A Model for Instructional Coaching at the Community College
December 2013, Volume 8, Number 12
By Barbara Patterson
I don’t blow a whistle, wear a jersey, or give pep talks in a locker room, but I am a coach—an instructional coach. The players are the teachers at a community college, the field is the classroom, and I help a team to practice teaching methods that engage students and improve academic success. Instructional coaches are on-site professional developers who work collaboratively with teachers, empowering them to incorporate research-based instructional methods into their classrooms (Knight, 2007). Interest in coaching has grown dramatically in the last ten years with school districts and states hiring thousands of coaches. The use of coaching at the community college level is not as common, but instructional coaches at Front Range Community College (FRCC) in Colorado are observing it change the culture of teaching and learning.
In 2010, the college decided to create an instructional coaching position and hired two experienced faculty members to pilot the program. Front Range Community College is a multi-campus college, and the two largest campuses, Larimer and Westminster, were chosen as the startup sites. The new coaches researched coaching practices and attended a workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, for K-12 teachers. They met regularly with the instructional dean on their campus, developed a plan, and incorporated a survey into the pilot to assess the project. The coaching program is now in its third year, and its success has prompted the deans to hire a coach for a third campus and a coach for online instruction. They have also just opened the position for a second three-year term, making coaching an embedded part of professional development at the community college.
Rationale for Coaching
Although more research is needed, studies by Cornett and Knight (n.d.) have looked at the implementation and quality of a teaching strategy when coaching is utilized. They compared the teachers who were trained in a workshop with coaching support and teachers who were given an instructional strategy and received no support. Teachers who receive coaching, modeling, practice, feedback, and peer observation report a 90 percent implementation rate compared with an implementation rate of 10 percent for teachers who simply attend the workshop (Knight, 2007). Data also suggests that non-evaluative support from a coach, using the principles of partnership, is more effective than top-down evaluations that are part of the teacher’s record.
To kick off the new coaching program, Are You Interested? forms were dispersed at the all-college in-service, along with surveys on what teachers do well and what teachers need. The coaches compiled responses and got to work. After an individual pre-meeting with a teacher interested in talking about teaching, the coach would arrange a time to observe the teacher’s classroom. In some cases, classes were videotaped to show the teacher the classroom environment. Coaches then used the seven Principles of Partnership, the learning theory developed by Knight (2007), to connect and coach teachers. The teacher would discuss concerns he or she might have and then identify a goal. For example, a teacher might want to make lectures more interactive, so coaches would recommend a few strategies. After the teacher would try a new strategy, and meet again with the coach to discuss the success or challenges.
Components of Coaching
One-on-one coaching is the main task of the coach. This usually consists of a meeting, identifying a goal, explaining and modeling, observing, and further exploring a teaching practice with a teacher (Knight, 2011). The coaching program at FRCC has enrolled faculty who are full-time or part-time (adjunct faculty are paid for their participation), are new or experienced, and represent all disciplines in career and technical education and guaranteed transfer. In addition, teachers have taken advantage of the program to learn a specific teaching strategy or have participated in multiple sessions throughout the semester to learn general teaching principles.
The biggest change at FRCC we’ve observed over the three years is that teachers are now talking more about teaching and learning. Stories are being shared in the hallways, and coaches hear so many success stories that a best teacher practices document is being developed. We’ve also observed that teachers who are struggling are not afraid to ask for help; at first, only the best teachers were enrolling in coaching. Coaching and peer observations are so commonplace on campus that both teachers and students think nothing of having an extra one or two people in the classroom. The trust that has developed over time demonstrates that coaching provides a safe, non-evaluative, partnership approach to professional development that teachers value.
Reflective Practice Groups are meetings with six to eight teachers who share their teaching experiences with each other. “Reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning, which is one of the defining characteristics of professional practice" (Schon, 1983). At the beginning of each semester, the coach organizes interested faculty and instructors into groups, which meet twice a month. Following a reflective practice group model, teachers do a guided write-to-learn activity on a prompt related to their teaching that week. Each teacher shares for a few minutes. As a group, participants decide what to discuss in more detail and determine if a theme ties these stories together. The reflective practice group meeting always ends with a prompt that leads teachers to feel good about their practice or decide to try something new in their class. This is non-prescriptive professional development. Teachers have a comfortable place to share experiences and concerns, choose what they want to work on, and build community with teachers that they may not have otherwise met.
In the process, coaches observe groups of teachers building community, trusting each other, and growing in their teaching. A common comment after reflective practice group meetings is, “This was such a great discussion. Can we stay and talk?” Teachers make dates to continue the discussion, consider approaches to solving a problem, and continue to share best teacher practices. Some of the groups have formed around a specific goal. Chemistry and mathematics faculty are meeting regularly to develop a peer-tutoring program, understand the outcomes of each other’s classes, and come up with strategies to work together. English teachers have an English reflective practice group where they share specific teaching practices in their discipline. Another group chooses an education book each semester and bases their prompts and discussions on that reading.
Workshops with followup are effective ways to build trust with teachers. Workshops are followed up with an email and offer to provide more resources on a topic. Participants know the face of the instructional coach and are more likely to call for coaching or respond to the email for more information. Coaching research claims that workshops are effective for introducing school initiatives but are more successful with coaching and support. The topics of the workshops are driven by what the coach hears teachers say. This approach leads to workshop topics, such as Never Work Harder Than Your Students, Cooperative Teaching Strategies, Writing Essential Questions, and Bridging the Technology Generation Gap, that increase teacher engagement in professional development as well as the chances for a higher implementation rate.
Networking is an integral part of the coaching program. Coaches find themselves involved in other college initiatives, such as student assessment, campus climate, and other professional development programs. The coach can help weave the multitude of programs together and improve communication among campus initiatives. Sometimes, the best support a coach can give a teacher is a referral to other resources, including those they can share with their students. As college populations increase, navigating all the resources the college has to offer can be overwhelming.
I have learned a lot as the college instructional coach. Developing trust and respect from colleagues is a key role of the coach. Administrative support, including a budget to pay adjunct faculty for their participation, is imperative. The lessons learned from coaching have shown that the instructional coaching program is changing the culture of teaching and learning at FRCC and has been a very valuable addition to professional development. Talking about teaching is now a part of the college culture that we can hear, see, and feel all around us.
Cornett, J., & Knight, J. (n.d.). Studying the impact of instructional coaching. Lawrence, KS: Kansas Coaching Project at the Center for Research on Learning. http://instructionalcoach.org/research/tools/paper-studying-the-impact-of-instructional-coaching
Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable Impact. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
Barbara Patterson is a faculty and instructional coach at Front Range Community College.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.