When I first started out studying Instructional Coaching, one of the first books I read was Steve Barkley’s  Quality Teaching in a Culture of Coaching. Soon after I read Steve’s book, I was honored to be asked to be a part of a video course on coaching along with Steve and Joellen Killion. Ultimately, Steve became a frequent presenter at our Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference.

Steve’s voice in the world of coaching in education is incredibly important, and he has helped many thousands of coaches become better.  One example is my colleague Dr Martha Elford, an expert in coaching herself at the University of Kansas. When I asked her to describe her top professional goal, she told me,” I want to ask questions the way Steve Barkley ask questions.”  Many of us share the same goal.

I’m thrilled and honored that Steve will be presenting at this year’s Teaching, Learning, Coaching Conference.  Even if you can’t come and hear Steve with the rest of us, I hope you find this interview as interesting and helpful as I did.

How did you come to write about coaching?

(Steve) I actually entered the teaching field under a coaching model. I spent a whole year basically being observed and getting coaching feedback every day.  All my teaching was done as part of a team, so coaching was informal. It wasn’t until I started working in professional development that I realized very few teachers had that kind of experience. So, I began trying to create it. First through a peer coaching model, and later looking at mentoring as a form of coaching. And then as the instructional coaching position emerged, I moved over to that, but it took me 25 years from the time I started working until I published my first book, Quality Teaching in a Culture of Coaching.

Please talk about your other publications

(Steve) I wrote Instructional Coaching With the End in Mind as I began to differentiate people who were in the position of being an official instructional coach from what I had been working on in peer coaching. Also, I spent more of my coaching looking at student behavior than at teacher behavior. My other books include Tapping Student Effort: Increasing Student Achievement, Wow, Adding Pizzazz to Teaching and Learning, and Questions for Life: Powerful Strategies to Guide Critical Thinking. Actually, much of my writings on coaching is found in my blogs.

An area that I have been digging deeper into lately is what I call the “culture of coaching.” I’m recognizing that if we are going to get the impact on student learning that the people in leadership positions, and I include instructional coaches here, are striving for, we have to move toward a culture of coaching where the role of instructional coaches becomes one of truly coaching.  In other words, they kind of take the lead, do the demonstrations, and provide the support that moves towards all the teachers in the school engaging in peer coaching. I wonder what your thoughts on this are, Jim.

(Jim) Well, I think there are different roles. There is instructional coaching, and there is peer coaching. Further, I distinguish between facilitative coaching, dialogical coaching, and directive coaching. For me, most coaching fits in the category of facilitative coaching. Facilitative coaching is where coaches set their expertise aside and use effective questioning and listening to help teachers think deeply about what they do. Teachers don’t necessarily have a deep knowledge of what the research says about effective instruction, but they have what their life experience has shown them, which is indeed a kind of deep knowledge. To me, an instructional coach is the person who has that knowledge and shares it in a way that is dialogical, always positioning the teacher as the decision maker. If you bring teachers together to coach each other, they probably need a facilitative coach.

(Steve)  I see the two pieces fitting together – the instructional coach who has the expertise to get us implementing and focused on teachers’ actions and behaviors and the ability of a staff within a school to coach each other, increasing the likelihood that people can implement long term what the instructional coach helped them find out.

(Jim) One thing that I would add is that the coaching must be goal driven, with the teacher setting the goal.

(Steve) You’re right, the two are not exclusive. Why couldn’t we do both at the same time? There is another place that links it together for me. A lot of the instructional coaches that I work with are tied heavily to the professional learning communities that are operating within their schools. That professional learning community sets a goal as something they want to make happen with student learning, and as they work on that goal using a backwards plan, they are identifying what I have started to call student production behaviors. That is, asking what would students have to do to reach their goal and then stepping back to ask, what’s the teacher’s role now in engaging students in those student production behaviors? I see the instructional coach being able to step in with some expertise to assist people and identify what those strategies, those teacher behaviors, are, and then enable people within the PLC to provide each other with peer coaching as they work to implement those strategies.

(Jim) The one thing I would say about PLCs is that it’s very important that the coach’s job is not to take care of all the issues that haven’t been fully addressed through the professional development community. Sometimes I see coaches in a PLC because it doesn’t have a successful process in place, and the coaches are just kind of babysitting. Instead, what you need is someone who can help people learn a process for how a PLC can function effectively. A coach could fill that role.

(Steve) I agree and am actually working with several systems to begin extracting the coach from the PLC. So that coaches are present when needed/requested. I have also been looking at how much of the coach’s day is allotted to working in a coaching relationship with a teacher. In some places it can get pretty limited.

