Mindset & Motivation, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles | Aug 29, 2021
The coaching mindset: How to think like an instructional coach to refine your teaching
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
Have you ever wanted to coach yourself, use peer coaching, or better utilize an instructional coach assigned to your school?
In this episode, I’m talking with Nicole Turner, an instructional coach, author, and the Creative Director at Simply Coaching + Teaching, LLC. We’re talking about the mindset shifts needed to set your own goals, and choosing areas you care about improving in your teaching (rather than simply working on whatever you’re told to improve on).
Nicole shares how you can identify your own professional goals related to topics that matter to you, then use self-coaching, peer coaching with a trusted colleague, or an instructional coach to help you meet those goals.
If there’s something you’ve always wanted to try in your classroom, or something that’s not working well and you want support, this episode will offer some strategies to help you to be more “coachable: and get the input you need.
Listen to my interview with Nicole as she expands on the ideas shared here.
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Sponsored by Planbook, Scholastic Scope, and Midwest Teachers Institute
I want to do a deep dive into the coaching mindset with you, Nicole, because I think that mindset is really the make-or-break piece when it comes to any kind of development: your self-development, your professional development, and so on. And I can tell you from my own experience over the last 12 years as an instructional coach that some folks are far more coachable than others.
Honestly, I get better outcomes with someone who’s not super skilled in their instruction but is highly coachable than with an experienced teacher who is resistant to coaching. What does being “coachable” mean to you?
I have worked with teachers who are super coachable, and some teachers who play the game of being coachable. So my definition of coachable is being able to accept the feedback and then turning that feedback into some type of action.
One other key piece is not taking things personally. So, when you have a walkthrough or you sit down and talk with someone and then they criticize or give you feedback on what’s happening, you can sometimes feel like it’s a personal attack on you as a teacher, on your teaching style, on who you are.
But it’s really not. It’s really about trying to get you to look at things from a different lens. Being coachable is being able to take what the coach is saying, and implement it in a way that fits your style of teaching and in a way that makes you a better teacher.
It’s not saying that you’re not a good teacher, but we can all improve in different areas and other people can see things from their lenses because of their personal experiences. And so bringing that to the table is good.
So it’s about actually taking the feedback and using it, rather than interpreting it like a criticism or a personal attack?
I feel like one of the challenges is that in so many cases, teachers are under the microscope and they’re constantly being evaluated. So having the opportunity to have a coach come to you or to just decide on your own, “I’m going to do some coaching with myself or peer coaching, and I get to choose what I want to work on” is a really foreign concept for a lot of teachers.
So a place that I tried to start with my teachers is with asking, “What’s something that you would like support with?” And a lot of times they weren’t really sure. And so I’d say, “What’s something that’s not working well in your classroom right now? What is something that drives you nuts? Where you just can’t seem to figure out a better way to do something?”
Every teacher can think of something in their room (a procedure, a hands-on lessons, inquiry-based learning) … there’s something that they’re doing that is just really frustrating and not getting the results they want.
So I try to start there: “Okay, how can we make this easier on you and more effective for the kids?” And so then we’re sort of brainstorming together. That’s a really different model, because normally teachers are told, “This is the new initiative, go do this, and this is what you need to improve in.”
Learning how to make those decisions for yourself is a big shift. You have to learn how to reflect and ask yourself, “What’s something that I care about making better in my classroom? What’s something that I feel like is going to help my students? What’s an area that I personally would like to grow in?” Deciding that and then working on it is very empowering. but it’s a really different way of thinking.
Yeah, a very, very different way of thinking. You have to self-identify and self-reflect, and really spend some time getting to know yourself as a teacher. And many times as teachers, we don’t get to know who we are, because as you said, we’re always being told what to do. We’re not having that opportunity to work on our craft.
And it even goes back to what you were saying about coachable and not taking things personally. It’s hard to invite more feedback on your teaching when you feel constantly criticized: when you feel like parents are telling you what to do and they don’t think you’re doing it right; the kids are complaining because they don’t like the way you’re giving them so many assignments; your principal or whoever is breathing down your neck.
So it’s like all these people are constantly telling you that you’re not doing enough or you’re doing it wrong. And then it’s like, here’s a coach, and they’re asking, “What would you like help changing?” And the teacher feels like, “Oh, was I supposed to think of something else? Yet another area to work on?”
