Leadership · Curriculum · Lifelong Learning

What IS a coach?

Playing a lot of sports while growing up in the Midwest was an unforgettable experience. I learned some hard life lessons as a youngster, and now those growing-up moments are still so valuable to me–to the extent of shaping my present, adult decision-making. Behind every challenge overcome and opportunity that didn’t turn out as I had expected was a coach doing the hard work to drive many people toward one common goal, despite a plethora of variables and unforeseen obstacles to success.

Coaching positions are popping up everywhere in education these days. And how you define the role seems to be as dependent upon a particular school or district as it is on the coach’s resume itself.

There are instructional coaches, digital learning coaches, leadership coaches, reading coaches, curriculum coaches, and even innovation coaches. They’re everywhere!

And these coaching positions can take on many different appearances–especially in the education world. Some coaches can tell you how to become a better batter, without ever having stepped up to the plate themselves. (Yet some of these people actually can hit it out of the park themselves).

Some coaches can tell you how to field hard grounders that take unexpected hops, choppy bouncers that leave bruises, screaming line drives that sting, and even seemingly easy pop flies that still require concentration and perseverance, and yet they themselves don’t even own a glove.

Still, other coaches can call all the balls and strikes, and even tell you when there are three outs and it’s time for a change–all from a sharp angle or sight unseen.

Even with all the latest technology tools and innovation strategies, being the educator who actually does the work directly with the learners is a whole different ballgame than simply coaching others on how to make teaching and learning better.

Still, coaches with potentially no transferable skills or related experience themselves can succeed and be a most valuable player–that is, if they have the right mindset, work hard, and surround themselves with the right people.

Recently, I read another post by my friend Marci Houseman. This reflection really has me thinking on the coaching position. Here was my response:

Another thought-provoking post, Marci!

First of all, I believe the overall WHY for any position in education is to make teaching and learning better for the students. That vision is key, because all learners need to embrace the mission for it to succeed appropriately. I wonder, sometimes, if it’s good to have pictures of students at the beginning of every meeting, or to tell a story about a student as to realign our WHY, before charting change.

In addition, I love how adding support and intricacies to our ecosystem in education is intentional. No doubt, coaching–a strong span in the scaffolding to make education effective–often gets overlooked and under-appreciated.

The number one obstacle to an effective coaching endeavor is the perspective of the one being coached. To many, it’s a matter of credibility. For example, will a veteran classroom teacher readily embrace constructive criticism from a coach who has minimal to no substantial classroom teaching experience? With so much on a principal’s plate, will the principal take seriously negative comments or redirection from a central office staff member who has never been a principal? Will the parent of three–hearing how her youngest child is performing below grade level due to off-task behavior–from a teacher who is not a parent, not take every syllable with a huge grain of salt?

I have personally experienced the teacher example from the perspective of the one being coached, and the parent example from the perspective of a the teacher with no kids (at that time). I’m fascinated by the administrator example as I’m currently pursuing my Masters in School Administration.

Just like a classroom teacher, parent, and administrator, I believe the coaching position can ultimately play a huge part in making teaching and learning better for kids.

I’m not saying that one can’t be a great teacher without being a parent first. I’m not saying that all coaches must first be classroom teachers, or even that administrators mustn’t skip seemingly linear rungs in the promotional ladder.

However, I also believe that all of these positions require much more than a degree or an add-on certification to be genuinely successful.

Great post, Marci.
As always, I’m looking forward to your next one.

Bloggers Note: I added this microcast reflection on October 12, 2018, over two months after my original blog post.


4 Replies to “The CrEDible Coach”

  • I have often pondered the role of a coach as well, and you’ve given me even more to think on! I love how you acknowledged the struggle it can be to take feedback from someone ON your career who hasn’t necessarily DONE your career, yet how that factor doesn’t necessarily HAV to take value away from coaching. That recipe for success stems from just what you’re saying- the mindsets of the coach and the one being coached.

    And because it’s relevant to this post, shout-out to Dan Gridley, Washington’s Literacy Coach…Dan does have a background in special education, so he does bring transferable skills and related experience to the table. But he never claims to be the expert, and has the mindset of wanting to totally support the teams he works with (in every way, not just in providing teaching expertise). He helps facilitate team goal-setting, checks in with us daily (sometimes just seeing how the day is going or how he can help us that week), presents us with valuable, relevant data to dig into, celebrates our successes, and helps us take part in valuable reflection. Dan is ever-present as a coach, and has helped transform my view of what a coach can be. Having the right mindset and attitude are critical to being an effective coach, and really, critical to anyone’s success at anything! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kyle!

  • Kyle wrote:

    The number one obstacle to an effective coaching endeavor is the perspective of the one being coached.


