Friday, September 19, 2008

Bad Teachers, Part 2 of ∞ : Instructional? Coaches?!?

I intended to wake up this morning and flesh out a "Grand Unification Theory" of how to reallocate administrative positions at public schools in a way that allows each administrator to do the job for which they are best suited, maximizes the ability of schools to teach, counsel and discipline students, and allows principals the chance to observe classroom teachers as part of a system that allows principals to fire bad teachers in an informed, empowered way.

But then the Great Attention-Diverting Satan that is Politics reared its ugly Hydra heads and I ended up writing some pointless comment to a stupid online newspaper editorial. I am to politics what Chet Baker was to heroin, I swear.

Anyway, I do want to spend a minute or two introducing a little known position at many of your APS public schools: The "Instructional Coach".

I don't know the whole story behind APS and "Instructional Coaches". I'd love to know more about it. All I know is that somewhere around 1997, my middle school hired one of these things, and nobody on staff knew anything about the position other than somewhat resenting the fact we had just spent an allocation to have someone NOT be in the classroom. It was also unclear as to just what authority this new position had in terms of interacting with teachers, whether teachers could be evaluated by these "Instructional Coaches", what "coaching" meant exactly and just what the Hell these people were supposed to do other than drink coffee, eat doughnuts and walk around the building looking busy.

Quite honestly, we teachers pretty much felt that the "Instructional Coach" position was designed to give burned-out teachers a desk job while they tried to overcome their desire to kill children after having suffered years and years of classroom abuse.

Well, it's 2008 now. I work at a different school, a better, shinier place with Lake Woebegone kids and water fountains that spout ambrosial liquids into our high-achieving mouths. But, just like my school back in '97, we still have an "Instructional Coach" and we teachers still have no idea just what the Hell these "coaches" are supposed to do and why the Hell we have one.

Now in saying this I am in no way denigrating the "Instructional Coach" my school has. She is a very smart person who by every appearance seems to work at least as hard as I do. She is always skittering around with standardized test scores to show teachers, sets up "professional development" days, and evidently sorta-kinda leads our Instructional Council. On this last point I have to admit I wouldn't know, as I treat "Instructional Councils" the same way I treat poisonous snakes and hand grenades. I stay far away. Far, far away.

So I admit I could probably do more research and find out exactly what it is "Instructional Coaches" do. I have done a little research on the subject, namely finding a job description for the position attached to one of the many openings for "Instructional Coach" on the APS website. It says:

Requires a Bachelor's degree (in Education preferred); valid New Mexico Education License; 7 years teaching experience with experience in support of peers; and demonstrated knowledge in core academic subject matter, preferably literacy (reading and math); and knowledge of State and District language and math standards and benchmarks, performance and assessment. Must be currently highly qualified according the No Child Left Behind Act at the level of the position (elementary, mid, or high school).Prefer Master's degree in Education; ability to communicate and interact effectively and productively, both verbal and written, with all school and district staff; ability to demonstrate effective lesson planning and delivery for English learners and students with other special needs per Frameworks for Teaching, Effective Sheltered Instruction or Differentiated Instruction; 3 years experience teaching bilingual/multicultural and/or special needs students; 1 endorsement (preferably reading, ESL, language arts, early childhood or math) and/or Special Education License; and knowledge of technology as an integrated, instructional component, implementation of staff development standards, and implementation of continuous improvement methodology. Essential functions include: Must achieve the following outcomes with or without reasonable accommodation: Mentors and/or coaches new and experienced teachers to deepen knowledge in core academic subjects and instructional strategies; supports standards implementation in all disciplines; plans and implements staff development; procures and provides resources and instructional support to principal and teachers; facilitates study groups and other collaborative efforts that develop teacher knowledge of content and students cultures, and examines student work and learning development; and acts a growth agent in the school to build a collaborative culture of learning among adults (including the principal) and students.

No, I have no real idea what any of the above means either. It's so broad, it's like a ratatouille of every education buzzword one could cook up. And my more cynical side still thinks the blob o' text above could be translated as "Requires teacher who doesn't want to become an ex-teacher, but is currently about a single five day waiting period away from shooting every student they come into contact with. Position demands knowledge of how to drink coffee and appear busy at all times."

More importantly, what is seriously not clear to me is exactly what powers and responsibilities these "Instructional Coaches" have. For purposes of our discussion on bad teachers, can these people indirectly "fire" the teachers? Can they conduct "intensive evaluations" and other steps on the tortuous road to APS teacher firing? Can they suggest such steps be undertaken by principals?

I guess one way to put it is this: are "Instructional Coaches" real coaches who can cut underperforming players, or simply cheerleaders who lead pep-rally "professional development" days with coffee for pom-poms? Or does it depend on the school?

Lots of questions, and I'd love to get some teacher/administrative feedback on this before I start performing invasive surgery on the whole administrative structure, as I promise I will do next week, whether I know what I'm talking about or not. I mean, why should this topic be different than any other discussed here?

Have a good weekend, everybody.


ched macquigg said...

There is a fundamental problem with principals evaluating teachers.

It stems from the fact that the teachers and the principals do so many other things together that they inevitably develop personal relationships which can skew evaluations in either direction.

Why not have people whose whole job is to go around evaluating teachers who appear to be having problems?

ched macquigg said...

It occurs to me that one important difference between a good teacher and a bad one is their ability to engage students.

Gerald said...

While some principals I've experienced definitely had good friendships with some teachers more than others, for the most part, principals are in schools for meetings. Meetings with support staff, other principals, maintenance, district administrators and parents. I can't remember ever having been a class that at any point was formally reviewed by a principal. The principal, that semi-anonymous figure with the office in the front of the school, was not there to interact or judge teachers abilities.
I'm completely at a loss of what an instructional counselor is and what the relationship is between the instructional counselor and the teachers and students.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the concept of the instructional coaches is that they take away the chance to lower PTR. Low class sizes have been consistantly proven to improve the bottom line of education. It's like the famous question, "Is our children learning?" GW

John Tenny said...

Instructional coaching is another way of saying peer mentoring which is another way of saying teachers helping teachers become more skilled at their profession. This has happened informally throughout public education, and is now getting a budge line.

And with that comes the problem: the current approach to observations, whether done by another teacher or an administrator, is one of recording a) what I saw and b) how good I thought it was. Both of these tasks are the victim of bias and lack of appropriate background. When observers write down 'what I saw' they are selecting from everything that went on the actions that drew their attention, a reflection of their own value system.

Recording the quality of the instruction is generally a plus/minus, a checkbox, or 1 to 5 likert scale, and are full of generally unintended bias. These subjective judgments do little to either improve teaching or to serve as a basis for removing a bad teacher.

One answer (OK, my answer) is the Data-Based Observation Model. This approach has several steps that lead to teacher engagement and self-directed professional growth.

Step One: starting with a set of standards for teaching, individual teacher goals, building or district goals, a curriculum or behavior approach being implemented, the teacher is engaged in the selection of the objective data to be collected during an observation. The basic question is "What do you want to know about your classroom?" Using frequency (counter) and duration (timer) data collection tools, data on what one would expect to see or what one would not expect to see is identified.

Example: Class Learning Time: a timer with three buttons, Learning Time, Non-Learning External (interruptions to learning outside the teachers control ,e.g. P.A. announcements), and Non-Learning Internal (interruptions to learning within the teacher's control, e.g. housekeeping, transitions, management issues).

Step Two: using the eCOVE Software (which I wrote) or pencil/paper/stopwatch/calculator, objective data is collected on the teacher and/or student behaviors. Notes are kept on the context of the observation and events that occur during the observation. Since there are no judgments made during the data collection, any reasonably qualified person can collect the data.

Step Three: the data is presented to the teacher with this question: "Is this what you thought was happening in your classroom?" This engages the teacher in reflection and in the interpretation of the data. We love it when we surprise the teacher - "I never realized my transitions were taking so long", and the typical response is a plan of action. A KEY concept here for the observer - Don't Praise, Don't Criticize, Don't Solve the Problem! Praise or criticism are used to convey your judgment of another and become the focus of future actions - to please the observer. And the most effective solutions are those devised (with support as needed) by the classroom teacher.

