Late last year, I was sitting in an Instructional Leadership Team meeting at one of our partner schools, EPIC Academy, talking with the coaches about how their teachers were responding to their feedback coming out of weekly coaching meetings. We had been working all year on making their coaching goals meet this well-known set of criteria: is it/are they -
Specifically, we had been spending lots of time analyzing classrooms, instructional plans, and student data to focus on that highest leverage criterion and identifying what was most important to focus on with each teacher. Increasingly, coaches were finding and focusing on the "right stuff" and next steps were always observable and small enough to implement in short order.
But two clear camps of teachers emerged:
a) teachers who took the feedback and ran with it, and
b) teachers who only did exactly what was asked of them, nothing more, nothing less.
To a concerning degree, the latter group was drastically larger than the former.
Even with observable, high leverage, bite-sized coaching goals being delivered to all teachers on a consistent basis from incredibly strong coaches, we had almost an entire school of teachers that was only following feedback in the most literal sense. They were seemingly afraid to innovate. They were struggling to apply what they'd learned from one set of coaching goals into other areas of their instruction or other lessons. Their classrooms weren't improving without coaches dragging them forward (figuratively) from one action step to the next (literally).
"They're constantly meeting their coaching goals. Why does it feel like they're not getting any better?" was a question each coach was pondering. And a common retort from teachers became, "Well, I'm doing everything you tell me to do. What else do you want me to do?"
Coaches were setting strong coaching goals and teachers were doing everything that was asked of them. But clearly something was missing.
There is nothing wrong with these commonly used criteria for coaching goals. You can't justify any of the criteria away, that's for sure. Coaching goals do need to be observable, and highest leverage, and bite-sized for teachers to see progress in their instruction.
But they're incomplete. Meeting each of these criteria for coaching goals places the onus of responsibility on the coach as we saw with the bulk of teachers at EPIC. Something is missing from these criteria that would shift the focus of coaching goals towards authentic teacher development and away from action-by-action, coach-driven, reactive problem solving.
The irony is thick that the missing criterion is the reason our profession exists at all: students.
As coaches, we see lots of classroom problems that need to be fixed, and most often (though not always), those problems arises out of things we are seeing happening or not happening with students. They are only responding with surface level answers. They are wasting time in group work. They're following procedures in lock-step and not exercising problem solving skills. Students and all of their actions, thoughts, and classroom experiences are typically our first and primary lens in a classroom. We then make rapid connections between what we're seeing with students and what the teacher is or isn't doing that is creating those actions/thoughts/classroom experiences. We translate quickly between the delicate and complex cause and effect of students and teachers. However, as we take our observations and analysis through the meat grinder of coaching goals and frameworks and protocols, we lose that connection between teachers' instructional practices and their impact on students.
In an attempt to produce more results across more teachers more quickly, instructional leaders have taken students out of the coaching equation to focus predominantly on teachers' actions and have unintentionally created teachers that are not willing, able, or perhaps even allowed to display the professional growth and judgment that their coaches are looking for them to display. The irony is thick here too: instructional leaders have created sub-optimal conditions for effective coaching and improvement by adhering to these "best practices" for coaching.
This is endemic to schools' instructional leadership systems and not at all unique to what we were seeing happen at EPIC.
EPIC has decided to do something about it. The coaches have begun changing how they frame and set coaching goals with teachers by intentionally setting a student-level goal in addition to a set of teacher-level goals and actions. Informally, we call them "X for Y goals" (compared to previous goals which were more like "do X" goals).
For example, compare the coaching goal set for one teacher this year compared to how it would have been set last year:
This year: We want students to be urgently using all class time purposefully to make every second count (observable, high-impact student-level goal), so in your instruction your goal is to focus on how students are learning as much as on what and to what extent they are learning by providing clear guidance and productive feedback on the habits and behaviors that enable their learning (aligned, high-impact teacher-level goal). To do this, you need to start by 1) getting clear about how you want students to engage and behave at each point in your lesson, 2) write clear directions for movement, volume, participation ("MVP directions") in your lesson plans, 3) deliver those MVP directions with full student attention, and 4) actively monitor how students are meeting those behavior expectations and praise/deliver consequences accordingly (observable, high-impact, bite-sized action steps).
Last year: 1) Write out clear MVP directions in your lesson plans, 2) deliver those MVP directions, and 3) give consequences for students not meeting those expectations (observable, high-impact, bite-sized action steps).
The addition of the larger classroom context and articulation of what student-level changes we expect to see sets up teachers to recognize that their action steps are only the first in a series of improvements they must make to create a stronger classroom learning experience for their students, not a magic elixir for immediately improved instruction. They give the necessary context to explicitly know why these are the action steps the teacher must take if and when "it's worked." They set up the next coaching conversation where the teacher has taken this set of action steps but we haven't fully achieved the student-level goal yet so we can move on to a related set of instructional actions directed towards that same thing. They allow teachers to see other areas of their instruction or other things that they do that exacerbate or alleviate the high-level student goal we're ultimately working towards.
In short, they open up the teacher to a lot more than just doing exactly what their coach tells them to do.
When coaching, we assume that the teachers are making the same connections to students that we are. We assume that they see the how their changed actions will solve the problem that we've identified as being most in need of solving. We assume that they understand that there is a lot more to it than just doing exactly as we say. They aren't.
This isn't because they don't care about these things or can't do them; it's just that our coaching goals have steered them away from doing so. Teachers are wildly well-intentioned professionals who always want to do what's best for their kids, but they are also human adults who want to be seen as effective by their managers and leaders. Our coaching goals shouldn't set up a false choice between those two instincts.
Already, in just the first few months of the school year, coaches are reporting increased investment from teachers in their coaching goals and increased attention to the impact of their improved actions on students. There are more teachers taking the feedback and "running with it" rather than sitting back and waiting to be told exactly the next move to make. Fewer conversations begin with "Did I do it right?" and more start off with "I totally saw it work when..."
We've got a long way to go yet this school year, but EPIC Academy has seen lots of success by adding in a fourth criteria to their coaching goals, one that everyone should consider adding in: Is it/are they -
4. Contextualized to students?