Episode 19 - Instructional Coaches

This is the audio transcription for The Answer Key: Learning and Leadership in the K-12 World

Podcast Audio Transcription
Program Title: The Answer Key: Learning and Leadership in the K-12 World
Episode 19: Instructional Coaches
Running Time: 26 minutes.
Publish Date: June 2019. Fairfax County Public Schools

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Answer Key: Learning and Leadership in the K-12 World.

HOST: Hello. My name is Sandra Brennan. Today’s topic is instructional coaches. The essential question is two-fold: What is an instructional coach, and how do their varied roles support a teacher’s ability to serve students? To help answer this question, let me introduce three guests: Michelle Lis, Elizabeth Dean, and Shannon Merriweather. Michelle leads one of the largest instructional coaching programs in a public school system. Elizabeth Dean and Shannon Merriweather serve as instructional coaches. Elizabeth at the high school level; and Shannon at one of the most diverse elementary schools in the country. Everybody, thank you so much for coming.

GUESTS: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

HOST: Awesome. Thank you! Elizabeth, I want to start with you.


HOST: So, what is an instructional coach? Can you define the role?

ELIZABETH DEAN: Of course, I can. An instructional coach, or my job as an instructional coach in my building, is to really support teachers in their classrooms. And I do that in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I support the teacher one on one. Other times I’m working with a whole team of teachers on the same curriculum team or in their disciplinary team. I work with any teacher, you know, who is willing to have me in their classroom and really ask for help. And that’s across all disciplines: special ed teachers, ESOL teachers, Science, Math, English. And I also serve as a liaison between the teachers and the administration in helping the administration really fulfill the vision of the school.

HOST: So, Shannon, tell me. How does your view of elementary instructional coaching change from that of Elizabeth’s description?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: I do a lot of the very same things that Elizabeth just mentioned. So, I work with teachers. Being the only instructional coach at an elementary school, I do all of the topics. So, I can work with a teacher on behavior management. I can co-teach with teachers in science. We can work on number talks. So that is one thing, that I think, is unique to my position in that I do all of the things in that arena. I, also, am part of the C-L-Ts. I meet with teams, help them plan, and part of my role in that is that I support our resource teachers in supporting teams. So, I might not be in the C-L-Ts every week, but how can I support the resource teachers in facilitating those C-L-T meetings to make them as effective as they can be. And then another role that I have that wasn’t mentioned, is in terms of professional development, building-wide. So, at Weyanoke we have really tried to be strategic about doing in-house professional development. So, particularly, at this time of the year, but throughout the year, I am helping to craft that vision and then implement our professional development for the whole school.

HOST: Michelle, you manage the corps of instructional coaches. So, I hear a lot about best practices.

MICHELLE LIS: So, instructional coaches, the goal of the position, really, is to support teachers to build their capacity in reading, math, and closing the achieving gap in service to students. And so, it’s really important that coaches have the, either reading or math content knowledge and expertise. And that they have the ability to build relationships quickly with teachers so that they can support them in the classroom in those areas. Coaches aren’t there to judge teachers or to provide them an evaluative feedback on what is going well or what’s not going well. Coaches are teachers as well, they’re teacher leaders in the building. And so, they are really there side by side on an even playing field with the teachers. And so, any feedback that they might provide is based on a teacher’s goal. And is very data driven, not evaluative.


ANNOUNCER: You are listening to The Answer Key: Learning and Leadership in the K-12 World.

HOST: What are the skills needed to be an instructional coach?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: You have to be able to build relationships.

HOST: What else?

ELIZABETH DEAN: You have to view yourself as a learner.

HOST: Michelle?

MICHELLE LIS: You need to be humble.


MICHELLE LIS: Because we are not the experts. We are there to learn side by side with teachers and it is okay to not know everything.

HOST: So, what are the other skills? Are these their soft skills? Their hard skills? What else do you need?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: I think the soft skills are really important. I think about being flexible. I think about -- something I am continuously working on is engaging in a conversation that just sort of happens by circumstance and being able to flexibly navigate that conversation. Maybe not in the way I want it to go, or need it to go, but in a way that supports that other person. So that flexibility but those soft skills of dealing with other people, interacting with other people, I think are where you see the most pay off.

MICHELLE LIS: Strong pedagogy and content knowledge are really important.

HOST: Would seem to be more important?

MICHELLE LIS: I would say they’re equally important.

ELIZABETH DEAN: I think you have to be a good listener.

MICHELLE LIS: And we know that it takes a lot of trust for adults to work closely with one another and have a good relationship. And so, coaches can be the most effective when they are not evaluating a teacher, and they are working on what the teacher wants to work on. So, all their work is done by teacher driven goals. So, teachers identify a goal for themselves and then the coaches are there to support them in reaching that goal, which also ties into teacher advocacy. This is what I want to work on; it is not being imparted on me, so I have greater ownership.

