Let’s rethink the support we provide teachers so they can immediately and practically create positive change in their classrooms.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. —Maya Angelou
During her final coaching meeting of the year, veteran teacher Ashley (a pseudonym) remarked to her coach Lauren (coauthor), “As I’ve changed my practice, my students are engaged and learning so much more! I’m old-school. The way I taught is what I experienced as a student, but now I see it wasn’t working for my students.”
A seasoned teacher of 15 years, Ashley taught 3rd grade in a racially diverse elementary school in an urban district. She had been paired with Lauren by her administrator and had been open to feedback throughout the coaching process. But she was also skeptical because the professional development she typically experienced was boring and ineffective, including work around culturally responsive teaching. In her first coaching meeting, Ashley was generally positive, but also revealed a deficit-oriented mindset about students: “Most of my students are fine, but some of them just don’t care.”
Lauren observed Ashley teaching a math lesson. Ashley’s strengths were obvious: a clear lesson goal and good organization. But when her coach focused on what the students were saying and doing, there wasn’t much to see. Ashley talked for more than 90 percent of the lesson, while students sat with no task except to raise their hand, and just 9 of the 31 students were called on or spoke at all. More than half of the responses came from the same three Latinx girls.
In our experience as coaches, this is a far too common scene in classrooms across America. A well-run classroom is seen as one that is silent and orderly, especially if those students are Black and Brown. A handful of student volunteers participate throughout the lesson, but the doing and thinking and talking is carried by the teacher, most often a white woman.
In this story, though, all that changed. Ashley and Lauren met together for coaching the next day. After building rapport and celebrating her “glows,” Lauren shared the classroom observation data she’d collected and then named a specific instructional strategy for increasing equitable student voice—one that required every student to respond simultaneously. Ashley was surprised by the clarity of the data and saw the need for shifting her practice. Together they pivoted to do something that is missing from many coaching meetings—practice—so that Ashley had the opportunity to try out her new learning, not just discuss it. Practice helps teachers transfer their learning to classroom use.
In Lauren’s next observation of Ashley, she noticed 100 percent of students responded to four different prompts and Ashley reduced her “air time” to just 60 percent of the lesson. After several weeks of supporting Ashley in being increasingly equitable in her practice (she now facilitates lessons where students carry 80 percent of the cognitive load), Lauren shifted into discussing Ashley’s relationship with her students and the apparent deficit mindset that impacted her expectations of them. Because she had already seen a significant impact on her students as she changed her practices, Ashley was open to addressing her implicit biases about students.
The Myths of Efficacy
We’ve seen this same growth and success that Ashley displayed played out over hundreds of coaching partnerships across the country, leading to more equitable and engaging classroom experiences for students. We call coaching like this “choreographed coaching”—a model of instructional coaching that is equity-centered, data-backed, directive, and practice-based. Just like dancers, professional musicians, and top athletes, the most skilled teachers, as well as new teachers and those struggling with a particular challenge, deserve a coach who directly supports their growth as professionals.
Unfortunately, not all instructional coaching and teacher training sessions are equally useful for cultivating teacher efficacy. Many professional development opportunities and coaching programs are centered around myths and practices that, while well-intentioned, are actually largely detrimental for teacher and student growth and, ultimately, for building educational equity. In our experience as teachers and coaches, we’ve seen four myths pop up time and again. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Myth #1: Teacher DEI training makes schools more equitable.
Schools are increasingly providing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training for teachers on topics ranging from implicit bias to equitable classroom practices. However, simply providing a workshop for teachers does not solve a school’s equity issues, and many schools do little to make sure the content of the DEI training lives in their classrooms. Traditional formats for professional development (think workshops or lectures) have long been known to produce little change at the classroom level. Research has found that teachers typically implement around 10 percent of what they learn in traditional PD, whereas they implement upwards of 85 to 90 percent of what they learn with the support of a coach (Bush, 1984; Knight, 2007).
Choreographed coaching is a tool for analyzing classrooms, engaging in discussion and practice, and creating accountability to support the work of building equity every day. For Ashley, who had been to multiple DEI trainings in her career, it took seeing the data about inequitable practices in her own classroom and having a coach who offered concrete solutions to really change and teach more equitably.
Myth #2: Teachers must change their minds before changing their actions.
In our example, we see that Ashley changed her practice in the classroom first, as a result of the clear data and the support of a coach, and later engaged in addressing her mindset. If we had started coaching Ashley around her biases about what students are capable of or her belief about students not caring, it would likely have resulted in months, if not years, of discussion, disagreement, and possibly disengagement. But because she first changed her practices in the classroom to include all student voices more equitably, she was then better positioned to reflect on and change the biases that were negatively impacting her students.
The problem with the nondirective approach to coaching is that it values teachers taking a journey of self-discovery over their actual effectiveness in the classroom.
