Coaching is synonymous with sports, but lots of different fields have coaches. There are leadership coaches, financial coaches, and even sales coaches. So, coaching is far from exclusive to athletics. Education is no exception. Today, teachers are expected to learn just as much as they teach. Often that comes in the form of individual 1 on 1 coaching through their school. There is nothing inherently wrong with that in theory. However, there is a problem with it in practice: Some of these people don’t know what the hell they are talking about.
If you get a room full of teachers together and ask them about their instructional coach, you will likely get a few moans and groans. We all have had the same experience; and by this point, there is an archetype for instructional coaches. Typically, the instructional coach is young, with minimal years of actual teaching experience. They are obsessed with data, and overly particular about lesson plans. As teachers, they were strong in pedagogy, but weak in classroom management … however, they were lucky enough to find a principal that viewed those areas as separate concepts which is how they got promoted to instructional coach. This model is especially common in urban or low-income schools.
Obviously, I am painting with a broad brush. Not every instructional coach fits that stereotype, but it is common enough. However, hiring people that fit that description is not without consequence because the most important aspect someone needs to be an effective coach is credibility. If you are a veteran teacher sizing up the new instructional coach, lack of teaching experience is already strike one. Strike two is when you see they can’t actually manage a classroom which will eventually happen. Sooner or later, they will be pressed into service when there is a large number of call-outs, or they are forced to model a lesson. Once teachers see that their coach can’t actually hold down a classroom, all bets are off.
One of the most common battles between coaches and teachers is the balance between pedagogy and classroom management. Because they are no longer in the classroom, often times, coaches give directives and mandate methods that don’t take behavior into account. They call it having high expectations. Veteran teachers call it unrealistic … especially when they know the coach can’t execute what they are asking them to do.
But even if you take behavior out of the equation, there are still plenty of common clashes between teachers and coaches.
Veteran teachers are notoriously resistant to change and while that is not always a virtue, it is understandable why a teacher who has had years of relative success would not want to change what they are doing to pilot some new method that is unproven. This is especially when the person pushing it didn’t use it themselves. Plus, if you are a teacher with years under your belt, you know that whatever they are pushing this year will be gone by next year.
Additionally, because of standardized testing, most of these instructional coaches specialize in math or literacy. It is difficult to coach someone when you are not the subject matter expert.
I teach social studies. The majority of my instructional coaches have been great (including my current one in case she is reading.) Unfortunately, I had one who fit the aforementioned stereotype AND also didn’t know history. Every meeting we had was me first teaching the content to her, and then her pulling some Pinterest activity out of her ass that wasn’t aligned to standards and had no chance of working in my class. The Pinterest meetings were preferable to the ones where she thought she understood the content.
She once insisted that I teach the concept of multiple gods (polytheism), by anchoring the lesson in the familiar tradition of Catholic saints because we had a few catholic-Hispanic students, and she thought that would make the lesson “sticky.” Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of theology realizes that the entire premise of Christianity, and by extension Catholicism, is that there is only one God. Implying that Saints, who are literally human beings, both canonically and historically, are akin to some type of deity, minor or major, is antithetical to the entire framework of the religion. If what I am saying sounds confusing to you, imagine having to repeat all of it backwards because that’s how I would have to reteach the concept to them if anyone ever taught them the way she suggested.
I didn’t have anything against this woman. She seemed nice, and she did try hard. But from the first time I watched her struggle in her attempt to model one of her cute lessons that she stole from a fancy pants charter in New York, I knew she could only help me so much. That is the essence of the strained relationship between some teachers and coaches.
It is certainly possible that someone who isn’t the best teacher can still be an expert on teaching in theory. However, when you are instructing teachers, you need to be an expert in practice. Administrators need to prioritize coaches who are both knowledgeable and experienced. We also need to discourage coaching as a pathway to “leave the classroom” because when you advertise instructional coaching as a job for people who are good at making lessons, but not necessarily good at performing them, you can’t be mad that they apply.
There is a quote that says, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I recognize the irony of using the quote in this context, but it is appropriate. The title of the article is the question that every teacher has in the back of their head. If they don’t answer in the affirmative, then your instructional coach is a lame duck.