HOST: Stay with us, we’re just going to take a short break.


HOST: The work of instructional coaches is non-evaluative and confidential. In Fairfax County Public Schools, instructional coaches observe classroom activities at the invitation of the teacher. Elizabeth, what are your impressions?

ELIZABETH DEAN: We’ll go in, you know, take a closer look at whatever issue they are trying to work out, or something that’s, you know, not quite right with the way that their class is running. And they just need support, and help, or a second set of eyes and ears. We have been doing a lot of videotapings. So sometimes teachers will invite us in to have us videotape part of their class, or all of their class. And then we’ll watch it and reflect together. And it really is just about collaborating side by side with the teacher, learning together and trying to, you know, affect the classroom practice – all for the kids.

HOST: We had an example of the kinds of work that takes place at high school and elementary school, but what are the real roles once you are in that school?
MICHELLE LIS: So, we really base our model off of Joellen Killion’s book, Taking the Lead, which outlines ten different roles for an instructional coach. So, some of them are a resource provider, a change agent, a school leader, a learner. And so, coaches don’t necessarily work within just one role at one given time. So typically, when they’re working with a team, they might be a curriculum specialist, an instructional specialist and a resource provider at all of the same time while working with that team during the collaborative team cycle. Probably the most important role out of all ten is the learner role. And so, coaches really participate in a lot of professional development to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to best practices in instructional coaching as well as the curriculum areas in which they support teachers. And they turn around that learning and take it back to their schools to build the capacity of teachers.

HOST: So, Shannon, what is your favorite role in all that?

(all laugh)

HOST: There are a lot of hats!


HOST: And share a success story. Share a challenge story.

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: So, a success story I will share. Recently. So, my, I guess my favorite role involves innovation. I would say particularly in my building right now there is a lot of vibrancy around some new practice and new learning. And I see that paying off for our students and our teachers. So, at the beginning of the school year, as Elizabeth mentioned, we’ve been, we have implemented the practice of videotaping classrooms and teachers. And so, I specifically went up to one of the teachers that I had worked with last year and I said, “I need to start videotaping folks, will you let me do it?” And I just kind of smiled. And she said, “yes.” And so, we spent the first month-ish of the school year talking about teacher language and the teacher language in her classroom. And we, I took some video for her. I transcribed what she was saying. I transcribed student conversations. And we would meet and talk about, like, were her questions deep enough? Was she asking the questions she wanted students to answer? Why weren’t students responding in the way she wanted them to? And all of that to say, in the course of the past couple of months, from people who don’t know I have worked with her, we are now hearing, “I am really noticing the teacher language in this classroom, and how it is benefitting students, and how it is paying off for students.” And they don’t know the journey that she’s gone through or even the fact that I was part of that journey. But really investing the time with teachers and students to refine their practice, and get really good at it, and seeing that pay off for our students. And so, it is interesting. We had talked about looking for that invitation but there is also that part of it of knowing where you can invite yourself because in that story, I truly just invited myself in. I said I want to do this thing, what can we do it around? But the trust was there in that relationship that I could do that and we could spend a month really diving into how do we talk to kids?

HOST: I can’t help but ask, since a lot of my life has been spent with cameras. When you are recording, what are the things you are looking for that you might show your colleagues in a, sort of, one on one?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: So, the process that I have taken is I record it on my phone with the YouTube app, so, and I have a private YouTube page. So really what I do, and I have found that doing it in this way helps me, so I’m not really focused on what is happening, I’m legitimately just holding up my phone, because the purpose is not for me necessarily to come in and say, “Here is what I noticed.” I might be able to pull that out if someone asks but what I will do is. So, we’ll say you want to work on teacher language, what content area; you would like to focus on your math; focus lessons and number talks. In this situation, this teacher wanted to work on her questioning of students, so she was asking questions that required deeper thinking answers. So rather than going from “What’s the answer to this?” to “How do you know two times two is four? How did you get that answer? What are the first steps you need take to solve this problem?” So, she was trying to get deeper in her language and elicit responses from the students that required much more critical thinking than just an answer. So, I would go in and videotape her number talk and focus lesson. And because it is in YouTube, I can just copy the link and send it to her. And say, “watch this before we meet.” Through some of our professional development, we’ve been working with Jim Knight and the Impact Cycle this year, and so he also has a reflection sheet to use when you watch your video. And that reflection sheet allows the teacher to focus on what students are doing, and what the teacher is doing, and there are about eight to ten different categories that you assess yourself and the students. So, I’ll send the link to the video. I’ll put the paper in the mailbox. And I’ll say, we’ll meet tomorrow. And so, I am not really watching the video unless they want me to. There are some teachers I have worked with where I’ll model a lesson and I’ll videotape myself and then we’ll both watch it because I need to, like, be able to talk about what I did. And that allows, that shows that reciprocity of I’m doing this, too. I don’t know how it’s going to go and we’re going to talk about how it went. But I’m willing to stand up there and we can pick it a part as well.

