Coaching Cycles – Getting to 60%

Written by Diane Sweeney and Leanna Harris

Originally posted in the fall of 2015, this three-part blog series has been revised and updated.

Getting to 60% (PART I of III)

During a session with a partner district, Diane asked a team of K-12 coaches and principals to jot down the percentage of time that they would like to see dedicated to coaching cycles. This wasn’t an easy question to ask. It felt a bit loaded, as if she was implying that they weren’t doing enough. But really, she just wanted to know what they hoped to achieve so that she could help them get there.

Before they were comfortable answering the question, the coaches and principals had some questions of their own. These include (1) how do you define a coaching cycle, (2) what about planning time for coaches, and (3) how do we account for other things like professional learning and other duties. The secondary coaches taught one period each day and wondered how this would impact their work. It seemed that everyone was nervous to commit to an actual number.components of a coaching cycle

After a quick review of the components of a coaching cycle (see sidebar), they felt that they had enough of a vision to determine a target for how much time they would like to spend in coaching cycles.

The coaches and principals independently wrote down their percentage on a sticky note so Diane could easily walk around the room and see what they were thinking. She was surprised that their answers ranged from 20% to 100%. This made her wonder how they could create a consistent coaching program with such a different vision for how much time the coaches would spend in cycles. After all, we know that coaching cycles are an essential practice if we hope to impact student learning and instruction. Without a coaching cycle, our work becomes ‘drive by’ coaching, or single conversations that don’t lead up to a demonstrated impact. With coaching cycles we are focused, intentional, and results-based.

What’s the Right Goal?
Of course, they wanted to know what Diane thought they should have written down on their sticky notes. She explained that coaches are defined by how they spend most of their time. If coaches mostly lead PLCs, then they are defined as a PLC facilitator. If they mostly teach interventions, they are defined as an interventionist. If coaches are mostly in coaching cycles, they will be defined as a coach. For this reason, it’s important for coaches to spend more than half of their time in coaching cycles. Otherwise, they will be defined by whatever else they are doing. Accordingly, we feel that 60% is a good target. More than 60% may become unrealistic given the fact that coaches are often responsible for things like curriculum, assessment, leading interventions, and teaching classes. And let’s keep in mind that coaches need time for their own professional learning, meeting with the principal, attending PLCs, and working with teachers informally. Here is how we envision a coach’s time being divided up. It’s important to note that this graphic refers only to coaching responsibilities. If, for example, a coach was also a half time teacher, then this would apply only to their coaching work.

Relationships Come First
Since coaching is dependent on trusting and collegial relationships, we don’t want to imply that getting to 60% happens overnight. If a coach is new to a school, this may take some time. If the school has a history of coaching that’s evaluative or takes the approach of ‘fixing’ teachers, this may take some time. And if a coach has been doing a lot of other things, this may also take some time.

If our goal is to create conditions where teachers authentically engage in coaching cycles, then we have to be careful to avoid mandating participation. In their book, School Culture Rewired, Gruenert and Whitaker write, “To sell a new vision, it’s best to wait for respected teachers to identify with it and put it in their own words. Teachers are likelier to emulate one another than to simply abide by what the principal says” (p. 55).  If the vision is participation in coaching cycles, than the best approach is to begin with teachers who see the value and then go from there. In other words, we build to 60% one teacher at a time.

So much of our work comes down to having clear goals and then working towards making them a reality. In future posts in this three-part series, we will share strategies for how to make 60% a reality.

Gruenert, S. and Whitaker, T. (2015) School Culture Rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Getting to 60% (PART II OF III)

Coaching cycles are our best chance for creating authentic partnerships that increase student outcomes. In a coaching cycle, the teacher and coach are both in the mix, reflecting on their decision-making, problem solving, and figuring out how to adjust instruction in the moment. It is a dynamic process that weaves its way through and across lessons. Sometimes this is easier said than done. In some schools it is easy to make coaching cycles happen, in others it can take a bit of time and effort. The following barriers are what we hear from coaches who are working hard to get to 60%. 

Common Barriers to Establishing Coaching Cycles

A Coaching Role That Lacks Definition
When a coach’s role is poorly defined, then anything goes. And when anything goes, it is hard to get traction with coaching cycles. In the article, Pave the Way for Coaches, Heineke and Polnick argue that defining the coach’s role is the first step towards seeing student growth. They write, “The coaches who had been assigned the widest array of responsibilities did the least amount of instructional coaching. The top priority of instructional coaches should be to facilitate teacher learning that will translate into greater student learning” (p.50). If we define our work as being ongoing and about student outcomes, then we are more likely to create and sustain coaching cycles.

Scheduling Like a Dentist versus a Physical Therapist
When we schedule like dentists, we pull out our calendar and schedule meetings one at a time. This structure doesn’t add up to increased student learning because we don’t give the partnership enough time and intention to see the fruit of our labor. Scheduling like a physical therapist implies that reaching the goal is going to take some time. We arrange a series of connected conversations across four to six weeks that include planning sessions and co-teaching. 

Coaching that Lacks a Goal
There are a lot of reasons to get smart about goal setting. A well-crafted goal goes a long way in surfacing what we value. Creating a shared vision around what we want the students to learn is what we are after when we identify goals with teachers. When a goal is missing, we are unfocused and unable to recognize progress. With a goal, we are more prepared to identify growth among our students.