Step Four: "Do you think a change is needed? If so, what will you change? How can I support you?" This discussion is the meat of professional development. Of course, a teacher with a 45% Non-Learning Internal data who thinks nothing needs to be changed will need some direction in setting appropriate goals, but both educational research and local norms can provide an objective basis for that discussion.

However, the typical response is an active search for a solution by the teacher and a high level professional discussion between the observer and observee. This is the real empowerment of teachers, to take an active role in their own growth as a professional with collaborative support by other professionals.

Step Five: "When should data be collected to see if your change is effective?" Since it's not the opinion of the observer that counts here and it's not enough to just do something different, the teacher needs to have objective data on the effectiveness of their intervention (change). Another professional educator (teacher or administrator) can gather the data. You are now back at Step One, setting up the system for providing the teacher with objective data on their classroom.

For the 99+% of teachers, this is a path to self-directed professional growth, and is an effective approach to keeping teachers actively engaged in the complex process of teaching kids. For those individuals for whom teaching is the wrong job, this provides a sound basis for their own reflection ("I've done everything I can and my class learning time never gets above 40%") and removes the deflection response ("The principal just doesn't like me."). It also provides a defensible basis for district decisions about retention. And where bias and a personal agenda really does exist, neutral third parties can be brought in to gather confirmation data, protecting both the teacher and the district.

I invite you to read more on my blog, Data-Based Classroom Observation, and to download the software (you can implement the above without the software, but the software makes it MUCH easier) eCOVE Software. Feel free to email me at

Peace, John

John Tenny, Ph.D. said...

This email link works (sorry about the error above):

Amber in Albuquerque said...

Another fine example of substituting rules for good judgment. Teachers are to be judged only on what can actually be measured. Since whether or not they are 'engaging' students is subjective, it would be better to simply judge their performance on how many interruptions there are. Great. Just great.

I don't have a PhD, but I do have a big letter M and a P and an S. Guess if you want to, I'm not going to explain. Objective measurements are great, but only up to a point. At some point some subjective evaluations (by other teachers, students, and whatever other staff would be appropriate) will have to be included. Unless you feel you have a set of metrics that can measure 'burnt out teacher' or 'engaged student'.

I'm hearing this "data based" term floated around APS in their particular brand of buzzword bingo. I'm the last person to argue against actual metrics, but on their own they are no substitute for judgment when dealing with human beings (who have good days and bad days, days that are chaos and days where all goes swimmingly). You have to have a combination of both (and you'll need more than one day's worth of data points) if you really want a comprehensive evaulation of the teacher's effectiveness. And don't even get me started on how capable APS is of using data and metrics how it calculates its dropout rate is sufficient for that.

I also find the whole concept of "engaging teachers" laughable. I don't know another profession where so much attention is paid to getting employees to want to do their job. If you don't want to teach...don't. If your employer is good enough to provide you with some additional counseling/training and you continue to stink, you're fired (or pay for your own added 'professional development' if you really want to keep your job). I mean, it's fine if someone needs a little boost now and then, but I think way too much emphasis (time and money) is placed on providing teachers with 'professional development'. I'd love to see some actual metrics of how much of it is actually helping the students. Judging by the test scores and dropout rates, not much.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me about coaches is they are paid from the special ed fund to the tune of $7 million per year - at least that's what I've heard. Thus when the special ed director spoke recently regarding the funding of head teachers she stated that it was too expensive to pay for us and we needed to have a caseload to justify our positions, of course never mentioning the money siphoned off for the coaches who don't have a case load to deal with along with the other duties assigned.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps why she didn't mention the fact that money was being
"siphoned off" is because it isn't true. Instructional coaches aren't paid with Special Education funds. .......and 7 million dollars yearly????? That's what happens when we share things in a public forum that are qualified with "well, that's what I heard".

jscotkey said...

Anon Number the last one: Could you "hip" us to the funding source and amount for ICs? I, for one, would love to hear more about that.