HOST: Jim Knight, for those who don’t know, is a professor at the University of Kansas and has written numerous books on instructional coaching and teacher learning. He is also a huge advocate on the role of video to enhance teacher best practices.


HOST: Elizabeth, what is the challenge? Your background is English teacher. And now you are an instructional coach and you are going into a science class. What’s that like? What’s the trust factor? How do you advocate for someone who’s not in your field?

ELIZABETH DEAN: That’s a great question and a question I get a lot. I think back to your question earlier about what your favorite role of an instructional coach is. One of the roles is learner. And for me, I’m a learner at heart. I love professional learning. I’m, like, a P-D junkie. And so, part of why I, you know, enjoy being an instructional coach so much is getting access to some of that quality professional learning. And, I think, an example of a struggle, or challenge, that I have had as a coach is that I truly have been a learner when working with teachers in other departments, and not in English. I have no math background or science background, and over the past two years I’ve been primarily working with the math department at my school. So, I really have been a learner. I have learned a lot of algebra, geometry, and uhm, it’s brought back many memories. (Chuckle) And I think that as the coach, with, who has an English background, going into a math C-L-T meeting, or working with a math teacher, it actually positioned, has positioned me in a better place to build a partnership with those teachers because I truly am giving them the message that they are the expert in their content and we are a team, you know, sitting on the same side as the table, trying to work together. I do not have the upper hand, I do not have the, you know, I don’t know how to solve the problems, because I actually don’t know. It’s about helping the teacher figure out their own answer, mediating their own thinking, not giving them the answers.

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: And can I respond to that as well? I think that, that we talk about the different roles of coaching and what does it look like. But it, also, just doesn’t always look the same. So, fifth grade science is a thing and I have taught fifth grade science but the content there is pretty deep. And so, one of things that we’ve done at Weyanoke this year is just in our weekly science C-L-Ts, we’ll plan a lesson together and then everyone will co-teach it in one room. And so, the coaching doesn’t always look like me coming into this room to support you but how can we use the whole team, and people outside of our building, to support each other. And that frees us up to not have to walk into the room and know how to do all of the things because we can develop that together. And so, while I may not have all of the content, in the end of the planning I can say, back to that teacher language, like, what are the questions we need to ask them? What visuals do we need to provide? And that gets at the instruction, which, good instruction is good instruction. And so, there’s always something we can bring to the table, and then we maximize the rest of the group to bring in those things that are not our area of expertise.

HOST: So, Michelle, do you believe that more schools are taking control of their professional learning?

MICHELLE LIS: I would say many schools across the division are and one way they do that is by funding an instructional coach position. Because instructional coaches provide that job-embedded professional development based on what the schools and the teachers need. So, it could look like a coach providing professional development on an early release day. It could be that they are embedding professional development through the C-L-Ts; that just in time learning around a content area. Or, it could be that one-on-one coaching that moves a teacher and their kids forward.

HOST: Where is the professional development for instructional coaches? How do you keep current?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: Every year Michelle puts together a program, if you will, for us. So, this year we are working with Jim Knight around the Impact Cycle. Last year we worked with Lucy West and content coaching. And. I would say this year the Impact Cycle is a big part of our professional development but that is really one component of it. We all get to access courses such as Cognitive Coaching and Adaptive Schools. Really refining our practice around those roles to support all of the people in our building and that support looks really different. So Adaptive Schools might help us to support teams of teachers and what sorts of structures, what sorts of processes do we need to put in place to get the best product out of that collaborative work together. Whereas Cognitive Coaching allows us to craft our language and think about what our role is in a conversation or working with a group of people. And then the Impact Cycle has really helped us to target our work with individual teachers – being more strategic, allowing teachers to choose their goals, and being able to measure their success. So, it’s not this nebulous, “I hope I had some impact on you! Like, it was great working together.” But it really is something that you can measure and something that is based in students.

HOST: I’m going to interrupt right here because I had to look up the Impact Cycle. Jim Knight coined the term, The Impact Cycle. There are three phases: identify, learn, improve. It means teachers can collaborate on ways to identify, improve, and learn methods to meet student-centered goals.

