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
(Jim) Why did you put out a new edition?
(Joellen) The book was in need of being infused with all the things that we have learned over the last 11 years about coaching. We felt that we had gained so much, expanded our understanding of the work of coaches, their role, and, specifically, what would help coaches to feel more confident, competent, and courageous. We also updated tools and provide information and strategies that were more relevant and focused to the work in schools today. The book goes deeper than the previous edition. It’s more focused on coaches and gives them much more guidance and support.
(Jim) Highlight two or three big learnings (the first edition came out in 2006) over in the last decade or so.
(Joellen) I think the biggest learning is that coaches’ work continues to be all over the place. Many districts have assumed that coaches could be all things and do everything for everyone, and are now realizing that they cannot. District leaders are reconsidering where coaches focus their time, effort, and energy and, in turn, be more useful.
(Jim) That’s exactly what we found. We did a little study in the Kansas City area and found that a big problem was coaches’ role ambiguity. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do. I have come to describe this situation in terms of individual and organizational anchors. Coaches have individual questions about their purpose – what they are supposed to do. How they have an impact. They think that they should be doing more and they are probably right, but they don’t know what to do. As for the organizational part, the organization questions the value of coaches because it is investing a lot of money in them but isn’t sure that they are doing, what they are supposed to be doing. The result is a lot of anxiety, or angst, around coaches and the coaches’ role. I think our experience and yours are parallel in that regard.
(Joellen) I think that’s why our “coaching heavy” and “coaching light” work continues to resonate. When coaches don’t have a focus, when they are feeling pulled in many ways, and are driven by the needs of the individual teachers versus the school or district, their efforts dissipate, and the effects are diffused.
(Jim) The distinction between “coaching heavy” and “coaching light” is really important. Please elaborate on those two approaches.
(Joellen) The essential difference between the two involves distinguishing essential outcomes that are directly aligned with teaching and student learning. Coaches are often driven by a desire to serve the needs of teachers. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it becomes a bad thing when they fail to recognize that serving means serving the needs of the students that teachers are teaching. The ultimate goal of coaching is to improve student learning, and to reach that goal requires a shift in both the coach’s identity, how the coach views him or herself, how the coach internalizes that identity in terms of the decisions he or she makes on a daily basis, and where time and effort, therefore, are expended. Without that shift, a lot of time and effort is expended on the “light” things that don’t have a great deal of impact on teaching practice and student learning. Then there is a middle part, which involves focusing on teaching with no attention to the outcomes for kids. It’s just, “get the teacher to do this,” without measuring its effects in terms of student outcomes. The “heavy side,” on the other hand, requires really looking at what’s happening for kids.
(Jim) The danger of a teacher-focused goal for coaching is, “well, so what?” The power of the student-focused goal is that it’s an objective measure of equity; or at least a measure of impact. It would make it easier to coach, too. We have a student-focused goal, so let’s see if we can reach it. That is, we would say learning is well-being, not just learning as an outcome for coaching, but student learning is well-being
(Joellen) I agree, and when I use the term learning, I refer to all aspects of students – social, behavioral, emotional, intellectual, psychological, and academic. I appreciate the frame around their well-being and think it’s a nice way to acknowledge that we want kids who are comfortable in their skin and competent in their ability to be socially, psychologically, and emotionally successful.
(Jim) I absolutely agree. But for me, the trouble with just focusing on learning is that most people automatically think of test scores. If I have test scores going up then I have kids that don’t feel safe in school and don’t feel empowered, hate learning. Just having those that are compliant is not the outcome I want. That’s why I would say, but I agree, it’s learning –whether you are learning that learning is important or whether you are learning that you are an empowered human being or you are learning how to be engaged with your school.
(Joellen) The good news, I think is that some states with ESSA shift in schools that are in need of improvement are adding a nonacademic measure of student success.
(Jim) True! Some things are getting learned, which is cause for hope despite the dark times in which we are living. Now, can we go through each of the 10 roles? Is it your idea that a coach would do all 10, or is it kind of like a menu of options for a coach?
(Joellen) We say that these are essentially the big buckets of the kinds of work coaches can do. We strongly encourage school systems to look at their coaching program goals – the reason why they are investing in coaches – and choose the roles that fit most closely with those goals and make those the priority roles. We usually say four to five priority roles with the others as supplements. The roles do overlap somewhat and are complementary, yet the roles become a lens for looking at the work and its impact, to monitor coaches’ work and support and supervise them to become more focused and to become, in essence, a “little heavier.”
