? For more objective and verifiable evidence, we can’t rely solely on the coach-candidate to speak to these issues:
- The coach-candidate cannot attest to whether they “walk the talk” of partnership in the school building or with teachers in Impact Cycles.
- The coach-candidate cannot attest to whether they have communicated the elements of effective coaching and partnership to their principal or system leaders.
- The coach-candidate cannot attest to whether their leader expects them to be working 60-70% of their work time in Impact Cycles with teachers.
Ultimately, verification of that information has to come from the teachers and leaders themselves.
The revised Entry 2 includes two key pieces of evidence:
- A letter from the coach’s principal, assistant principal, or system leader (whoever supervises the coach) that addresses specific prompts related to issues such as partnership approach, communicating about coaching, and role clarity, and
- Surveys from 10 teachers who have worked with the coach-candidate in Impact Cycles about that experience.
Earlier iterations of these evidence pieces were part of the pilot process, but we have revised them to be more targeted to specific elements of the school culture that are most critical to coaching success. Some coach-candidates in the pilot cohorts expressed concern about these pieces of evidence, particularly the letter from their leader. They asked,
- Is it fair to evaluate me based on a letter written by someone else?
- What if I can’t get my supervisor to write that letter?
- What if I can’t get 10 teachers to work with me in Impact Cycles?
These are all understandable concerns, and they demonstrate a crucial point: not every coach may be ready for candidacy at a particular point in time. If the collaborative culture hasn’t been established yet, and leaders have not provided the coach with enough time for Impact Cycle work to be able to gather this evidence, then candidacy should be delayed until those elements are in place.
These concerns also reflect the fact that a professional certification process is not a training, and it’s not a course of study. It’s a demonstration of current, accomplished coaching practice. For certification to mean anything, it must be rigorous and involve the key elements of coaching that bring about a positive outcome for students. Fostering a collaborative culture is one of those key elements, and we must include it in any definition of “accomplished coaching practice.”
For certification to mean anything, it must be rigorous and involve the key elements of coaching that bring about a positive outcome for students.
—Instructional Coaching Group
Instructional coaches are just as prone to that “Emergency!” mindset as anyone else in a school (myself included). I understand the temptation to think a coach can “fly solo”: “I can do what I need to do in coaching without leadership on board or without that collaborative culture in place. I do a lot of good work all by myself. That should be enough for certification.” But research just doesn’t back that up.
None of us alone is enough. We all need the support and collaboration of others. For instructional coaching to demonstrably impact students, a collaborative culture is crucial to turn top-down into partnership and to turn “Emergency!” into “Opportunity.”
Sharon Thomas, Senior Consultant at ICG, is a National Board Certified English teacher, instructional coach, student advocate, and writer. Along with her work in ICG workshops, Sharon coordinates the ICG Coaching Certification process. She is also a consultant for the Touchstones Discussion Project and a Certified SIM Professional Developer in the area of writing.