The Role of a Coach
Michael Jordan had a coach. And not just as a young kid learning how to dribble a basketball. He had a coach throughout his entire career. Dean Smith at UNC and Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls didn’t teach MJ how to dribble, or shoot, or pass a basketball - they probably didn’t teach him any fundamental skills of basketball at all - yet he is still quick to attribute his success to these coaches.
But what if Michael Jordan had stopped having a coach after his middle school days? He had learned all of the basketball fundamentals by that point, hadn’t he? What else did he have to learn from a coach once he could shoot free throws, crossover dribble between his legs, read a defense, slam dunk? He still needed the guidance and leadership of these highly-skilled coaches to better himself year after year, continuously raising the bar for what playing at the “top of his game” meant.
It seems ludicrous to think of Michael Jordan, or any professional athlete for that matter, not having a coach after they had learned the basic foundations of their sport. There are so many more nuances to learn and skills to perfect once they have the basics down. There’s so much more strategy to explore with how all of their skills are used together to bring out their best - playing to their strengths, improving their weaknesses. There are so many differences from year-to-year in who they face that require them to continuously make adjustments to their performance.
If we can’t imagine a professional athlete without a coach throughout their career, why is it that we can imagine a professional educator without one?
There are so many more nuances to learn and skills to perfect once they have the basics down. There’s so much more strategy to explore with how all of their skills are used together to bring out their best - playing to their strengths, improving their weaknesses. There are so many differences from year-to-year in who they face that require them to continuously make adjustments to their performance.
But what if schools treated coaching like the sports world did? What if every professional educator had a coach throughout their entire career? How many Michael Jordans would be teaching our kids if that were the case? The education world needs to reconceptualize the role of instructional coaching for teachers. Instructional coaching is not just a nice-to-have in the teaching world or something only for early-career teachers as an extension of their training program; it’s an essential component to building skillful, professional educators operating at the top of their game year after year.
Many might argue that schools already have a “head coach” in the principal. Theoretically, this is true. In actuality, however, rarely is this the case. A modern-day principal is much more the “general manager” than the “head coach” of his or her school. In the world of professional sports, the GM recruits and hires the players, selects them in drafts, negotiates their contracts. They set the vision for the team’s philosophy and makes sure the right coaching staff are in place to enact that vision. They think about the entire customer experience, from ticket sales to concessions stands, from halftime entertainment to making sure their team is one that fans will gladly fill the stadium for night after night. They hold the ultimate authority to make changes when something is out of line or when expected results aren’t being met. They watch the games, strategizing about how they are won just as much off the court as on, but rarely are they on the sidelines actively calling the shots.
Sound like a familiar job description? Substitute teachers for players and students for customers and the job description of a professional sports GM sounds exactly like that of a school principal. Where in a GM’s day do they have the time and capacity to run practice, scout upcoming opponents and design game-specific strategies, reflect and adjust the team at halftime or during a timeout? They don’t have time for these things - that's why they don't do them. Principals don't have the time or capacity for these responsibilites either - planning and running professional development sessions, reviewing curriculum, or analyzing detailed classroom-level data. Those are crucial tasks that must occur, but the GM knows to delegate them and finds the right person to delegate them to. Principals must do the same.
The current state of instructional coaching in most schools tends to look like one of these scenarios:
There is no formal instructional coaching. (The Coachless Model)
Instructional coaching falls to department chairs or other teacher-leaders who are still active teachers themselves with their own classroom responsibilities, which leads to coaching their peers falling low on the priority list, if it happens at all. (The Player-Coach Model)
The principal attempts to serve in this capacity or charges an assistant principal with instructional coaching responsibilities, which often results in inconsistent coaching interactions and frequent, last-minute schedule adjustments due to other demands on administrators’ time. (The GM-Coach Model)
An instructional coaching role exists and is filled by a strong, younger educator (who may be eyeing a path to administration) and who disproportionately or exclusively spends their time with new or struggling teachers and whose only training on instructional coaching is the few years they had in the classroom themselves. (The Middle School Coach Model)
A hybrid model that combines elements of the others - most frequently a hybrid Player-Coach/GM-Coach or Middle School Coach/GM-Coach Model.
In any one of these scenarios, at best, Michael Jordan definitely doesn’t have a coach. At worst, neither do the middle school players who don’t yet know how to dribble. On average, that might be all who get coaching.
A new perspective on the roles and responsibilities of instructional coaching within a school is needed. Principals and assistant principals must willingly accept their roles at GM and relinquish the notion of being the GM-Coach who can do it all. The demands on a principal’s time are far too great to execute the instructional coaching their teaching staff deserves with a high degree of quality and consistency. They may have the skill set and desire to do so, but they do not have the capacity.
Department chairs or other teacher-leaders in the school play a crucial role to the quality and morale of the overall teaching staff, but they are the team captains who are just as involved in the day-to-day grind of lesson planning, grading papers, going to IEP meetings, submitting budget requests, attending (and running) meetings, chaperoning field trips, sponsoring after-school clubs, and analyzing data as the rest of the teaching team. They may be ready to take on more leadership within the school and have a desire to learn the coaching role, but they cannot be expected to play the game and observe it from the sidelines simultaneously. We’re setting them up for a loss in one or both of those arenas if we think otherwise.
Having a dedicated instructional coach, even if just for new or struggling teachers, is a step in the right direction, but not sufficient enough to deliver the kind of results in teacher development (and therefore, student learning) that are needed and expected school-wide. Furthermore, the people filling these roles need more training than their own classroom experience. Having been an outstanding classroom teacher does not automatically translate into being an outstanding instructional coach capable of developing others into outstanding classroom teachers. For analogy's sake, this is like the teacher who volunteers to coach varsity baseball because he played baseball when he was in high school, even though he has no experience coaching any sport ever. (Note: This is not a personal experience or anything. I'm just assuming that in a situation like this that the team would probably win zero games over two seasons and would only be able to count the times they didn't get ten-run-ruled on one hand. Maybe even two fingers. Purely speculation.) Teaching is not like youth sports. Our teachers, even the new ones, deserve better than a "middle school coach."
The current instructional coaching models in place at schools are not working to provide the high-quality instrutional development our teachers (and I mean all of our teachers) need in order to lift student achievement. We must re-envision what instructional coaching is and can be so that it better meets the needs of all of our teachers. These instructional leaders may need to be a middle school coach and an NBA coach within the same hour and not miss a beat. But when an athlete gets injured and can't play, the GM doesn't send in the coach to play. They have no other responsibilities besides coordinating the efforts of their team on the court. That’s it. That’s what makes them effective. They’re not an administrator working behind the scenes or a player in the game itself - they’re on the sidelines directing the action to the extent they can but, more importantly, relying on the team on the court to get the job done in a way they know is consistent with how they want the game played and won. The same must be true for instructional coaches.
Would Michael Jordan still have been Michael Jordan without all of those coaches throughout his entire career? We will never know the answer to that question, but I have a strong feeling that he was who he was because of the leadership of his coaches along the way and their dedication to maximizing his performance on the court.
Could the same be true for teachers? Imagine what would be possible...