Coaching vs. Supervising
During a lunch time conversation with a veteran teacher, the discussion turned to the value of supervision; that is the ability of a supervisor to help a teacher improve upon his or her instructional practices. My colleague was brutally frank, “I’ve been teaching for more than twenty years. I can honestly say that I have never received feedback from a supervisor that was valuable enough to make me a better teacher.” Although I was disappointed to hear this, I was not surprised.
As a superintendent and an assistant superintendent, I have reviewed countless teacher observation and evaluation reports. Those reports were quite similar to the kind of reports that I received as a teacher forty years ago: “Students entered the classroom quietly…the teacher had a ‘Do Now’ on the board…the teacher checked the homework…the teacher spoke in a clear and loud voice…the aim of the lesson, ‘How was the Battle of Normandy a turning point in World War II?’ was written on the board…students were assigned to groups of four to discuss their answers…the teacher led a follow up discussion…the majority of students raised their hands in response to the teacher’s questions…this was an excellent lesson—keep up the good work.” A common practice is to place the observation report in the teacher’s mailbox with a note, “Let me know if you’d like to discuss, or please sign and return.” What does that say about the importance of receiving feedback?
Despite the advent of teacher evaluation rubrics and performance review plans over the last five years, the process of teacher supervision and evaluation has essentially remained the same. The process is a kabuki dance; a stylized, predetermined little drama designed to create the appearance of some kind of quality control. I understand that this criticism is harsh. The charade requires the unspoken consent of supervisors, teachers, unions, and central office administrators who all silently perpetuate the practice. It is based on the mindset that teacher observations and evaluations which should provide quality feedback are of little value—a waste of time—especially when it comes to tenured teachers. The evidence for my assertion is found in just about every teachers’ contract which limits the number of teacher observations to two per year. What does that say?
I like to judge good practice against a set of professional and relevant guiding principles which should serve as a standard. Let’s state several guiding principles related to teacher supervision and then comment upon how the current practices measure up to how those principles can be fulfilled:
- The purpose of teacher evaluation is to provide feedback which should stimulate the professional development of the teacher and bring about improvement in his/her instructional practices. The purpose is never “I gotcha”. It is not about showing the teacher that as a supervisor you are smarter that he or she; that you, like Superman, have super vision. It’s not about checking off that an observation was done and there’s a report in the personnel file. Coaching should not be judgmental; “I liked when you…; you shouldn’t have…; you should…” The most important job of a supervisor is to provide effective feedback to the teacher, be an extra pair of eyes and ears, and brain to the teacher.
- The only one who can improve the instructional practices of the teacher is the teacher. Teachers wake up in the morning and bring their “A” game to work every day—they do the best they can with what they know. The challenge is to develop a trusting relationship and justify that improvements are necessary. This does NOT mean that a teacher is not held responsible for his/her performance.
- Coaching a teacher must be based upon evidence and data, which drives an inquiry process, and leads to the teacher self-reflection, self-diagnosis, self-remediation, and self-correction. A classroom observation is an opportunity for staff development. It requires that the teacher and the coach work together on an agreed upon set of goals. The tried and tested Clinical Supervision process requires a pre-conference, the observation, and a post conference. Both parties need to know how the process works in advance. Four questions should be asked during the pre-conference. (1) What is the “big idea” of the lesson? (2) What do you want me (the coach) to look for during the lesson? (3) What evidence and data do you want me to collect? (4) How do you want me to organize and present the evidence and data back to you during the post conference?
The post conference should take the form of an inquiry which delves into the evidence and data. I suggest that the teacher receive the evidence and data prior to the post conference. The teacher is then well prepared to enter into the discussion. For the most part, the role of the coach is to ask probing and clarifying questions, listen carefully to the teacher’s response, and then go deeper by asking follow up questions based on the responses. This is not easy, but with practice and some training you can become proficient. Yes, supervisors also need on-going professional development.
The conference, if executed properly, should take the teacher through a self-reflective process. The successful outcome to the post conference should be that the teacher is able to thoughtfully answer the question, “If you were able to teach this lesson again, what would you do differently?” In effect the teacher formulates his or her own recommendations. If done correctly, the contents of the post conference should morph into the narrative and the recommendations in the observation report.
In summary, one of the differences between the role of a supervisor and a coach is that the coach uses evidence and data as the basis of a reflective inquiry with the teacher, which empowers the teacher to make improvements in his or her instructional practices, thus improving student learning.