Teaching How to Teach: Coaching Tips from a Former Principal
Danfeng Koon’s voice is measured and empathetic as she tells me, “I appreciate the positive feedback, but I need you to be more specific and ask reflective questions for me to improve my practice.” “I appreciate the positive feedback, but I need you to be more specific and ask reflective questions for me to improve my practice.” I am a new principal at a new, small public high school in San Francisco, and I am still learning the ropes. Koon, an excellent math teacher who has left a teaching position in the Bronx to join our start-up, is sitting in front of me.
She goes on to say, “Consider the following scenario: “When I saw you give Patrick a warning, I noticed that he focused himself briefly, but then quickly defocused himself again.” ‘Can you think of any other strategies you could employ to keep him focused?’ That sort of thing, I believe, would be more beneficial to me.” It was a valuable lesson in how to balance specific feedback with introspective questions — one that I will never forget.
Build Relationships and Trust
The intersection of good teaching, educational therapy, and high-quality coaching is where it all starts to come together. Effective coaching can assist you in sorting through your pedagogical baggage, developing or honing new skills, and ultimately discovering your most effective teaching self (or selves). If done incorrectly, it has the potential to turn you off to the entire concept of support. But what happens if it isn’t completed at all?
Before becoming a principal, I worked as an English and social studies teacher for six years, during which time I received no formal coaching. Is it true that I failed to attend the required annual administrator drop-in and evaluation? Yes, without a doubt. However, these excruciatingly brief “assessments” of my practice never pushed my thinking or assisted me in realizing my full capabilities.
In my seven years of coaching teachers — as a mentor, as an administrator, and now as an instructional coach — I’ve made just as many mistakes as I’ve made strides in improving teacher performance. Although I stumbled through the process at times, I was able to solidify some fundamental concepts that now inform my practice.
Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Develop your relationships and your trust.
Teachers, like students, must get to know and trust you before they will agree to participate in a coaching arrangement. Our best efforts may be undermined unintentionally if we as coaches do not devote sufficient time to developing relationships with our clients. While still a first-year principal, I tried out a variety of strategies to build trust among my colleagues.
Before the start of the school year, I met with each teacher individually to ask questions and better understand their expectations, concerns, and support needs for the upcoming year. By opting to listen rather than speak, I conveyed that I considered my primary responsibility to be the support of good teaching.
Throughout the school year, I assisted in the facilitation of off-site professional-development retreats, where our founding staff of eight developed a sense of community through the sharing of personal stories and experiences. In June, we took advantage of grant funds to rent a beach house for two nights, where we cooked together, laughed together, and discussed the start of school.
At another midyear retreat, I hired a masseuse to provide half-hour sessions for the teachers, so they could relax and feel pampered while away from their classrooms. Because of these small gestures, we were able to alleviate some of the stress that was inevitable as we launched a new school with limited resources. They also provided me with a foundation of trust and collegiality with the vast majority of the teachers I worked with as a coach.
Two women are seated at a desk next to each other, each working on a laptop computer.
Jen Davis Wickens is the photographer responsible for this image.
Lesson Planning: Shane Safir (at right) collaborates with Erin Brandvold, a World History teacher at the Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, on a genocide project for her class at the Impact Academy.
Assist teachers in making plans with the end in mind.
During one of my coaching sessions with a ninth-grade teacher (who asked not to be identified), the teacher expressed feelings of overwhelm and frustration. He was drowning in a sea of student work and lesson plans because he had 125 students and a new curriculum to learn. The majority of our coaching time was spent developing a strategy for the upcoming spring semester.
The teacher expressed apprehension about curriculum mapping, stating aloud that it was not the way he normally thought or planned his lessons. Rather than rejecting his adapted style, I attempted to build on it as much as I could. His room had a whiteboard on which he had drawn a visual cluster of ideas with a dry-erase marker, and we were sitting in front of it, pondering it. In the context of this brainstorm, I assisted him in transforming these ideas into a tight, disciplined curriculum map that included big ideas, specific learning outcomes, and assessments to gauge student understanding of the material.
After a couple of meetings, he had articulated a compelling set of goals for his students, and he knew exactly how he was going to measure their achievement of them. Even more importantly, he expressed a rekindled sense of self-assurance in his ability to organize his thoughts.
Model Best Practices
Effective coaching, like effective teaching, frequently entails the demonstration of best practices. Giulio Sorro, a trained history teacher at another school where I coach, was unexpectedly tasked with developing a humanities curriculum (including English and social studies) for the entire school. The practice of scaffolding — modeling a learning strategy or task, then gradually shifting responsibility toward the students — for his reading and writing instruction was something he recognized, but he lacked the necessary training to do so effectively.
His coach attempted to model some strategies I had learned on the job, one at a time, including literacy-building techniques, structuring controversial debates, and charting student discussions on the board to make them more visible.
To help students better understand the literary concepts he wanted them to explore in a complex poem — imagery, and allusion — we devised a lesson in which he would do a “think-aloud” of the first stanza for them, then repeat the process for the second stanza, and then stand by them as they practiced their fledgling analytical skills independently.
Connect Teachers with Resources
Crystal Proctor, a fourth-year math teacher, was feeling a little stuck. Despite her best efforts, she was well aware that her students were not grasping the mathematics at the level that was required of them. But she wasn’t sure how to make the necessary adjustments to her practice. I arranged for her to meet with an outstanding math teacher at another school in the hopes that she would gain some inspiration.
Crystal shared her thoughts on the observation with me the following week, stating that she found it beneficial because the veteran teacher was so explicit in his instruction. When pressed further, she admitted that she often took for granted what her students already knew, but that observing the other math teacher had taught her to break down words and concepts into smaller parts and analogize them to familiar landmarks in her student’s lives, which she had previously overlooked.
Her explanation included the following: “For example, yesterday I was talking about how steep an angle is.” “I realized they might not understand what steep meant, so I asked them to think about the streets they had to climb to get to school and to compare the steepness of the different grades they had encountered. They’ve figured it out!”
As a result, I was reminded that effective coaching does not rely on dynamic coaches acting as heroic educators, but rather on the simple habits of connecting teachers to resources and asking them reflective questions.