Uncertainty about Co-Teaching
Classrooms can feel like private spaces that are off limits to outsiders. As coaches, we may find ourselves lingering on the threshold of classroom doors, unsure about how to proceed. We know that coaching ought to be rigorous and meaningful because teachers are investing their precious time to work with us. Yet we don’t always feel sure about how to work in the classrooms of others. Should I observe and take notes from the back of the classroom? Should I stay quiet throughout the lesson (even though I might have insights about how the students are doing)? Would it bother the teacher if I spoke up? This uncertainty creates an obvious barrier to getting started with coaching cycles. Yet when a true partnership has been established and the coaching role is clearly defined, teachers rarely balk at co-teaching…in fact they usually jump at the chance of having a coach working alongside them to move student learning forward. 

Finding the Time to Co-Plan
Being intentional about when we will co-plan helps us avoid the awkward moment that comes when we pop into the classroom when a lesson is taking place. If our goal is to think with teachers about which instructional moves will have the greatest effect on student learning, then we need to sit down together and co-plan lessons. In this way we develop clarity around how instruction will progress as well as how the teacher and coach will share the responsibility for the lesson. This may sound time intensive to a busy teacher, so we use reflective questions like the examples below to stay focused and guide the planning in an efficient manner.

Questions for Co-Planning

  • What are the learning targets for the lesson?
  • How do we think the students will demonstrate their learning (in writing, verbally)?
  • How will new content be delivered and by who?
  • How will we formatively assess students?
  • What resources, materials, or technology will we need to get ready?
  • How will we work together to manage student behavior?

From: Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves (Sweeney and Harris, 2017)

The last post in this series will focus on the nuts and bolts for getting to 60%. This will include engaging teachers and creating a schedule that doesn’t drive you nuts.

Heineke, S. and Polnick, B. (2013) Pave the Way for Coaches: Principal’s actions are key to shaping roles and relationships. Learning Forward, 34(3), 48-51.

Sweeney, D. and Harris, L. (2017) Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Getting to 60% (PART III OF III)

In this blog series, we have addressed the importance of coaching cycles as a method to increase our impact on student and teacher learning. We also surfaced common barriers to getting traction with coaching cycles. In this post, we will focus on scheduling coaching cycles.

Coaching cycles are most effective when they are engaging and meaningful for teachers. We avoid assigning cycles to teachers who are struggling or novice because this sends the message that the coach is there as an evaluator rather than as a partner.  

We believe coaching should be based on a positive and asset-based perspective. To do so, we provide teachers with choice and ownership in how they engage in coaching. As Daniel Pink suggests, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” We need to put teachers in the driver’s seat if our goal is to create coaching cycles that move learning forward.

Step 1: Divide the School Year into Rounds
Each round is a window of time in which coaching cycles are offered to teachers. If possible, coaches refer to their curriculum and assessment calendar to determine when their rounds will begin and end. We suggest waiting to begin the first round until teachers have settled in to the school year. It’s also important to include some space between rounds so that coaches can reflect, recruit a new group of teachers, and manage other necessary duties. Below is an example of how a school year can be divided into rounds.

Round 1: October to early November
Round 2: Mid November to early December
Round 3: January to mid February
Round 4: March to mid April

Step 2: Determine How Many Coaching Cycles You Can Handle in Each Round
The amount of cycles will vary based upon the duties that have been assigned to the coach. The upper limit for many coaches is four cycles during a round. If the coach is assigned to two schools, then this would be two coaching cycles in each school. It is also possible that the coach will include more than one teacher in a cycle. In this case, the number of cycles a coach can handle may decrease.

As you read the schedule, please note that Coaching Cycles #1 and #2 are with individual teachers, Coaching Cycle #3 is with a group of three teachers, and Coaching Cycle #4 is with a pair of teachers. For the sake of clarity, we built the schedule in 60-minute blocks. It would clearly be necessary for the coach to adjust for transition times. The key is to consider how to make most of our coaching time in coaching cycles and this schedule demonstrates what that looks like.

Step 3: Invite Teachers to Participate
A few weeks before a new round begins, an invitation goes out to teachers to encourage them to join in. Here’s an invitation that was created using Smore, an online newsletter: If a coach notices that certain teachers aren’t participating, a gentle nudge of encouragement may be delivered by the principal. It is also a good idea to ask teachers to provide testimonials about their own experiences. This may be just what a hesitant teacher needs to become involved.

Step 4: Dive into the Coaching Cycles
We recommend for coaches to create a brand-new schedule at the beginning of each round. This allows for adjustments to be made as the school year progresses. Making the schedule public can also create more definition around the role of the coach. If the coach’s schedule is vague, changes all the time, or consists of drive-by-coaching, then teachers will not know how (or why) they should engage.

In Closing
Stephen Covey famously said, “If big rocks don’t go in first, they aren’t going to fit in later.” For a coach, this means we have to determine which actions will have the most potential to make the desired impact and fill our calendar with those big rocks before we allow ourselves to be made busy with trivial matters.

We hope this blog series has inspired you to design your coaching work in a way that points squarely at increased student and teacher learning. Please share your comments so we can continue the conversation.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books

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