Science, Education, and Science Education

classroom applications
March 1st, 2014 by Luann

Instead of an instructional coach…

Here’s what I’d like to have instead of an instructional coach:


Instead of a coach…. an assistant*.

Yup.  That’s right.

I want an assistant. Not actually an assistant for demos and teaching, although that could work. I want more of a, well,  lab manager.

I work with some pretty astonishing teachers, both in our science department and elsewhere in the building. At least I think they’re astonishing.  We share lessons openly, methods occasionally during the walk from the parking lot, email things of interest, and pass one another lab handouts over the copy machine. Students speak highly of them. I’ve learned things from every one, and hope they can say the same about me. Until last week, when I walked down the hall with my student teacher to observe another class taught by one of her cohort members, I haven’t actually been in any of their classes.  I just don’t have time.

All 9 science teachers in my school have commitments outside of the classroom with family, coaching, committees and district work, you get the picture. We have labs to run, solutions to make, equipment to maintain, lessons to plan, and student work on which to give feedback. We also have copies to make as we aren’t as up-to-speed with tech and a device for each student as we’d like to be (don’t get me started – this isn’t the time or place). We spend most of our prep time at school dealing with the chores we can’t take home. Much as we’d like to visit one another, as hard as we try to keep our promises to do so, day-to-day stuff we must do as science teachers keeps messing with us. Our visits don’t happen.

Some of the more mundane work can be done by our student aides. They wash glassware, tidy up lab benches and supply storage other than chemicals, run errands within the school, care for fishtanks, and do some simple scoring. They do basic tidy-up and sorting.  Sometimes, they tutor a student who’s been absent or fallen behind. They help with the construction of instructional materials and supplies that aren’t chemicals. Student aides can’t be in the chemical storeroom, and that’s a handicap for us.

We want an assistant to do lab prep, cleanup, equipment maintenance, chemical inventory and ordering, filing, and photocopying. Our assistant could be a student majoring in science ed or a science at the local university and could work part-time. The hours would not matter so long as they were able to get things done. This salary would be much cheaper than a licensed instructional coach. This experience would be great for the university student.

If we had an assistant to share among the 9 of us, we could spend a prep or two each week observing one another, giving one another feedback, and learning from one another.  Those of us with a common prep could work together in a modified lesson study format. We would be able to use our every-other-week late start time for real collaboration instead of playing catch-up. Since we do not have a science curriculum for our building, such collaboration would provide our students with a much more uniform experience than they  now receive. Students leaving Biology would be more prepared for Chemistry; and in turn would be more prepared for Physics.  Shoot, we could even go to the middle schools occasionally and keep up with what’s going on in those classrooms.

Why this model of improving practice? Why not a coach? Because we know our kids, we know science, and we know what works. We’re continually learning and revising. We each are as capable as any instructional coach when it comes to recognizing, implementing, modeling, and supporting accomplished teaching. An instructional coach would be a barrier in our work together. There’d be a third party, an additional layer of management, further isolating us. We’d get information secondhand from the coach, instead of working directly with one another. Even though a coach would be expected to share best practices uniformly across the building, there would be no commitment among us to practice what was coached with fidelity. Reflective practice would be meaningful only to the coach and the coach-ee.  Then, there’s our doubt that even a coach who is well-trained in coaching would know our kids well enough to suggest what is best at this particular time and in this setting, the guiding principle in every part of my practice since 1998. We want to share the coaching.

We attend conferences and workshops; usually not together. We read. We talk to other science teachers in other districts. We talk to teachers at other grade levels and in other disciplines. Some of us utilize relationships we’ve made on social media. I often know more about what’s going on in classrooms across the country than in the classroom across the hall. We stay current with best practices, in theory, anyway; we need time to share and implement those practices, visit one another’s classrooms in doing so, and make our respective practices even better. One of us could try a new idea that we felt would be valuable and doable, others could observe, and modify as needed, without each of us reinventing the wheel. Our reflections would be meaningful to one another, as we’d have firsthand knowledge of the work in the reflection. Among the 9 of us, some are more ready to share and some are in the needy stage. I’m thinking about a model that would be unique to our building’s needs in that respect, and allow the “coach” role to be shared among those who are ready to coach.