So you really have to depersonalize the feedback when you’re thinking about coaching. It’s not about fixing you, because you are not broken. It’s about growing you as a teacher, and identifying areas that you personally would like to improve in because you care about those things. You’re in teaching because you want to do the best job possible, and you want to be the best version of yourself.
I think coaching is about moving away from some of the typical mindsets that we have in education, which are punitive (figuring out what you’re not doing right and marking it off on a checklist and monitoring you). Coaching is really about growing you in ways that you are interested in.
Let’s talk a little bit about self-coaching. This is a practice that’s been really important to me in my own personal and professional growth. I’ve learned key questions that I can ask myself when things aren’t working or when I’m feeling discouraged, and that helps me think outside the box and come up with better solutions.
So instead of having to go to someone else to help me figure out the answers, I’m able to coach myself through the situation and do some self-reflection on my own. Is there a self-coaching process that you recommend to teachers?
One of the biggest things that I did when I was in the classroom — and something that I actually do as a coach now — is to always do a reflection. I’m always thinking about how I can improve on whatever I did.
So if I taught a lesson on vocabulary strategy and it is a disaster and the kids are looking at me like a deer in headlights, what I would do is reflect on it. Try to think about what the kids were doing, what were some of the responses of what the kids were saying, how they responded to what I was saying, and tried to make a mental note. Sometimes, I would do that instantly.
So I would complete that lesson, get the students to working on something, and then I would immediately try to reflect on what happened. I’d try to write down some notes quickly before I forgot. So then I’m able to then think about and process it at a later time exactly what those key pieces were and then how I can redo that lesson.
Another strategy that you can utilize as a classroom teacher is to record yourself. Video coaching is a very good strategy for self-coaching, because you get to watch yourself look at what are some of the other things that are happening in the classroom while you’re teaching. The video will allow you to see what’s happening when you’re moving around in different areas, where you can’t see little Johnny threw something, or this kid did that, or something else was happening that you didn’t get to see. And so that self-coaching part is really good with using video.
The third recommendation as far as self-coaching would be to join up with your teammate. Partner up with someone that you trust and you want to get feedback from. Pick someone you really respect, whose feedback you appreciate or somewhere where you admire the way that they teach a particular lesson. Say that you want them to come in and sit in your class and give you feedback.
That again is giving you another lens and a different perspective. So that would be a way for you to self-coach and be innovative in coming up with a different way to teach a lesson.
I like the idea of videoing yourself because that’s something we don’t often think about. I don’t know very many teachers who do that. I think a lot of us cringe when we see ourselves on camera, or we have all kinds of hang-ups being on video. This is right back to the mindset piece, right? All these hangups where we don’t want to watch that and we’re kind of afraid of what we might see.
But video is a useful tool, and it’s so easy now because almost everyone has the ability to record video on their phone. So what would you recommend teachers do? Should they maybe be looking for specific behavior, or have a specific objective when they film the lesson, and a way to reflect on what they saw to make sure that they’re getting useful feedback for themselves?
I have a video self-reflection form that I have for my teachers to complete. It asks specific questions about what their focus is. So the teacher will say, “I’m working on classroom management and this is what I want to implement — CHAMPS, for example — if the school is doing that. So I’m going to video myself on a couple of different occasions, then I’m going to watch myself and complete the form.
Okay, great. I also want to talk about what you were saying about the more informal instructional coaching system, where teachers are setting it up amongst themselves and watching each other teach. So maybe if you don’t have a coach in your school, there’s a way that you could pair up with another teacher and reflect together to improve your teaching.
Even in my school that has an instructional coach, I’ve had teachers do peer coaching, which is what this is usually called. So if you don’t have an instructional coach in your building, you and a couple of your teammates or even from different teams can work together.
So say for instance, third grade, where I observe fourth grade, fourth grade where I observe third grade, right? And so you pair up with the teacher and you have a conversation, “This is what I want to work on, this is what I want to improve,” and then you set a goal specifically on that.
When the teacher comes in to observe, they usually have some type of document or some type of form. You could just make a simple T chart, right? So at the top, you would write the goal — Ms. Johnson is looking to improve the way that she teaches the vocabulary strategy.
And then on the left side, you’re going to put what the students are doing, and on the right side, you’re going to put what the teacher is doing. As you are observing Ms. Johnson teaching the vocabulary lesson, you are then noting what is happening, what the students are doing, and what the teacher is doing. Make notes on what they’re talking about, if the tone is right, how many students are engaged, and then you can have a conversation on that.
The key to that is to make sure when you do the team observations that you actually write down what it is that you’re seeing. Hopefully, you know each other’s students, so you can say at 12:53, Tim did this. So you’re able to write specific things that are happening in the classroom. The more specific feedback (or evidence-based, as we call it in the coaching world) to the teacher will help them improve upon that strategy.
If a teacher who’s listening to this has an instructional coach that’s assigned to them, what kinds of things should they be doing to get the most out of the relationships? So in other words, what should they ask of their instructional coach and what should they be prepared to do themselves in order to really benefit from the coaching?
So one thing I asked my teachers to do is to let me know what it is that they feel they want to work on. So any teacher, administrator, instructional coach can go into a classroom and we can find something that needs to be improved on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s something that the teacher really wants to focus on.
So unless it’s a really severe classroom management situation where things are just out of control and no learning is taking place, I always liked for my teachers to tell me, “This is what I feel like I’m weak at, this is what I want to hone in on. These are the things that I want to work on this school year.”
And so that really gives me a place to start, and then I can go and look for resources to then help and support the teacher.
So if you have an instructional coach, seek out the coach. I would say 90% of the time, instructional coaches are not out there to get you. They’re there to help you. They’re there to make you better.
So definitely seeking out instructional coaches, inviting them into your classroom because we want to feel invited. We don’t always want to feel like we’re the enemy when we come into the class, like, “There they go observing me again. What does she have to say?”
Being very friendly, being very open, and just basically seeking out your coach and asking for help is great. I think that’s the number one thing that you should do if you have a coach in your building.
Yeah, I will totally co-sign that because when I was doing school-based instructional work, I felt almost constantly under-utilized. That was my greatest frustration. I felt like I had so much to offer the teachers, but they just didn’t have the bandwidth to really engage with me.
And I felt like some of them were afraid to ask for help and they didn’t want to be seen as not good teachers. I had to work really hard from the start to establish — as you were saying — that I’m not out to get you.
I said explicitly to all the teachers that I worked with, “I will not go back to your principal and tell them about what I’m seeing in your classroom. I promise you I’m not reporting on you. I am not here to do your principal’s evaluations for you. That’s not what my purpose is. What happens between you and me is confidential. If I share anything with the principal about what’s happening in here, it’s going to be with your permission, and you’re going to know what it is ahead of time.”
“So please don’t think that I’m going to go back and say that you’re not doing X, Y, and Z, because if you feel like I’m reporting on you, then we don’t have a real rapport and you’re not going to trust me.”
So that was one of the first things that I shared. And then I would also — if the teacher was really reluctant — offer to teach a lesson first. So they were observing me before I was observing them. And that really took a lot of the pressure off.
That could be one thing that a teacher could do if they have an instructional coach, and they’re not sure where to have the coach help them. Go to your coach and say, “Next week, I need to teach this particular lesson, and I’m not really sure what to do. I’ve taught something similar before and half the kids didn’t get it and it got a little out of control when this one thing went off the rails. Can you help me develop a different lesson, and can you show me how you’d teach it? Can you model something for me?”
I love doing that. I love modeling lessons, and getting in classrooms, getting to be in the teacher’s shoes and see what it’s like to be them and dealing with all these different student personalities and behaviors and everything. And then they can see, “Oh okay, so this could actually work with MY kids.”
So I that’s one way that I think coaches can be used, as well. I love being able to come alongside and being seen as like an equal to the teacher. You’re not there to tell the teacher what to do because you are the expert, you’re just a person who has a different perspective. You’re on the outside working in a different role and it gives you the opportunity to help the teachers see the things that they can’t see and just get input.
I want to close out the show with a takeaway truth. What is something that you wish every teacher understood about the coaching mindset?
Without struggle, there is no growth. So teachers have to understand that they’re going to struggle and it’s okay to struggle. and it’s okay to not understand because at the end of that struggle, you will be a better teacher, so there will be growth.
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