Written by: Diane Sweeney and Leanna S. Harris
Excerpt from: The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching (Corwin, April 2020)
It’s exciting when districts find the resources to hire coaches. When creating a plan for hiring, it’s imperative to get clear on the philosophy and practices for coaching first, and then staffing the positions later.
It all begins with the job description. Recently, we reviewed a job description that was created by a district that was implementing Student-Centered Coaching. We noticed that the duties listed prioritized practices such as; 1) modeling lessons, 2) writing curriculum, and 3) managing Tier 2 interventions. We pointed out that these practices aren’t emphasized in Student-Centered Coaching and suggested that it might be confusing to include them so prominently. Imagine getting hired as a coach with the understanding that you’ll be managing Tier 2 interventions and then learning that the real expectation is to engage in coaching cycles. Luckily, we caught the lack of alignment early and worked with the district to revise the job description to feature the core practices for Student-Centered Coaching. This gave the candidates clarity regarding what the role of coach would entail. For a sample job description check out chapter 7 of our book, The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching (Corwin, 2020).
What to Look for in a Candidate
Finding a coach with all of the right qualities can sometimes feel like you are looking for a unicorn. That’s because being an effective coach requires a special combination of knowledge, skills, and a learning-focused disposition. When hiring coaches, we suggest focusing on two areas: 1) knowledge of pedagogy, and 2) a disposition of curiosity and openness.
You may have noticed that experience with coaching isn’t on the list. Nor is content expertise. This is because being an effective coach isn’t predicated on coaching experience or content knowledge. Rather it’s about supporting teachers to plan, reflect, and adjust in ways that promote student learning. We’ve found that with support, coaches can learn how to implement the practices for Student-Centered Coaching, while disposition and interpersonal skills are much harder to teach.
Knowledge of Pedagogy
Knowledge of pedagogy means coaches have a track record of implementing effective instruction. But that’s not enough. They must also understand how to support teachers to implement high quality instruction themselves. Without this, coaches will lack credibility and may not support teachers to make decisions that will increase student learning.
Zeroing in on the pedagogical practices that we expect for coaches to carry into their role helps districts select coaches who will hit the ground running. Focus on the instructional practices that readily transfer across subjects and grade levels. These are what we seek out during the hiring process.
Examples of Transferable Pedagogy
- Crafting student friendly learning targets
- Using formative assessments that make learning visible
- Planning lessons that are learning, rather than activity, focused
- Building student self-assessment and reflection into lessons
- Designing methods for increasing student discourse
- Differentiating lessons, such as through conferring and small group instruction
- Using student evidence to plan lessons
- Using effective strategies for classroom management
A Disposition of Curiosity and Openness
Wondering is more powerful than knowing, especially since classrooms are such complex places. We can’t underestimate how far being a learner can take a coach. Hiring for soft skills like curiosity and openness contributes to creating a culture that is learning focused and maintains a growth mindset. This simply can’t happen when coaches think they have all of the answers. Entering into conversations with an open mind and an interest in learning alongside the teacher is how we encourage teachers to take a learning stance.
The truth is it can be scary to operate in a space of curiosity. That’s because it requires confidence and the belief that great ideas can be built together. We both found this to be challenging when we were novice coaches because we thought we should carry all of the ideas and then share them with others. The result was that we carried the learning too, meaning we did the thinking instead of creating the space for teachers to do so. This isn’t how we build capacity in others.
Seeking out people with a learning disposition is an important part of the hiring process. One way we can achieve this is by sharing complex scenarios during the interview process and then asking the candidate what steps they would take in this situation. What we would hope to hear are candidates who would seek to understand first, and then share strategies second. This puts the coach squarely in the category of learner. Conversely, we would be concerned if the candidate shared all of the things they would do to solve the problem, as this isn’t a learning stance.
Another way we learn the disposition of coaching candidates is to ask them to describe a situation when they were a learner. Here we’d hope to tap into not only how the person navigated new learning, but what their mindset was throughout the process. Understanding the candidate’s mindset provides insight regarding how comfortable they are navigating the unknown.
With careful consideration, school districts can build teams of effective coaches. But this isn’t enough. They must also provide ongoing support to the coaching team. Attending a conference like our annual workshop on Student-Centered Coaching, receiving onsite support, or engaging in online learning are options. Hiring is the first step, and ongoing support is what follows.
Check out our Upcoming Events page for a list of workshops and online courses.
© The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching: What Every K-12 Coach and Principal Needs to Know (Sweeney and Harris)