(Jim) That makes a lot of sense. The first role I’ve got is a chapter you wrote in our book, data coach.
(Joellen) Some principals and supervisors, and even coaches themselves, have turned the data work over to coaches, making them data retrievers. They download, input, manage, and warehouse data, but we think that’s not what it means to be a data coach. A data coach is someone who teaches others how to perform those functions and how to make the best use of data. Most importantly, they teach teachers to use data from the classroom on a routine basis to make sound instructional decisions that help strengthen teaching and learning. So, when we say data, we are not talking about high-level test stuff. We are talking about anecdotes, observations, formative assessments, works in progress – what teachers see every day as they are teaching – and how to use that to make good decisions.
(Jim) Resource provider?
(Joellen) This is what we call the trap role. This is a role that coaches often find themselves because it’s easy, and they feel very successful when they do it. When a teacher says, “I just don’t have the right level reading materials for these students,” coaches run to the book room and get the resources. They often miss the fact that they end up being gophers and fail to teach teachers how to discriminate, how to find things, how to analyze, look for available resources and, ultimately, have little impact on teaching practice. Yet, it’s the good foot-in-the-door role. It’s often a starting point at the beginning of the year with new people and one that doesn’t ever really go away, but that needs to be monitored closely.
(Joellen) Mentoring includes every other role. what is unique about mentoring is the social, emotional, and psychological acculturation of new professionals to a school or to a work culture. It goes beyond thinking about who they are as teachers to thinking of who they are as members of the community. This is an important function. And if coaches are working with novice teachers as mentors usually do, they want to understand the stages of development of a professional and weaving in all the other roles that are also necessary to support the development of a new professional.
(Jim) I see mentorship in terms of power in the sense that it’s not an equal relationship in the same way that coaching is. In other words, a mentor is usually giving advice.
(Joellen) I don’t necessarily see it that way. I think it’s possible for someone who becomes a mentor to assume that it’s his or her responsibility to be an advice giver, but it doesn’t have to be. A mentor is a person who is responsible for working with novices, and often the biggest part of this job is the emotional, psychological, and moral support new professionals need. While it could be said that a mentor would have all the other responsibilities of a coach, mentoring is unique because we often forget those dimensions of building a professional capacity. So, we assign to a mentor because we want to start a new professional with a really good grounding. So, that’s the reason for that role.
(Jim) Curriculum specialist?
(Joellen) A curriculum specialist is a person who has deep expertise of the “what” being taught and guiding teachers to use curricula that are based on a solid theoretical framework, aligned with relevant standards.
(Jim) Instructional specialist?
(Joellen) The instructional specialist deals with “how” the curriculum is facilitated for learning. So, it’s all about instructional moves, instructional procedures, and shifts in instruction and curriculum. This is how we adapt instruction to meet the needs of students – whether they are language learners or students with special needs, students who are above or below their expected level. It’s all about how we design the learning process once we have the “what” in place.
(Jim) Classroom supporter?
(Joellen) The classroom supporter has three distinct responsibilities. One is to serve as a model of effective teaching, teaching new strategies and classroom management practices. Co-teaching is another aspect of classroom supporter. That is, going from “I do, we do” to “you do.” So, we do it standing together side by side. The third part of classroom supporter is observing, gathering data, and engaging in reflective conversations. Each of these three parts requires planning, reflection, and debriefing. It is about building efficacy, independence, capacity to analyze and reflect on one’s own practice.
(Jim) Learning facilitator?
(Joellen) The learning facilitator is the person who is responsible for facilitating learning in both informal and formal situations, with individual or teams of teachers. It may, for example, involve facilitating professional learning communities and grade-level team meetings that integrate professional learning as a core component. In this role, coaches view their responsibility as building the capacity of others. So, while this is a pair of glasses they always have on, often this calls for more structure of the learning experience.
(Jim) Where would you put assessment? Is that part of classroom supporter? I am thinking specifically of Texas, where coaches often spend a lot of their time on assessments.