    So I’m going to push against this statement, Kyle: I think the number one obstacle to an effective coaching endeavor is the perspective of the COACH.

    The best coaches act as Nathalie describes Dan in her comment above. They recognize the expertise of the people that they are coaching and they make it their goal to surface that expertise — particularly when they are working with experienced staff members.

    They serve as a sounding board and a mirror and a source of the kinds of questions that promote growth.

    What’s sad to me is that many people who end up in coaching roles are hired for their expertise in their specialty role — digital literacy, literacy, mathematics etc — NOT for their expertise in working with adults or in serving as a sounding board or for their ability to use questions to promote growth.

    The result is often people with an inflated view of their own expertise. Instead of seeing it as their job to surface the expertise inside of others, they see it as their job to push their ideas and provide their solutions — and THAT’s what makes them ineffective.

    A part of this is also a function of the fact that education really DOES still have a glass ceiling. So when a teacher gets a coaching role, oftentimes they see themselves as “above” the people that they are supposed to support.

    What’s the solution?

    Anytime we hire coaches for any role — including the role of building principal — we have to stop thinking about their expertise and start thinking about their ability to move other people forward. The primary consideration shouldn’t be, “Is this person great in their field.” The primary consideration should be, “Is this person great with other people.”

    We don’t do that frequently enough.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Bill.

      Your comments on the glass ceiling are spot on. It really has me thinking: I can’t actually recall a time when a coach was NOT viewed as superior to the one being coached, even regardless of pay. Perhaps this is the nature of “school” as we know it, that’s been created over a long period of time, whereas roles have implied definitions and perceptions thereof.

      In addition, I’m wondering if the gap between the coaching role perception versus the vision of coaches being a mirror and a sounding board has more to do with challenges in giving/receiving feedback? Simply put: receiving feedback can be hard if the one giving feedback hasn’t equally invested in or experienced the topic of feedback. It would definitely require strategies from this Leadership Freak post you shared a while ago: https://goo.gl/61Cmne.

      At the heart of the matter is credibility. Credibility means a lot to a lot of people. Maybe the most common example in education: The veteran classroom teacher has a hard time receiving feedback from a coach who has minimal classroom teaching experience. This can apply to a lot of positions. In my experiences and observations, this can result in the veteran teacher discounting large amounts of advice or feedback (even if it’s good stuff) before the coach even walks in the door.

      Another example: I’ve heard classroom teachers, in general, discount the opinions and actions of policy makers and education employees as high as the federal level mostly because several of them have never been classroom teachers. It can be hard to abide by policies and implement strategies for classrooms if those policies and strategies were created by some who haven’t been in a classroom in a super long time–if at all–even if those policies and strategies are well-intended.

      And all of that–even before the coach has the opportunity to ask questions, give feedback, be a sounding board, and mirror successful teaching and learning together, to ultimately make learning better for kids.

      To me, just the label “coach” implies that the coach is going to be the one doing all the talking, teaching, and mentoring, and the educator/coachee is going to be the one doing all the listening, learning, and receiving of feedback. The term “coach” implies that the coach has already walked the exact walk of the one being coached. The term “coach” implies expertise and experience. “I’m going to be your coach. I’m going to lead you (because you’re lost or confused or ineffective). I’m going to tell you what to do (because you don’t know how to do it, or can’t figure it out on your own, or you need help or you need to grow).” Have you ever heard: “Hi, how are you? How can we work together to make learning experiences better for kids? Classroom teachers work HARD–So how can I help you and support you to move forward? Where are you challenged in meeting student needs, and how can we address those? I’m looking forward to learning together with you. I can’t wait to see how we’re both going to grow through this process, while centering our focus on improving student learning experiences together. Let’s get started.”

      I marvel at the collegiate and professional coaches who have successful teams in the sport arena, albeit without having played that sport or at that level themselves–but those stories are rare, and even more so in education, right?

      If the coach is not recognized as one who has invested at least equally to the one being coached, reciprocal learning can be a challenge for some. Perhaps we can shift the focus from quantity to quality by simply changing the name of the position to represent more of a two-way street of learning together and ultimately to make the student learning experience better? What would that look like? What would that name be? How can we redefine to clarify a journey of moving forward–together?

      Would like to continue this conversation.
      Thanks again.

      • Hey, Bill. I’m still reflecting on this conversation. The more I think about it, the more I think that we’re both right. I think coaches are credible and effective when they have both the experience/expertise AND the people skills, using situational awareness to foster learning thru questioning strategies and appropriate feedback. Still, I believe that coaching can’t be effective unless the one being coached realizes and experiences a combination of the two.

What are your thoughts? Comment here!

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