Navigating the Seas of Professional Learning as a Coach
By: Kristin Daniel
A few weeks ago I wrote about the coach as an essential component to a successful online professional learning (PL) program. What I didn’t say–and what I’ve been thinking about since–is how much of the work of a coach is unseen. A coach navigates complex terrain, drawing on content knowledge, communication, collaboration, and reflection–all before the coaching relationship begins.
David Boxer, Director of Information Support Services at Blake School and one of GOA’s coaches for the Blended Learning Design Studios (BLDS), has a great metaphor: Coaching, he says, is like sailing:
Sailors need to keep a keen eye on the telltales (the wind indicators) because they can shift quickly, and you need to be ready to release the halyard before the wind causes the boat to tip….[As a coach], it’s a delicate balance because you need to be ready when the wind picks up and be ready to jibe when a teacher is available; yet you don’t want to loosen up on the mainsail too much. Otherwise, it may luff and miss a crucial opportunity.
Whether you’re a sailor or not, the message is clear: Coaches constantly fine tune and adjust their work to support the needs of each PL participant while at the same time keeping an entire cohort on course.
BLDS was designed with adult learners in mind, giving them choice, time, and independence, with a coach there as needed. This is tricky for a coach: knowing when to offer a nudge or when to take a step back and allow individuals to create and design on their own. A coach must constantly be aware of the tension of the line: when to push and when to pull back. We call this balancing act “responsive design.”
With BLDS, GOA designed a professional learning program that’s flexible, adaptive, and personalized: meeting participants where they are. Ultimately, the goal of BLDS is to encourage our participants to design unique student learning experiences that are interactive, generative, and personalized. The coach must balance the individual goals and needs of each participant while encouraging all participants to create student-centered, modern learning designs that reinvent the classroom.
Jamey Everett, a technology integrator at Park Tudor School and another BLDS Coach, explains:
Instructional coaching is amazingly rewarding and nerve racking at the same time. My goal is to create a personalized experience for each of the participants, to know THEIR instructional needs and goals and support them as they grow into that vision. But that variety is also challenging. Am I meeting each person’s needs? I see now why one-size-fits all PD is so prevalent: it’s easy for the presenter.
Being a good coach is difficult. The coach is in a constant state of analysis and reflection, weighing when and how to encourage change, while also being an excellent listener, communicator, and knowledgeable friend. To help support them in this process, BLDS coaches have an instructional designer (ID), or rather, their own coach. The ID collaborates with them to fine tune the program in the moment but more importantly to provide a space for the coaches to reflect, relate, and to respond to the needs of their individual BLDS participants and their cohorts.
Ultimately the rewards of coaching don’t come simply from a participant’s completing a design. Instead, they come from the coaching relationship itself: helping a colleague reflect on what needs to change and supporting that participant’s growth throughout the design process. “Where I’ve found solace,” says Boxer, “is seeing first-hand how much time in BLDS is devoted to self-identifying challenges and areas for growth. By taking the time to design experiences based on sound pedagogy, putting those ideas into practice, and honoring the role of reflection (thinking, writing, and discussing), it’s both the teacher and the coach who more easily make connections that are intimately connected to the student’s experience.”
When coaches and teachers collaborate to pick a destination and get their boat safely there, the students are the ones who reap the benefits of that perfect sail.