(Joellen) There’s a couple places I would put assessments. If it’s working with data that’s the data coach’s role. Sadly, in a lot of schools in Texas, coaches are managing data. They’re getting it, they’re displaying it, they’re telling people what it means. Some of them are building data walls. All these are nice resources, but I don’t think they are the best uses of coaches’ time. I would rather see coaches in data roles facilitating conversations about data and how to use data to refine instruction. We are also seeing many coaches in Texas and elsewhere who are testing kids. I am not particularly fond of of this responsibility falling on the shoulders of coaches because teachers are primarily responsible for student learning and assessment is a huge component of instruction. We actually place classroom assessment in the instructional specialist role. Formative and summative assessment for and of learning are essential in instruction. Coaches help teachers expand their understanding and practice with all types of assessment and using student work to gain insights about student learning. The coaching focused on using assessment data to refine instruction.
(Jim) School leader?
(Joellen) School leader is a role that coaches cannot escape. So, they are often seen as the junction between the administration and the staff. Depending on their relationship with either group, they’re sometimes viewed as an aide for administrators. In reality, they form a really important bridge. That is, they mediate the space between principals and teachers. Teachers often watch to see how they respond to district initiatives, how they show up as a member of a faculty, as a collaborator, as a team player, if they advocate students, the school, programs, the district, their community.
(Jim) A catalyst for change?
(Joellen) A catalyst for change is someone who can’t stand the status quo; someone who is always looking to plant seeds for opportunities to consider alternatives that might achieve a better end for students; someone who is questioning how we got here, why we do what we do, and who is being served. A catalyst for change is someone who is willing to look into bad habits within a system and disturbs the system to keep things on that little bit of an uncomfortable edge that produces growth and learning rather than undiscussable routines that eventually become those bad habits.
(Jim) It occurs to me that If we had a Venn diagram, there would be quite a bit of overlap. Like school leader and catalyst for change would probably overlap a great deal.
(Joellen) We think the catalyst asks the questions, investigates and inquires to bring new perspectives and unleash opportunities and possibilities, prompting people to think differently. A leader is often planful. That is, school leaders design and implement change. In reality, many school principals partner with coaches through shared leadership to facilitate change. They share understanding of how to support change and how to support people in change. Coaches, through their work with colleagues point out and challenge those attitudes and assumptions that get in the way of success – our blind spots. To succeed they must be able to see the bigger picture, and that is difficult for teachers who have been in their own classrooms for a long time.
(Joellen) The learner is the “be all and end all.” What am I learning every day? In everything that I do, how am I improving my own work? How do I model learning for others? How do I model how I implement learning? It’s always a question. It’s always a discovery – we are always adding to what we know. While there might be some certainties, there are very few when it comes to working with students, so we have to be willing to use every experience as an opportunity for learning more to improve where we go in the future. I call this reading the textbook of your life.
(Jim) Is there a reason why the roles are discussed in this order?
(Joellen) There isn’t a firm reason. The sequence depends primarily on what the focus of a coaching program is. So, if the purpose is to implement a new math curriculum, for example, the sequence of roles and their priority will be different. The sequence I prefer really isn’t what matters. It’s what each district is striving to accomplish with its investment in coaching. And we want them to have deep conversations about that and then match the roles to it.
(Jim) That is so important because coaches often don’t know what their role is, which causes ambiguity and anxiety, as well as wasted time.
(Joellen) Yes, a lot of time is wasted. It’s really sad. And coaches are stressed.
(Jim) In contrast, the thing about teaching is that the kids are right there. Teachers kind of know what they are supposed to do. They may have some misperceptions about what is happening in the classroom, but what they are supposed to do is not that ambiguous. They are supposed to teach these kids. They are supposed to learn something. But when you become a coach, we sort of just throw people out there, but if they don’t even know what their job is, it’s hard to know how to help the student.
(Joellen) That’s right. And they get pulled in a million different directions because they are capable people who say yes to virtually anything that is asked of them. Sometimes, it is way over the line in terms of being appropriate, like being asked to put the letters on the billboard in front of the school or counting books.
(Jim) Are there other things you want to say about the new book?
(Joellen) I think the only other thing I’d like to say about the new book is that we expanded the section on what coaches do, how to help them make decisions in light of their role definitions. We expanded and added information around coaching skills, beliefs, and knowledge that we think will be helpful to coaches and those who support and supervise them as well.
Joellen Killion, Chip Heath, Randy Sprick, Pedro Noguera, Elena Aguilar, Peter DeWitt, Stephen Barkley, Kirstin Anderson, Nancy Love, Ray and Julie Smith, Lisa Lande, Jamie Almanzan, Kathy Perret, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, and Sharon Thomas are just some of the presenters at this year’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference. You can learn more about the conference here: