What is a Learning Coach?
“Instructional coaches are onsite professional developers who work collaboratively with teachers, empowering them to incorporate research-based instructional methods into their classrooms.” Jim Knight
Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, Somers Central School District implemented a coaching model to support ongoing professional learning in each of our four schools. Often called an “Instructional Coach”, this role provides targeted support to teachers in one-to-one, small group and large group settings. The determination to name our coaches “Learning Coaches” reminds us that the purpose of the work is not only professional learning, but improved student learning.
Research tells us that “Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.” Ongoing reflective practice, careful lesson planning and close examination of student work allows teachers to continuously refine and improve their practice. Coaches act as thinking partners asking questions to help teachers clarify learning outcomes for all students. With the learning outcomes in mind, the teachers and the coach work backwards to identify effective, 21st century instructional practices that engage students and ensure that those learning outcomes are achieved.
Coaching is an important, well-established professional practice
We know that professionals in many fields work with coaches. This is most transparent in American sports – the elite athletes in sports such as tennis and golf – work with coaches to constantly improve their practice. CEOs who deal with great pressures, changing markets, technologies and workforces as well as increased financial and legal scrutiny often work with executive coaches. Instructional Coaching has been studied in earnest for at least the past two decades. Research points to greatly increased implementation rates of effective instructional strategies when traditional professional development workshops are followed up with coaching.
Coaching complements our vision of continuous improvement
Teaching is most often a singular practice. Teachers work in their classrooms day after day with a wide variety of students. They are expected to know their content well but must also know pedagogy and be expert at determining the learning needs of every student. Traditional professional development implies learning away from the teacher's classroom with an "expert" sharing information about best instructional practices. The teachers are passive recipients of the information – taking notes but not having the opportunity to engage or practice new strategies with their students in the presence of the "expert". Implementation of these practices back in each classroom may or may not happen for a variety of reasons – including but not limited to the content the teacher is teaching, the needs of the students in the class, and/or the inability of the teacher to understand how to put a new practice into place. Coaching is job-embedded – in other words, it takes place in the classroom where the teaching and learning is actually happening. It involves planning, careful classroom observation, co-teaching and debriefing. A coaching cycle can involve several sessions and may even include a group of teachers who are examining their practice. The focus of the work is always improved student learning. Given new standards, new curriculum resources, and new technologies, teachers must be well versed in instructional strategies that result in highest rates of learning and how to implement these within changing contexts. Coaches work with and alongside teachers, striving for continuous improvement in teacher practice and student learning.
Who are our Learning Coaches?
The learning coaches in each of our four schools are experienced, highly accomplished and well-respected educators. They are reflective and caring partners who build strong, trusting relationships with their colleagues and are able to work with administrators to ensure that building success plans are focused on the needs of teachers in order to improve student learning. Our learning coaches are also focused on the development of their own skills. They are lifelong learners and study current research on best instructional practice. Coaches share their knowledge while encouraging, supporting and honoring each teacher's desire to improve student learning in their classrooms.
 Showers, B., & Joyce, B. (1996). The evolution of peer coaching. EducationalLeadership, 53(6), 12-16.
Here are some links to additional articles about coaching:New Yorker Magazine, Personal Best, October 2011A Primer on Instructional Coaches, Jim Knight, May 2005