5 Lessons I’ve Learned as an Instructional Coach
Being an instructional coach is unlike anything else I’ve ever done before. Instructional coaching is a unique role to any school building or district and is one that can be quite complex. When I first became an instructional coach, I had some expectations about what my day-to-day would look like and the different projects I would be involved in. What I quickly learned, however, is that coaching is much different than I had imagined. No two days are the same, and things rarely go according to plan. Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach.
Lesson #1: Embrace the Chaos, but Set Boundaries
Let’s face it – I’m definitely a type A personality. If you came into my classroom during my teaching career, you would find everything neat, organized, and probably color coded. I had folders labeled with every day of the week for absent students, I had a specific place for all materials, and I would spend about an hour each day putting things back in their place. I remember being told as a first year teacher that by the end of the week, your lesson plans will probably have changed 10 times. I remember thinking to myself that if I planned well enough, I wouldn’t have to change the plan 10 times because change stresses me out – boy was I wrong. It took me about 3 years in the classroom to be comfortable with the idea that no matter how prepared I was, there was a good chance I’d have to redesign my lesson on the fly. For a type A person, change, and especially change on the fly, is a scary and daunting feeling.
One thing I’ve learned as an instructional coach, is that change is a constant in this position. The only consistent thing about instructional coaching, at least for me, is my meeting times with teachers. Everything else should come with the disclaimer, “subject to change.” I meet with each teacher I’m coaching during their conference period on Mondays and Wednesdays and that does not change for the duration of the cycle – mostly. There are times when other things pop up, or teachers are out for something and the meeting needs to be moved, but for the most part, this is the most consistent part of my job. The rest is chaos.
When I first started instructional coaching, I felt more like a fireman than anything else. My days were filled with running from one teacher to the next just putting out fires. My staff was not used to having an instructional coach on campus every day and they definitely took me up on my offer to help whenever possible. In the first few months, I spent very little time in my own office, I was mostly there to read emails and eat lunch. I would have teachers, principals, counselors and support staff constantly emailing me and calling me with questions. I was grateful that everyone was asking for my help, but you can imagine how overwhelming this could be.
One thing I had to learn as an instructional coach was to embrace this chaos. Though I have a plan each day, I never really know what will pop up when I walk into the school building. One of our programs could suddenly go down and derail an entire lesson. The Wi-Fi could be glitchy and wreak havoc in a classroom. A teacher could have an emergency and be forced to leave school without time to prepare for a sub. Life happens, and as the instructional coach, you need to be the rock for your teachers amid the chaos. You need to embrace the chaos as it happens, and remain calm enough to problem solve. There are times you will feel like you spend your day running around just putting out fires for your teachers, but as a teacher that once felt like she was teaching with her hair on fire and I would’ve appreciated having someone to help me.
That being said, it is also important for you to set boundaries as an instructional coach. While we want to do our best to help teachers in their times of need, it is important that we do not enable teachers to use us as a crutch. It’s that old idea of ‘if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he’ll never go hungry’ kind of thing. For a while, I was just handing teachers fish. There would be a fire and I would put it out and move on with my day. What I have learned, though, is that I needed to teach teachers and enable teachers to put out their own fires. As an instructional coach, you need to set boundaries or all you will ever be is a fireman.
One way you can set boundaries is to determine what is an emergency and what isn’t. When I first started coaching, I thought everything was an emergency. When someone asks me for something, I would drop what I was doing to go help them. That just created more work and anxiety for me. It is important to remember that lack of preparation on someone else’s part, does not constitute an emergency on yours. I have now reached a place where a teacher will ask for something and I can tell them that I am not available right now, but I can help them tomorrow. Either the teacher will figure out their own solution, or it really can wait.
