Virtual Instructional Coaching – Lessons Learned

After 15 weeks of distance learning, and with less than 3 weeks left in the school year, I have been craving an opportunity to slow down and reflect on my third year as an instructional coach. As I reflect – and prepare to support teachers and teams in their end-of-semester reflections – I appreciated my colleague’s recent reminder that:

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

First – what do coaches do, anyway?

At the best of times, instructional coaching can feel ambiguous. Even under normal circumstances, not everyone in an organization tends to have the same understanding of what instructional coaches do, nor how they might have the greatest impact on student learning. To make it even more complicated, coaches have many different “hats” to wear depending on the situation: coaching, consulting, presenting, collaborating, facilitating or collaborating.

Another lens to use to consider the many roles coaches can play are Joellen Killion’s 10 Roles of an Instructional Coach. Sharing these roles can help teachers and administrators better understand the kinds of support that instructional coaches can provide.

It is important for coaches to maintain an awareness of the hats they wear and the roles they engage in during their interactions with teachers, as well as to regularly reflect on how they are supporting teachers. One reason for this is “that coaches can get burned out and become ineffective if they aren’t clear about what kind of support they are providing”, as Sharon Helmke warns in this Learning Forward blog post.

Focus and Intention

During this period of distance learning, it has been even more important for me to be focused and intentional, so that I can continue to positively impact student learning. In a recent Learning Forward webinar Learning from coaches: Supporting educators in a virtual world, Joellen Killion reminds instructional coaches of the importance of reflecting on how we might “have the greatest impact on student success” by asking ourselves: Where are you spending your time as a coach? How are you spending your time? These questions have been particularly important for me over the last few months.

Ultimately, instructional coaching is about building capacity and increasing efficacy in others in order to positively impact student learning. Coaches can best do this by supporting/mediating thinking in others whenever possible. I have had some mis-steps along the way, but I have tried to keep this front and center.

How has my role changed during COVID-19?

It is not surprising that my work with teachers has had a greater focus on digital pedagogy compared to my role pre-COVID. For example, there was an initial steep learning curve related to streamlining student navigation, minimizing cognitive load, and ensuring a consistent and coherent experience for students across all of their classes. There has also been a greater focus on teaching and learning in an online environment: how to provide feedback to students, how to assess, how to ensure student engagement and interaction, and (more recently) how to maintain student motivation the longer distance learning continues.

During this period of virtual collaboration and unprecedented global uncertainty, however, perhaps what has been most important has been to prioritize taking care of ourselves and of one another. I have always known that relationships and trust are key to the work of an instructional coach. I certainly did not predict how important it would become for me to strengthen personal connections to try to maintain morale and ensure teachers feel supported, valued and appreciated. I did not predict that I would need to be even more of an advocate for teachers.

How are YOU?

I certainly learned through trial-and-error. Not being able to interact with teachers face-to-face, it was not easy to know when teachers were struggling professionally – or personally. I learned to check in more frequently and ask ‘How are you doing?’ However, over time even this question started to feel inauthentic and less genuine. How could I reach out in a way that convinced teachers I really meant it? I found more success by:

  • sending ‘check in’ voice messages instead of emails
  • keeping emails as succinct as possible (and not too frequent)
  • inviting teachers to have voice or video calls
  • asking questions such as these recommended by @Fi_Hurtado The Curious Coach (instead of always asking ‘How are you?’):
    • What do you need today?
    • How are you feeling?
    • What have you been thinking about?

There was no right way to connect. There was no perfect how-to for coaches in this climate. There was only one way I could see to progress – sincerity.

@Fi_Hurtado The Curious Coach

Encourage Self-Care and Connectedness

I have been learning a lot about how to encourage teachers to be kind to themselves and to practice self-care. I really appreciated this three-prong wellness model shared by Nilufar Rezai, a Social-Emotional learning Specialist from Chicago Public School’s Department of Personalized Learning, in the Learning Forward webinar Learning from coaches: Supporting educators in a virtual world. Just as we know that we must meet students’ basic needs before they can engage in high level learning, the same applies for adults. We must feel safe and connected before we can engage in any high level learning or creative endeavors. (Maslow before Bloom!)

When we are anxious, stressed or fearful, we are not always able to assume best intentions or see things from someone else’s perspective. Our first reaction may not always be empathy. Virtual collaboration adds an additional layer of complexity. In a virtual environment, coaches need to support teachers and teams to collaborate effectively. This might mean developing/revising working agreements in order to ensure high functioning collaborative partnerships. It may also mean facilitating difficult conversations and team reflections. However, the three-prong approach above reminds us that we first need to support individual teachers, often through coaching conversations, so that teachers feel listened to and supported. Asking the right questions can leave a teacher feeling higher efficacy about what they have control over both in their personal and professional lives.

Another shift in my role was that I had more conversations with teachers about how to support students’ social-emotional well-being. Even teachers without much prior learning or experience related to SEL knew intuitively that they needed to do whatever they could to build community and strengthen connections. Providing SEL strategies for both synchronous and asynchronous learning become a clear need, and an area of growth for myself that I expect to continue moving forward so that I best support teachers in this area.

Job-Embedded Professional Learning

As I mentioned above, it can be very difficult to know what teachers need and how to support them. During a stressful time, what any of us can handle – and what we need – changes from day to day…. sometimes hour to hour!

It is also challenging that – for a wide variety of reasons – not all teachers will reach out for help. Just as we meet students where they are, coaches need to be mindful of the support being provided to teachers. What do they feel their students need? What do they feel is a priority? 

In this ASCD blog post Educator Stress is a Leadership Challenge. Here’s What Leaders Can Do About It, Isobel Stevenson writes that we often have “a sense of urgency, but if the rate of change outpaces the learning curve, there’s a danger of inhibiting growth.” Her advice that it is not about prioritizing so much as SEQUENCING support that teachers need was a lightbulb moment for me! While the school “may have multiple initiatives, each person should only have to think about one or two.” This gave me permission to be okay with the idea that ‘less is more’, particularly as I aimed to differentiate professional learning to provide appropriate ‘just-in-time’ support.

What keeps me going?

In hindsight, I wish that I had assumed from the very beginning that distance learning would continue long-term. I would have made some different decisions about the types of supports I provided to teachers, as well as how to prioritize those supports. I might have asked different questions. I would have done more to support teachers in self-care and connectedness earlier in the process. However, I am trying to be kind to myself by focusing on successes I had, and looking at things I wish had gone better as areas of growth to leverage next year. Just as we know students learn from struggle and ‘failing forward’, so do we!

When I start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed with all of the personal and professional uncertainty in my life, I have found it helps so much to stop and remind myself to:

  • demonstrate KINDNESS and EMPATHY towards myself and others;
  • show GRATITUDE for the people in my life, the roof over my head, the food on my table and sounds of nature through my window;
  • demonstrate HUMILITY in order to always be open to learning from others and to put the work I do in perspective;
  • be VULNERABLE with others so that they are more likely to be vulnerable in return.

And, of course, a little motivation from inspiring leaders such as Brené Brown goes a long way:

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