3 strategies coaches use to be directive as well as supportive with teachers

iStock_000025474831XSmallLiteracy coaches are neither “fish nor fowl” in their relationships with teachers.

They are neither peers nor administrators and often they feel caught between supporting teachers and helping schools and districts meet instructional goals. When in doubt, many literacy coaches err on the side of playing the supportive peer so that they can continue to build trust in their relationships with teachers.

To be effective, though, literacy coaches need to be directive as well as supportive, says  a recent study in The Elementary School Journal.  They need to learn how to gracefully balance those two roles.

To provide guidance and models,  researcher Jacy Ippolito surveyed 57 literacy coaches in one district and then conducted follow-up focus groups and interviews with selected coaches.

Based on the responses of participants, the researcher recommends 3 major strategies for balancing these 2 roles:

  • Actively look for opportunities in coaching sessions to shift between these roles
  • Use protocols to guide work sessions with teachers so that you can play both roles
  • Share leadership with the principal and other educators to allow you the flexibility to play either role

“The notion of providing ‘combined pressure and support’ succinctly captures the tension that literacy coaches in the current study reported negotiating in nearly every encounter with teachers,” the researcher writes.

Coaches provided the following suggestions on how to balance the two roles:

1. Actively look for opportunities in coaching sessions to shift between roles
Coaches say they tend to play a more supportive role in one-on-one meetings with teachers in which they are collaborating on lesson plans or on other tasks. They tend to play a more directive role when meeting with groups of teachers for professional development, for instance.

Lorraine, an elementary school coach in her 8th year of coaching, said when she is in a teacher’s classroom she is likely to help the teacher with arranging the room and shepherding students at the beginning of her visit.
The researcher observed this when Lorraine was working with a teacher who was conducting a guided reading session with students. Once the session got underway, Lorraine was careful to sit behind the group of students, not on the rug beside them, so that the teacher would not defer to her, the researcher wrote.

However, Lorraine also played a more directive role. When the teacher did not ask the students inferential questions during the session, Lorraine posed a question to students after she received the teacher’s consent.
Once the students were gone and the coach and teacher were talking together, the coach made several supportive comments to the teacher about how it went.

The coach noticed that the teacher did not take notes on students during the guided reading session, a very important part of the process. The coach asked the teacher if he regularly recorded observations during these sessions. The teacher quickly said he didn’t have time to take notes during a guided reading session.  The coach  responded, “Well, that’s okay. As soon as you’re done, just jot down a few notes.” Then she quickly made a few notes about the students to prompt the teacher to take a few moments to jot down some notes himself.

“It is important to highlight that, as opposed to simply accepting the teacher’s statement that he didn’t have time to take notes while leading the guided reading group, Lorraine gently pushed the teacher by demonstrating how to take notes after the group had adjourned,” the author writes.

“By ‘jumping in’ and being quite directive at times about the moves she wanted the teacher to make in the moment, Lorraine risked creating tension between the teacher and herself,” the researcher says. “However, Lorraine ‘jumped in’ sparingly, only at moments when she thought she could create an opportunity for  the teacher to deepen his practice—such as taking notes on student progress, a critical part of guided reading instruction.”

2. Use protocols to guide work sessions with teachers so that you can play both roles

Coaches use agenda, planning guides or discussion protocols to create opportunities to engage in responsive and directive coaching moves.  The protocols are shared with teachers and principals and help focus collaboration equally on the teachers and school and/or district goals.

One coach consistently uses a protocol that she calls her “tight agenda” with each team. The protocol is a simple list of prompts that allows for the teacher to share new ideas as well as for the coach to provide clear information about reading and writing strategies.

Frustrated by her one-on-one sessions with teachers, another coach developed a protocol with 4 questions to guide discussions on developing lesson plans:

  1. 1. What is the big idea you want students to  think during the unit you are teaching or   the text they are reading?
  2.  How will you connect the big idea of the lesson to students’ experiences?
  3. What will you model for students?
  4. How will you help students synthesize  and reflect on their new knowledge?

The coach asked teachers to reflect aloud on the questions. This provided her with opportunities to help shape teachers’ ideas.
The researcher observed a coaching session  with an English language arts teacher who was planning  a unit on poetry.  “What’s the big idea for your unit?” the coach asked. The teacher responded that he wanted to show how ideas from the Harlem Renaissance were still influencing poetry and contemporary culture.

Thinking that this was not enough of a “big idea,” the coach probed a bit further. “So, what ideas in the Harlem Renaissance apply today and to poetry more generally?” The teacher began thinking aloud about how Langston Hughes took the structure and rhythm of blues and put them into poetry.  The coach took notes, occasionally repeating key phrases to the teacher so he could hear his own comments.  The teacher paused at one point and said that maybe the big idea wasn’t so much about the link between the Harlem Renaissance and poetry  as the link between music and poetry.

The coach then guided the conversation to the other questions on her protocol. In this session, the researcher writes, the coach was able to balance directive and responsive moves enough to encourage the ELA teacher to pursue his own goals yet pursue them in a way she thought was more instructionally sound ( using a “big idea” with more entry points and connections to students’ lives).

3. Share leadership with the principal and  other educators to allow you the flexibility to play either role

Coaches are better able to  switch between supportive and directive roles when they can share leadership with principals and other teachers.  For instance, when teachers lead a meeting, the coach is able to provide directives in a more subtle way.

When Corey, an elementary coach in her 5th year of coaching, participated in an inquiry group on English Language Learners (ELLs), the principal was the recorder and a teacher acted as facilitator.  The format was a “share-out” where each teacher shared what he or she had observed with the ELL student in class being tracked for the inquiry.

“With the roles of facilitator and recorder delegated, Corey was able to operate as a responsive supporter and directive contrarian during this part of the conversation,” the researcher wrote.  “She pushed teachers’ thinking in a way that perhaps might have been viewed as being more confrontational had she herself acted as the group facilitator.”

The roles of recorder and facilitator rotated with each meeting. The principal’s participation as an equal member of the team helped support the coach’s work, the researcher writes. “Coaches are supposed to be building capacity…..and if {the coach is} always the point person, you’re not building capacity,” Corey said.

The 3 major strategies identified through surveys, focus groups, interviews and observations, could be helpful to other coaches who daily negotiate their often-ambiguous roles working with teaches.  At a time when the efficacy of many literacy coach programs is being questioned, coaches need models and guidance for how to pursue school and district goals while supporting teachers.

“Three ways that literacy coaches balance responsive and directive relationships with teachers,” by Jacy Ippolito, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 111, Number 1, September 2010, pp.  164-190.

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