What are some of your core ideas in your approach to coaching?

(Steve) A major focus of my approach to coaching is the backwards planning process I mentioned, which causes the teacher being coached to recognize the impact of his or her changes by observing student behaviors. So, it is teacher behaviors that I am working on changing, and I know that I am being successful because I am seeing change in students’ learning production behavior. That’s important, because that behavior precedes the student actually reaching the outcome. So, for example, I know the student is going to become a better writer because I see her engaged in certain writing production behaviors. Similarly, if a coach models a lesson for a teacher, I encourage first having the teacher paying the most attention to the kids and how they are responding to the coach. And then, when the teacher says that is what she wants the kids to do, going back to look at another model and paying close attention to the coach because that is the piece the teacher is going to do, and she will know that she is doing it successfully when she is getting the response from the students that the coach got when he did the modeling.

Whenever possible, the coach should do the planning with the teacher so that the teacher can listen in on the coach’s thinking and learn what the coach is expecting to have happen. Later, when it does happen, the coach is in a good spot to talk about what decisions he made during the lesson.

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

(Steve) I think the biggest thing is that, to some extent, I’ve stayed shy of adhering to a model. So, if you look at my work with questioning or conferencing, I believe you can use my approach in various models. Whether it is a more technical approach or a more cognitive approach. I think it’s a matter of the coach being able to develop the skills to step in and out of the various models, with the big goal being the ability to figure out the best way to work with the person you are working with.

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

(Steve) The big learning for me has been the importance of paying much more attention to the students. Twenty-five years ago, I was going in and observing teachers, watching what the teacher was doing and giving the teacher feedback on what she did, but now the largest majority of my time is watching kids and engaging the teacher in a conversation about what she sees and what she wants to do in order to cause students to learn, and then coming back to look at the teaching strategies that would assist the teacher in getting that change.

Along those same lines, I am also more focused on personalizing instruction to the different student audiences that are in the same classroom at the same time. We can’t personalize without the students’ input, without their sense of empowerment. So, in effect we are moving teachers toward making more of their decisions based on the feedback and input they get from their students.

What is a good metaphor for what coaches do?

(Steve) I don’t know. I’m kind of going in the other direction – that coaching is a good metaphor for what teachers need to be doing. I think we need to move more towards the teacher being a coach of the students. So, we start with getting students to set a goal that they want to achieve, to figure out what behaviors they need to achieve that goal, and then assist them in making that goal happen. The degree to which an instructional coach models that approach with staff is similar to the staff carrying that role out with students. If you are going to see students in a more empowered role, we need to see the teacher in a more empowered role. So, in effect, the coach is working for the teacher the same way the teacher will want to be working for the students.

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

(Steve) I guess the thing to know about my approach is that it does not give you a model to implement, but looks at the skills and processes you want to use in whatever model you’re working with. As such, I encourage coaches to look at various models. Much the same way as a teacher would achieve goals with kids, coaches need a different set of strategies when working with different teachers. So, as a coach, you need to develop a skill base so that you can switch to be what the person you’re working with needs you to be at a given moment. For example, if you need me to be in the expert role, I’ll step into the expert role and provide the information and feedback you need. I won’t hold back just because that’s not the model we are using.

Since our conference theme is courage, please tell a bit about how you see courage as a part of coaching

(Steve) The word that connects for me is the one that I write and speak about most often, vulnerability.The word that people are always putting out front is that you must have trust. My response is that you can’t get trust until someone makes him or herself vulnerable. So, if you want to develop a coaching relationship, as coach you need to make yourself vulnerable to the other person. Going back to what we said about modeling, if you don’t have everything set up and laid out and planned, I see that as a step toward vulnerability. I see the teacher opening the door to a coach that she doesn’t know or hasn’t worked with as a step toward vulnerability. So, I would say that courage is what allows you to step into that vulnerable role. Part of what makes you a teacher leader is being willing to make yourself vulnerable before a safe environment has been built – before the trust has been built.

Please give a quick summary of what you are going to present at TLC

(Steve) I’m hoping to work in two areas that are key for me. One, is the rollout of the backwards plan. That is, how do I take people through a backwards plan, whether I am working with an individual teacher in a one-on-one setting or with a larger group in a professional learning community setting? The second area is my work with questioning and applying a critical thinking process to the coaching process.

Stephen Barkley, Joellen Killion, Chip Heath, Randy Sprick, Pedro Noguera, Elena Aguilar, Christian van Nieuwerburgh, Peter DeWitt, Kristin 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: TLC Conference