We could produce, pilot, and polish a most excellent science program/curriculum instead of attempting to copy/modify one that doesn’t really fit. Because we’d continue to meet and share and revise, the curriculum would be dynamic and stay up to date. With 80 minutes per week more time to observe one another and collaborate, I have no doubt that we would be very, very  successful.

But possibly the best part of this would be occasionally, we could not just observe. We could co-teach.  Two teachers working a lab, from table to table, would not only help kids but would help us develop new inquiry strategies; we could offer one-on-one help to students while the rest of the class is with the regular teacher. Two content-expert teachers working together in a classroom as co-teachers is a real benefit to students.

We’re pretty good teachers, but together, we’d be amazing.

Am I on the right track? If you were to implement my model, what would you add or change?

*My totally awesome student teacher and a student assistant.


11 Responses to “Instead of an instructional coach…”
  1. So this model sounds like it would be great for you and your colleagues. I recently studied the conversations of teachers at different levels of teaching accomplishment. What I found was that talking about teaching is kind of like learning from reading: people who are already good at it stand to learn the most. People who are less accomplished miss critical details and miss critical learning opportunities. Ideally a good coach helps more novice teachers focus on the right things. But if teachers already know how to ask productive questions about teaching, they really can learn and benefit foe these conversations.

    • Great insight, Ilana, thanks. Perhaps, then, a model of focused mentorship or coaching for novice teachers, a model that helps them become more self-reflective and collaborative?

      • “Reflection” is the usual description for how teachers learn from practice. But part of what I have seen is that teachers need to “reflect” on the right things and make the critical connections across different aspects of practice. Briefly, another difference between the novice, emergent, and sophisticated teachers’ conversations was the extent to which they linked specific accounts of classroom practice to general principles for teaching. That means that if somebody was talking about a lesson not going as well as expected, the more sophisticated teachers had something to hang that on — a framework for understanding that would help them do better next time, whereas the more novice teachers could do some kind of post-mortem analysis, but it did not necessarily put them in a good position to do better next time. Also, the sophisticated teachers had an ecological view of teaching: they always connected their instruction, student learning and experience, and content, while the more novice teachers would analyze these individually and not see the critically relationships across them.

      • Ilana, do you have any research, published or not, with more detail? I’m finding this deeply interesting, with my background in teacher ed. I’m particularly interested in what we’ve sometimes called induction – support for the novice, and getting them to accomplished.

      • Just wrote a post on it! Unfortunately academic publishing is painfully slow. Hopefully this will help!

  2. Hello, Luann,

    This piece really peaks at the paragraph beginning, “Why this model of improving practice? Why not a coach?” – this brings home that, when it comes to teacher professional development, school districts are not making empowering the people who can help the most.

    And, re Ilana’s point that “People who are less accomplished miss critical details and miss critical learning opportunities.” – while I see that, most schools also have at least a handful of teachers with both the experience and school-level knowledge to be effective mentors within and across disciplines.

    Additionally, your observation that, with additional time dedicated to peer observation and curriculum development you could embed PD alongside open content creation is spot on.

    The current organizational structure and problem solving methods within districts leans on bringing in outsiders to “solve problems” rather than empowering the people already doing the work with the support they need to focus on collaboration and peer support. And the irony is, the second is cheaper than the first, and would attract better people to stay longer.

    • Bill, I knew you’d catch the open content part 😉

      We do have very accomplished teachers in my current school. That’s not always been the case. I’ve worked with some turkeys. But I made them MY turkeys, and we made some progress. We’re currently messing with a PBL pilot to begin the creation of something that we hope will be usable by others. You hit the nail on the head with the use of in-house expertise. Again, that may not be best in every building, but it’s what my colleagues and I crave right now. I just need the time and opportunity to learn with them.

