Who’s coaching the coach?

Gibbons R&A

Dr. Lynsey Gibbons’ recent studies have implications for improving the practice of instructional coaches who support teachers’ professional learning.

Consider coaches of athletes, business executives or teachers.  What do they have in common?  They mentor and advise based on their expertise and experience. In the field of education, instructional coaching, according to a 2009 survey given to teachers about their professional learning experiences, has been identified as one of the fastest growing forms of support.

Instructional coaching involves teachers working with a more accomplished colleague as a primary form of job-embedded support to develop their instructional practices. Many instructional coaches work with a teacher in one content area, such as mathematics, science, or literacy, where they have developed expertise as classroom teachers themselves. Instructional coaches typically do not work directly with students, but instead are charged with supporting teachers’ learning. However, according to Assistant Professor Lynsey Gibbons, coaches are often left to their own to figure out how to transition from classroom teaching to instructional coaching.

“They have not been able to rely on the coaching research to understand how to make this transition,” Dr. Gibbons said. “Coaches could refer to a small collection of books written by talented practitioners, but in general these books are not the result of empirical studies of effective coaching.”

While research on instructional coaching increasingly provides evidence of the impact of high-quality coaching, little is known about how accomplished coaches work with teachers. In her recent research studies and resulting publications Dr. Gibbons, who is currently working with coaches across the Boston area, aimed to help fill this void by researching what coaches need to know and be able to do in order to provide teachers with productive supports.

In one study, published in the Journal of Teacher Education, Dr. Gibbons and her co-author set out to identify potentially productive coaching activities by drawing on the pre-service and in-service teacher education literatures. They identified six potentially productive activities, four of which involve coaches working with groups of teachers – (a) engaging in the discipline, (b) examining student work, (c) analyzing classroom video, and (d) engaging in lesson study – and two activities that involve coaches working with individual teachers – (e) co-teaching and (f) modeling instruction.

“In the article, we describe each activity and discuss how the activity can support teacher learning, along with implications for how the coaches facilitate each activity,” Dr. Gibbons said. “Coaches can use this article as a resource to learn about and consider how they might engage their teachers in rich coaching activities that, when facilitated well, have the potential to help teachers develop their instructional practices.”

In another study, published in the Elementary School Journal, Dr. Gibbons and her co-author examined the practices of an expert coach who was consistently engaging teachers in potentially productive coaching activities in order to understand how she planned for and implemented supports for teachers.

“Little is known about how and why effective coaches choose to design particular types of activities with certain teachers,” Dr. Gibbons said.

The study identified five key coaching practices that were implemented in this particular coach’s design of coaching activities: (a) identifying long-term goals for teachers’ development, (b) assessing teachers’ current instructional practices, (c) locating teachers’ current instructional practices on general trajectories of teachers’ development, (d) identifying next steps for teachers’ development, and (e) designing activities to support teachers’ learning.

Dr. Gibbons and her co-author also identified two aspects of coaching knowledge inherent in carrying out these planning practices: (a) knowledge of ambitious mathematics instruction, and (b) knowledge of general trajectories of teachers’ development of ambitious instructional practices.

“Our findings have implications for policy makers and for district leaders charged with developing and implementing coaching designs,” Dr. Gibbons said. “In particular, the forms of coaching knowledge and practice we identified can orient the design of activities for supporting coaches’ learning.”

In her final study, Dr. Gibbons and her colleagues worked to answer the question, “What might coaching entail if it were organized to engage teachers collectively in the service of school-wide improvement?”

“Instructional coaching, as typically practiced in U.S. schools, tends to be responsive and individually focused worked,” Dr. Gibbons explained. “Coaches respond to requests from administrators or invitations from individual teachers to help them improve their teaching.”

In their study, published in the Journal of Mathematical Behavior, Dr. Gibbons and her colleagues examined the case of one elementary mathematics coach whose work, instead, aligned with emerging ideas about the potential power of coaching toward school-wide reform.

“This coach played a key role in dramatically transforming a recent history of poor performance and deficit-oriented narratives pertaining to the school and its children,” Dr. Gibbons said.

Over a period of three years, student performance, as measured by standardized tests, improved the school’s standing from the bottom 5% of all schools in the state to the 78th percentile.

“The quality of classroom instruction improved considerably, and the teachers’ professional community strengthened as well.”

Dr. Gibbons’ analysis looks closely at recurring professional learning activity that the coach led, called “Math Labs,” in order to closely examine how the coach supported collective learning of the fourth grade teachers at her school.

“Our analysis carries implications for how to organize coaching to support the collective learning of teachers, including considering the facilitation practices coaches use when supporting groups of teachers,” Dr. Gibbons said.

Each of these three articles, she added, contributes to coaches’ and administrators’ understanding of what instructional coaches need to know and be able to do to effectively support teachers’ learning and development toward providing more ambitious and equitable forms of instruction for students.

“I’m grateful to the mathematics coaches who opened up their practices to us,” Dr. Gibbons said. “I’m excited to continue to learn from them about how to best support teachers’ learning.”

By Lisa Randall