Lauren Vargas & Rashaida Melvin
We see this myth at work at all levels of teacher training, but most commonly in the cognitive coaching model. Cognitive coaching relies largely on a series of questions that prompt teacher reflection. As Jim Knight defines it in the introduction to his book Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction, cognitive coaching is “predicated on the assumption that behaviors change after our beliefs change” (p. 10). In our experience, this assumption is not typically borne out. If we want to build more equitable schools, we should engage in supporting change in action by using equitable practices and then reflect on what the changes teach us about our students, ourselves, and our school.
Myth #3: Teachers grow the most when they arrive at the answers themselves.
Instructional leaders often rely heavily on one reflection question to guide discussion around teacher growth: “What do you think you could have done differently?” Asking this question assumes that the most important part of teacher growth is arriving at an answer independently. It asserts that this approach will create teacher buy-in. The problem with this stance is that it values teachers taking a journey of self-discovery over their actual effectiveness in the classroom.
Instead of the wandering discussions that result from a cognitive model, coaching meetings are more effective if they are (1) data-driven and (2) directive. First, as a coach observes a teacher, just like Lauren did with Ashley, she should gather equity-focused data that helps the teacher see exactly what she can do differently. In this way, the coach, as a second set of eyes, supports the teacher to see from a different perspective, centering the well-being of students in the class.
Second, to help teachers become more effective, instructional leaders and coaches should communicate this data and applicable suggestions for improvement directly. World-class athletes and performers receive feedback in this way. But we know this is not the norm for how instructional coaches are trained. Coaching expert Elena Aguilar, for example, argues, “If I just give you directive feedback, then I’m robbing you of the opportunity to come to your own insights” (2020, p. 53). However, it’s certainly not fair to students if coaches have a clear path to help a teacher improve but allow a teacher to take the longest way to get there. We have found a directive approach to be empowering to teachers. Once a teacher recognizes a positive impact with their students, they will continue using their new learning faithfully.
To be clear, reflection and self-discovery are undeniably helpful aspects of teacher growth, but they can’t be the only ways teachers are expected to grow. We also believe they can be effectively included in a directive model of coaching. For example, when Ashley saw the chart of which students she called on and the percentage of time that she spoke, she was able to see the patterns in her teaching powerfully for herself without Lauren having to directly point them out. What followed that self-discovery, based on highly specific data, wasn’t a question of, “What do you think you can do about it?” It was Lauren guiding Ashley to practice a new skill to actually shift the inequity in her classroom. Because Ashley felt equipped to make a change, she did so the very next day. We use reflection throughout the coaching process, but we don’t rely on it as our only tool.
In our experience being coached as teachers, we both felt frustrated by a series of leading questions without much practical application. And in our own coaching work, we have found that both new and veteran teachers appreciate a directive approach. To paraphrase the Maya Angelou quote at the start of this article, we believe that if teachers knew how to do better, they would do better.
Myth #4: Teacher growth is a long and slow process.
We often hear the mantra “slow and steady wins the race” when it comes to teacher growth. However, when the equitable education of our students is at stake, there isn’t time to move slowly—and we can’t hold steady. There are more new teachers and more ineffective teachers in low-income schools or schools that serve predominantly students of color, which significantly disadvantages our Black and Brown children. As part of building educational equity and teacher confidence and skill, we must accelerate the time that it takes for a teacher to become effective.
The best way that we’ve found to do this is to engage teachers, at all levels of experience, in actively practicing new skills before using them in the classroom. In choreographed coaching, for example, practice looks like spending half of every coaching meeting role-playing scenarios or co-planning lessons with a coach in a way that allows a teacher to practice what they will say and do before they are in front of their students. This allows for immediate feedback in a trusting, low-stakes environment. In their book Practice Perfect, educators Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi (2012) write,
The ultimate objective is still to successfully use your new skills and others in an integrated setting—in the big game, in a surgery, or in a reading lesson. Practicing the technique in isolation, in a simplified setting, is ironically often the necessary first step to achieving that objective. (p. 62)
This kind of practice helps teachers build new habits, not just new ideas. Once a coach and teacher have practiced a specific aspect of teaching, the coach then holds the teacher accountable through follow-up observation. In this way, teachers know that they are expected to implement their learnings—an aspect of teacher development that is often missing from traditional professional development.
Toward Accelerating Effectiveness
Educators have the most important job in the world: creating ways for every child to thrive in learning. Building teacher efficacy directly impacts student growth, but to do this we must break down some of the myths surrounding teacher coaching and effectiveness. The support we provide teachers must allow them to immediately and practically create positive change in their classrooms: in their classroom culture, in relationships with students and families, and through high-quality and rigorous instruction.
Every student deserves an effective educator now. But while we work toward that goal, every student can have educators who are rapidly accelerating their effectiveness as classroom leaders with effective, choreographed coaching and encouragement.
Reflect and Discuss
➛ In your experience, what makes instructional coaching effective?
➛ How could you make better use of observational data in coaching sessions?
➛ Do you agree with the authors that coaching should be more directive and practice-oriented?