ELIZABETH DEAN: And another opportunity we have for professional learning is simply just to get together and collaborate with one another. Many coaches are the only coach in their school, like me. And so, although I have many wonderful people to collaborate with when I am at my school site every day, it’s really nice to get together with other people who are in the same role as I am and kind of brainstorm together, troubleshoot, and just share our experiences. When you are a first year instructional coach, you have specific meetings just to support first year coaches. And I find myself, over the past two years that I have been a coach, really looking forward to those meetings.

HOST: What would you like to add to that, Michelle?

MICHELLE LIS: To add on, the professional development that coaches engage in once a month together is either focused on coaching skills or the FCPS Learning Model. So, it’s one of those two areas. And then in addition to the professional development that all coaches get, and first year coaches get separately, first year coaches also receive a mentor within the program to support them throughout the year. And then I go out and observe coaches in their buildings alongside their principal to watch them coach and provide them some feedback.

HOST: So, you can go to a teacher program, you can take all the courses, but do you learn even more? Do you perfect that skillset once you’re in a school with colleagues and coaches?

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: I think about the school in which I work. And you have mentioned how diverse it is. Walking into a school like Weyanoke is a, is a special skillset. And there are a lot of different things that you just don’t learn in your methods course. And if I think about the importance of visual supports for the students in my school that are tiered, and it is a continuum, and those visuals might be just putting the directions up on the board. But it also might be a word wall with pictures because who really knows what deciduous means. And so those discreet skills that different schools require of you, you have to perfect those in the moment because it’s also going to change with the next set of students. So, if a teacher is working on their behavior management with the students that are in place right now, they’re really working on those practices and those practices might not work next year. But I would argue the work with the coach where you are doing the thinking around the problem-solving and how to think flexibly and how to build your efficacy to solve those problems is going to support you in your behavior management the following year with a different set of students. But you have to be in it to do it.

MICHELLE LIS: So, I can relate instructional coaching to a football team because not only are the coaches on the sideline watching the individual players but they’re watching the team as a whole. And so, coaches really work individually with players as well as the team as a whole. And often times it is from the sidelines. You rarely see a football coach get out on the field and throw a football in order to model. Right, but they record the players, they draw diagrams, they take notes, they give that feedback to the players so the players can take that data, use it and make refinements to get better.

HOST: Any tips for instructional coaches, instructional coaches wannabes? Teachers who may need your support?

ELIZABETH DEAN: A tip for a teacher would be to knock on the door, come ask, we are here to help, and we are happy and excited to. And my tip for a coach would be to continue to be coached.

HOST: Wow.

ELIZABETH DEAN: Just because you are the coach doesn’t mean you don’t need coaching.

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: Yeah. I think my tip for a coach, Michelle again talked about patience, and that patience, it’s not easy for some of us. And so, going slowly is just, it’s staying in there. And staying in the game and knowing that the work is being done and that you are doing it. And Michelle said it, Elizabeth said it, my tip for a teacher is just we are here. Like we want to do the work. And we don’t want to be evaluative, like, in no way is that – because that ruins the work. That’s not how we want to approach it. And so –

HOST: And you see positive differences?


HOST: You see student learning, you see teacher engagement.


HOST: They enjoy the work.

SHANNON MERRIWEATHER: Yes. And I think one of the things that I have found, and this is definitely something that I reflect upon, is when I do my job well, teachers generally want to do it again. So, if I have been the best that I can be, one of those data points is if someone says, “Hey, can we do this thing?” Or, if I say, “There is this thing out, could we try it?” They are much more willing to say yes. And so that’s important for me to be mindful of, in terms of stepping, making sure my game is always broad.

HOST: Michelle, what are your tips for teachers and coaches?

MICHELLE LIS: My one tip is remain the same the entire time, which is to go slow to go fast. And to remain patient with those small changes. And my tips for teachers would be to reach out for support when you need it and reach out even when you don’t think you need it because we are always trying to protect our craft and each little interaction can help you get that much better for your kids.

HOST: Thank you for joining us, everyone. I just have to add that from what I can see, more schools are digging deep into the world of professional learning, and instructional coaches are a big part of that picture. Did we answer the essential question asked at the top of the program? What is an instructional coach? Yes! An instructional coach is a teacher, who is a teacher advocate, who works with teachers one on one, and in small groups to enhance instructional best practices to meet student-centered goals. What are the roles of an instructional coach? They’re varied, they’re rich, and immensely important to every school community. Thanks for listening. For The Answer Key, I’m Sandra Brennan.


ANNOUNCER: This interview is produced by Digital Learning Resource Services, the Department of Information Technology, Fairfax County Public Schools.

(Music to End)


c. 2019 Fairfax County Public Schools.