For many people, the beginning of a new year marks a time for setting new goals and resolutions. We joke about gyms being packed for a few weeks and the latest diet craze to trim our waistlines in time for summer. Whether it's quitting smoking or starting a new class, many people start the year with good intentions but few are able to follow through.
Change is hard. Verbalizing goals is a great first step but sticking to them is a lot harder than we think.
Many teachers also set classroom goals in August or September, but once the school year begins, find they are difficult to commit to and implement. The reasons are varied—from planning and grading to attending meetings and ensuring compliance. By necessity, many teachers turn their attention to keeping up with day-to-day concerns and can be tempted or forced to set aside the exciting long term goals they had envisioned at the beginning of the school year.
While I don’t pretend to possess a miracle solution—change will always be hard work—my experience over the last several years as an instructional coach for BetterLesson has shown me that coaching can be a powerful tool for helping teachers incorporate sustained change into their practice. Here are three ways coaching helps keep educators on track with their goals:
1. Providing you with a skilled thought partner.
The opportunity to have a coaching conversation on a regular basis with someone who has worked in the classroom and can relate to your situation is invaluable. A skilled instructional coach helps you identify the particular aspect you are trying to grow and effectively guides a 30-minute conversation from that goal or challenge to concrete ways to approach the situation, ways you might never have envisioned before. While a powerful conversation with a thought partner can help you focus on solutions, something else must happen to transform it from a nice idea into a meaningful learning experience moving forward: the design of a prototype that you can test with your own students.
2. Designing and testing the prototype of a new strategy.
At the end of a coaching session, you should leave with a concrete plan—a new teaching strategy that you want to try in your own classroom. We like to think of these new ideas as prototypes that you can test against a specific hypothesis with your own students. In many ways, you are creating an iterative experimentation cycle, similar to the ones scientists use.
For example, a coaching session might have led a teacher to want to use the app, Plickers, for the first time to gather students’ feedback on the spot via a quick scan of the room with a cell phone. The coach will have pushed this teacher to determine what outcome she or he wants to reach via this new practice. Perhaps the answer is gathering learning data at the end of the class that can be used as an exit ticket to drive differentiation the next day. Then two weeks from now, both the coach and the teacher know that this data is what they want to look at next, in order to plan out a meaningful, differentiated response.
It is also entirely possible that the Plickers prototype won’t survive the test. Maybe the experience scanning the room with the cell phone took too long, or having only multiple choice answers was too limiting. If so, next session will help us determine how to tinker with our prototype moving forward to reach our goal. This iterative experimentation cycle is essential to the success of any coaching model, virtual or face to face.
Research also shows clearly that when Professional Development (PD) is job-embedded and continuous, it is one of the best ways for teachers to grow in their practice. While the job-embedded piece is probably the easiest one for any educator to see, as we all want PD that is concrete and applicable to our own classrooms right away, the continuous factor is a crucial component of a sustainable and meaningful change process. Indeed, we often need a kind accountability partner to help us continue pushing through when the going gets tough.
3. Giving you a kind accountability partner.
Have you ever worked with a trainer in the gym? Either you were trying to lose weight (me) or to get those abs into shape (me), and you probably remember the difference it made, knowing that two weeks later, you were going to step on that scale again or simply have an honest, reflective conversation with your trainer about what you did with your beautiful workout plan.
One of the simplest ways coaching can help an individual grow is by providing you with a kind accountability partner, similar in many ways to a sports trainer. Every two weeks, your coach helps you look at the impact of the new strategies you are implementing in the classroom. The “kind” factor is extremely important, as teaching is the hardest job in the world, and teachers are put under a lot of pressure nowadays. So when you imagine a coach as an accountability partner, imagine him or her as a guide on the side of the path you are trying to walk on toward progress. Your coach is understanding and flexible, but is also there to remind you that you ultimately want to do this for you and your kids.
(A bit like what Stephen Curry is trying to be for Rudy Mancuso in the video below. Watch with care because this silly video only lasts a few minutes, but the song is so catchy it will stick in your head for days. You have been warned . )
If this introduction to the power of coaching to help change habits was interesting to you but leaves you wanting to learn more about the three key aspects of this process (thought partnership, implementation and reflection cycle, and accountability partnership), stay tuned. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take an in depth and separate look at each of these factors and how they can be incorporated to help educators and their students grow. Keep working on these new year’s resolutions and as Stephen Curry says: “New year, new YOU!”