Two days ago, The New Yorker Magazine published a lengthy and important article on “coaching” and featured the instructional coaching program at the Albemarle County School District in Virgina. Since that time, I’ve written two related posts (Now, This Is What I Call Professional Development! and “Coaching: The New Leadership Skill”, and am now lucky enough to be able to post an interview with Pam Moran, the Superintendent of that district. Dr. Moran also writes a blog and can be followed on Twitter.

Can you give a brief description of the coaching program?

We know that best practices in our teaching profession are continuously evolving, especially as the needs of contemporary learners shift. Our Instructional Coaches help teachers process and reflect upon change as teachers work to create irresistible learning opportunities for all students. Coaches advocate for, facilitate, and support the work of the teacher, but it’s not their job to supervise. They neither perform, nor contribute to, teacher evaluations, which is the job of the principal. An Instructional Coach embeds development support for teachers to enhance their content knowledge and instructional strategies. This process occurs as close as possible to their learning spaces. A coach sees him/herself as an equal partner with teachers, spending the majority of the time working in classrooms (e.g. modeling, observing, co-teaching, and meeting to take reflective pauses with a teacher or professional learning community team).

Overall, Instructional Coaches facilitate time for teachers to consider the learning needs of all students, assist with extending competencies including use of new learning tools, and use formative questions that challenge teachers to assess their own progress against evolving professional goals. Instructional Coaches have different areas of content expertise but are learning “generalists” who work through a reflective processing feedback loop to support any teacher regardless of content taught or level of assignment. Coaches work in teams to support schools within a feeder pattern.

Each team is staffed with a lead coach who serves as a liaison with building principals and the coaching teams to sustain fidelity to the model. The coaching positions are school-based in operations but centrally managed so their purpose does not get lost in what is still a predominately site-based management school division. They all meet together routinely to continue their own process of development as reflective practitioners in their own right. We’ve had several coaches who have shifted back into classrooms which is also an intentional element of the model. Our coaches who go back speak to the differences in who they’ve become as teachers after coaching – educators who are far more intent upon “kid-watching” and meta-cognition about every move they make in response to what they understand about the act of teaching as an influence upon learning. We see the impact of the coaching model as rippling across schools as more teachers become confident in its use, are open to connecting with coaches, and willing to take the risk of making themselves vulnerable to working with a coaching partner.

Did you initiate the instructional coaching effort, or was it going on when you became Superintendent? In the face of overall budget cuts, why and how does your District continue to support it?

Yes- this model began through conversations during my superintendency. We – a team effort of central and building administrators and teachers- initiated our coaching model four years ago to address critical considerations regarding the nature of professional development that matters. We’d had a central coordinator and a building-based specialist model in place. Through these two models, we attempted to support traditional professional development, curricular supervision, and math and literacy focus in buildings. In truth, we had a fragmented program in which staff operated in isolation of each other and often were working off assignment on tasks that had little to do with a mission of supporting teachers to develop increasingly sophisticated teaching competencies.

Our Teacher Performance Appraisal system had been created by a diverse team as a development model, rather than one of compliance. We had adopted a Professional Learning Community(PLC) model to extend the capacity of teams through conversations in which teachers’ knowledge and understanding of individual learners was central to their work. Our curricula had been written as a concept-centered, standards-based document informed by our Framework for Quality Learning, a road map to describe learning as higher order, active, collaborative, and challenging. Despite our efforts to transform our work with curricula, assessment, and instruction into a more contemporary- non-factory school- process, we were missing “something” to pull the elements of the system together into a web. We began to think of the coaching model as a missing piece.

The downturn in the economy actually acted as an accelerator to shift to the Instructional Coaching model as we eliminated central administrative positions and some building level non-classroom positions. Those that were left were redirected into the coaching model. We see the coaching model as integral to other areas of professional development which has resulted in a mental model that development occurs best when job-embedded rather than sitting in a workshop. Together, traditional and job-embedded development help teachers determine directions for goals, do action research with coaches, and work in a formative feedback loop that allows them to see progress. This process is quite consistent with the best of motivation research. We see through anecdotal and quantitative evidence that teachers who participate in coaching become even more motivated to develop and extend competencies.

Our school has an instructional coach working with teachers. It seems to me that one of the reasons why it’s so successful is because it’s done outside the formal evaluation process and is completely voluntary on the part of teachers. It sounds like you have similar guidelines. Do you think that’s important and, if so, why?

It’s critical that teachers trust in the coaching model as one in which they can be completely open and honest with coaches about what they perceive as working- or not – in their learning spaces. Coaches provide an ear to hear a teacher’s questions, to respond with their own reflections, and to guide teachers in their journey to move through stages of developing, integrating, and innovating practice. We don’t want to confuse the role of coach with that of the principal who ultimately must engage with a teacher in the summative stage of performance appraisal.

Coaching merges formative assessment, teacher-determined areas of focus as a professional learner, and strategies that build confidence in the process of examining the act of teaching with a critical eye for improving. Keeping the coaches in the role of partner, co-learner, and reflective practitioner allows both novice and experienced teachers to pursue success while acknowledging failure. This private processing allows for a trusting, critical “friend” relationship to emerge between teacher and coach.

Why do you think The New Yorker decided to feature your District’s program?

I think that the writer heard about our model through a connection with a coach and it was a topic he was pursuing. There are many models for coaching and many great examples of school districts that use coaching as a tool. We’ve learned from others who have similar models and if sharing our work helps others make sense of how to improve the act of teaching then it’s well worth taking the time to share our work with others.

What are the biggest challenges to maintaining a successful coaching program?

The first challenge we experienced in creating the program was related to building trust in the people we selected as the initial team of coaches. Even though they were all excellent teachers in their own right, they didn’t have “face” credibility in all the schools where they were assigned to work. We had to provide enough time for them to become known as competent, trustworthy peers so that the coaching “flywheel” could begin to turn. Now that it’s turning, the biggest challenge is finding the time for coaches to work with all the teachers who want to build relationships with them. Coaching is not a one-shot event but a long-term, sophisticated relationship through which the teacher and coach become respectful co-learners and teachers.

When coaches are being pulled by novice teachers who are of the highest priority and trying to balance that time commitment with expert teachers who want a different kind of in-depth interaction, it challenges the coaches to sustain quality of work with a finite amount of time. We also expect the coaches to be integrators- they work to support teachers to use new learning technologies as tools that support project- and problem-based learning. As new tools are brought on line, the coaches have to be ready to adapt those into their work with teachers. We want our coaches to be in learning mode themselves which means we have to provide time for them to connect with each other, to study, and to reach outside the division to find other resources that increase what’s available for teachers in their ever-expanding tool belts. Then, we fight to sustain the financial commitment to coaching.

While these positions are required by the state as non-teaching positions, we are asked why we maintain these positions as we’ve had to cut other positions. It’s not just that they are required in one format or another. What’s more important is the answer to a question of why we should care about coaching. Why care? These educators clear paths for teachers to more easily find their way through all the distractors of today’s education world and maintain a focus on why we teach. In this division it’s not about measuring our success by high stakes test scores but rather because we want to create spaces of irresistible learning so that young people can find their learning passion because our teachers have found theirs.

Thanks, Dr. Moran!