Another way to set boundaries with teachers is to – gently – force them to problem solve themselves. There are numerous times that teachers ask for my help with the same exact problem they had the week prior. There are also times teachers ask for help and the solution they are looking for can be easily found via Google. In these situations, I often send the teacher a link that explains the solution, or I’ll do a quick screencast of the appropriate steps to take and email it back to them. If I drop what I’m doing and go perform the same task for the teacher every week, month, or semester, that teacher will never learn how to do it for themselves. It is important that as an instructional coach we are building capacity in our teachers so they aren’t so reliant on the fireman side of us, and free us up to do more transformational work with the staff. In the meantime, embrace the day-to-day chaos, but do not hesitate to set boundaries for your own sanity.
Lesson #2: Don’t Lose Your Street Cred
You are a coach and a teacher. Not either-or. Staying connected to the work that classroom teachers do every day is essential to your work as an instructional coach. As an instructional coach, you may now hold a title at the district level, rather than the campus level. We all know how teachers feel about people from “the district”. This role also often comes with more paperwork responsibilities than you had as a teacher, which will make it enticing to sit at your desk or be on your computer for extended periods of time. You need to make it a point to keep your teaching skills sharp by spending time in classrooms. As an instructional coach, I tell all of my teachers that I am available to model or co-teach lessons with them. I also make a point to lead a professional development session or present at a conference whenever possible so that I don’t lose those teaching skills or become too detached from the feelings teachers have when they face a classroom full of students.
Having street-cred with your teachers will be one of the greatest assets to you as an instructional coach. Teachers tend to immediately discredit anyone who has been out of the classroom for too long, because they feel like they cannot empathize with their situation nor understand the day-to-day burdens teacher’s face. It is essential that you as an instructional coach, never lose sight of what is going on with your teachers because they are the people you are working for. I have had several teachers tell me that they trusted my approaches because I had not only worked as a teacher in their content area, but worked at the school where I was coaching. I know that this situation is rare, so it’s important to build your street-cred among the staff at your school(s).
One way to build street-cred is to attend all staff meetings and trainings. Even if the topic does not necessarily pertain to you, I would encourage you to still go and listen. Not only does this make you visible to the staff, which is a benefit, but you also get all the same training and information they do which puts you in the trenches with the teachers. Teachers hate working with someone who is living in ‘fantasy district land.’ I often hear teachers say things like “that sounds good, but…” meaning the idea and the application just aren’t matching up. It is important to know your campus and what will work for them.
Another way to earn street-cred with your teachers is to attend school events. Go to football games, go see the school musical, attend a band concert or pop by the basketball game. Many of the teachers you work with are not just teachers – they are coaches, directors and sponsors. These roles are likely as important to them as their role as a classroom teacher. Just as teachers are encouraged to go support their students outside the classroom, we can support our teachers as well. This also shows teachers that you care about them as individuals and understand all the responsibilities they have going on.
Lesson #3: Time Management is a Must
When you’re a teacher, your schedule is neat and tidy. Teachers know exactly when their planning periods are every day, when weekly PD is scheduled, and of course, their lesson plans are all lined up and ready to go. As an instructional coach, your schedule is unstructured, things always change, and it isn’t always so neat and tidy. As an instructional coach, you have a lot more control over your schedule, and your deadlines are not always clear. While you may enjoy getting to use the restroom whenever you’d like, and not having to eat lunch at 10:50am, it is important that you manage your time well because it is not necessarily managed for you.
As an instructional coach, my Outlook calendar is my lifeline. If something is not scheduled, I probably won’t remember it. This goes for everything you do throughout the course of a school day. I have learned that not only do I need to schedule my meetings and classroom visits, but I also need to schedule myself work time, lunch, faculty meetings, PD sessions and even reminders. There will be so many different tasks and projects to keep up with as you work on behalf of your teachers, that it is important to manage your time well.
Early on in my instructional coaching career, I fell victim to the freedom of my schedule. At first, I was on top of everything because I had just come out of the classroom so I still lived and died by the bell. I have now gotten to the point where I don’t hear the bells anymore – and was in fact late for two meetings this week because I didn’t hear the bell. It was freeing to know that I could manage my own schedule, but that puts a lot of responsibility on you as an instructional coach. It is easy to become sidetracked or fall victim to procrastination when deadlines seem far off. It takes some time to figure out how to self-manage your work each day. Time management becomes easier as you find what works for you.
Lesson #4: Have Tough Skin
I will admit, I do not have tough skin – but I am working on it. As an instructional coach, it is important that you develop a tough skin, or even just a strong sense of resilience. In most districts, becoming an instructional coach is considered a promotion from being a classroom teacher. Master teachers become instructional coaches because they have demonstrated that they have the pedagogical expertise to be successful in the classroom, and as a coach, they are able to share some of that wisdom with others. Unfortunately, not everyone will celebrate this promotion.
Teachers like to be recognized for their work and regardless of whether a teacher wants to actually be an instructional coach or not, there may be some resentment from peers. I know I frequently hear teachers speaking negatively of administrators because it is not uncommon for principals to spend 3 years in the classroom and immediately get their principal certification. There are many teachers on campus that will constantly remind you that they have been in the classroom for X number of years, in an attempt to undermine your credibility. For some reason, teachers associate years of service with expertise and many times that’s not necessarily the case. I have worked with some first year teachers that are rockstars in the classroom, and I have worked with teachers that have been in the classroom for over a decade and still haven’t mastered basic classroom management techniques. It is important to know that you are deserving of this role because of the expertise you possess, and you have an amazing opportunity to share your gifts as an instructional coach.
Another reason you need to have thick skin is because it will likely take some time for you to gain the traction you’d like on your campuses. Remember that teachers find working with an instructional coach to be negative and will likely be reluctant to work with you given the choice. In my time as an instructional coach, I have had teachers dodge meetings, tell me my ideas are stupid, say my PD sessions are a waste of time, so on and so forth. While I pray this never happens to you, I at least want you to be prepared for it. Know that these reactions are rarely a response to what you are doing, but are instead a teacher’s way of expressing their own insecurities. Who would volunteer to have someone come into their classroom just to point out everything they are bad at? I know I wouldn’t.
Until you are able to build a rapport with the teachers on campus and show them that you are there to help and not to judge, you will need to have a thick skin. You may feel like you are a salesperson going door to door trying to get someone to buy your product, but I promise you that if you just keep trying, the doors will open.
Lesson #5: You Need a Support System
Teaching can be lonely, but what I have come to learn is that instructional coaching is even lonelier. While you as an instructional coach are still able to commiserate with teachers on your campuses and empathize with their situation using your own classroom horror stories, no one else on your campus can do the same for you. Though teachers try, no one really understands your day-to-day struggles and you’ll find that it’s even difficult for you to describe when asked. Though there may not be any other instructional coaches on your campus or in your district, there is a vast network of coaches across the globe.
As an instructional coach, you need a support system. While the job may start out great and you’re getting along just fine on your own, there will come a day when your patience is tested and your bucket is full. In these moments, you need a cheerleader and supporter of your own. Building your professional learning network and filling it with other instructional coaches is critical to your growth and sanity in this job. You will lean on your network during frustrating days. You will call upon your network when there is a challenge you can’t solve on your own. You will share celebrations with your network so they can cheer you on in your journey.
My network of instructional coaches has grown throughout my years in this role, and I frequently call or text other coaches when I just need a pick me up. These coaches are in similar situations to mine, and can often shed light on something or just remind me that I’m not crazy for taking on this task. We all know that it takes a village to raise a child, but we all need a village sometimes. Use social media to grow your village, especially if you don’t have any other instructional coaches nearby. Coaches are out there, they want to connect and help you grow and succeed.
While there are numerous other lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach, these top five are the most important and in some cases most unexpected. When you first take on this role, there will likely be bumps, mishaps and just straight up ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing’s’, but I promise it does get better. The work you do as an instructional coach is important, and you were chosen for this role for a reason. Recognize your talents, have a thick skin and know that we’ve got your back.