  3. Kym LeBlanc-Esparza says

    You offer some interesting thoughts Luann. I agree with you that authentic growth comes from expertise within a staff rather than “pd” from outside. I do however believe very strongly in good instructional coaches. I guess it is like the mythical character theory….. it is hard to believe in something you have never seen nor found credible evidence it exists. Where I differ is that I have had those coaches in my school. In fact had a long phone conversation with one just last Sunday who was one of my coaches a number of years back. When you have one like that, they make a monumental difference in your school because they do go in and co-teach, model and contribute with resources for you. She was always busy, people sought her out and she was fought for within budget work each and every year. I know it doesn’t work that way everywhere, but when you have experienced it in that way, it changes what you believe about what teaching can be!

    • Thanks for the comment and insight, Kym. My background is very different in that my support and learning have come almost entirely from collaboration with colleagues and support for one another, be it in mentors for the novice teacher of which Ilana speaks, or as peers working through a careful process with thoughtful protocols for sharing and reflection. I’ve seen coaching but never done well at the high school level beyond working with novice teachers; would you say all your coaches were so successful as the person you describe? Would this person have been as effective if she were still in a classroom at least part of the time? I see many of my colleagues in the position you describe. We are currently trying to do all the work this person did. There’s some amazing talent in our science department, but we haven’t found a way to take advantage of one another’s strengths in the time we are given. I would love, in our situation, to see that responsibility shared, with each of us adding our particular expertise to the pot. We have all sought professional learning and excitedly brought back tidbits of content, methods, techniques, but have made no real opportunity to dig more deeply and to share and to put our learning to work to do a better job for our students. I see a massive collaborative benefit in this that I wouldn’t see in using a coach who isn’t already one of us; who hasn’t walked in the shoes of a high school science teacher; who doesn’t already know what we’ve tried and found successful or not; who doesn’t know our kids and where they are and what they need. The PLC we’ve worked within for the last few years has not offered us that option, perhaps because it is led by an admin and not by us, hence my perspective that collaborative coaching would be more effective in our case.

  4. Bridget Dunbar (@BridgetDunbar) says

    I’ve been trying to figure out how best to relay how I feel about your post…being an instructional coach myself. I believe that a good instructional coach is able give each adult in the building what he/she needs. For teachers like yourself and your colleagues–I would just get out of your way and make it so you could do what you are yearning to do. I would cover your classroom so that you could have additional time to collaborate (even though I would feel a little bit bummed that I couldn’t listen in on your conversation). I would coordinate it for you with the administration–because I would know that what you were working on is important and is in the best interest of kids.
    There are other teachers, however, like Ilana described…that benefit from a coach that can help facilitate the conversation. I have been able to coordinate 1/2 day common planning for cohorts of math teachers. It is very difficult for some teachers to “collaborate” beyond sharing resources. They don’t have meaningful conversations about how to implement lessons or make instructional decisions based on student work. I have found that I get more out of talking with these teachers individually. Teaching is hard work…and I think that it’s intimidating for some to share in a group because there is a sort of vulnerability that you are then open to.
    So…I take knowing how to be a “coach” on a case by case basis. I guess it’s sort of like knowing your students and teaching them where they are.

    • Bridget, you strike me as someone with whom I’d love to work. I agree about the teachers Ilana and then you describe, who need to learn to have instructional conversations. We were all in that position once. I did not have a coach, as I was in that position in the olden days 😉 I had a few different mentors, formal and informal. I worked in smaller schools, where everyone knew everyone and had time and space to learn from one another. I learned tons, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone.

      My point with this post was to voice what my science colleagues and I need right now. We’d like to do some re-designing of our work, but somehow keep meeting resistance in our efforts to do so, mostly in the time we need. It’s frustrating; our ideas are backed by research and currently-held visions of effective educational practices, we know our next steps, but lack any time to plan and implement, and to visit each other’s classrooms to observe and give one another feedback; to reflect and revise. Some of us already have common planning time, which is eaten by the things I listed in the post. We’re asked to be creative, to take (appropriate) risks, and to reflect. We need to be able to do this without a third party at this point. Once we make some changes and do some learning from one another, we might welcome another set of eyes and ears. We have to make it to that point, first. We’d like to share the coaching responsibility, if you will. We want to “coach” one another, first. Bringing in a lab assistant would free us up to do so with less expense than a new person as coach.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: