Developing instructional coaches with Paul Dean

We recently spoke with Paul Dean about how to develop strong instructional coaches. Paul is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Jounce Partners, an organization that trains current and future school leaders for a reimagined principal role that emphasizes teacher development. In this piece, we talk about specific practices that Paul uses in coaching teachers and school leaders.

In an earlier post, we asked Paul how instructional coaches should allocate their time. That piece can be read here.

Thriving Schools: Could you describe for us what your process looks like for developing school leaders into strong coaches?

Paul: Certainly! At the start, we often put school leaders back in a simulated teacher role while we provide coaching to them. We do this for several reasons. First, we want to norm the school leadership team on the coaching language that we use. We also want leaders to experience what coaching feels like from a teacher’s perspective. And finally, this allows us to further refine instructional and content knowledge.

Thriving Schools: What happens next? Where do you go from there?

Paul: After that, we take school leaders into real classrooms and model what coaching looks like in real-time. At first, we’ll do most of the coaching and provide most of the feedback. Over time, however, we gradually release more and more the process to the school leaders we’re working with. During the whole process, we also do high-repetition practice drills with our coaches just like you would with teachers. For instance, we’ll model what a “classroom hand-off” should look like (a technique where a coach takes over classroom instruction to demonstrate a specific practice) and then have the instructional coaches we’re working with do it several more times.

Thriving Schools: What are the most important skills to train coaches on? What needs to come first?

Paul: Let me answer it this way. When we talk as a team at Jounce, we feel like we’re not doing our job if school leaders are constantly asking us to coach them on that next “magic skill.” Instead, we’re focused on instilling the mindset that whatever you want teachers to get better at, the way that’s going to happen is through real-time coaching and lots of repetitive practice. The coaching process is more important than individual, one-off skills.

In Part 1 of our interview, Paul describes some of the key elements of this coaching process.

Thriving Schools: Got it – process is more important. But we’re going to ask about specific techniques anyway! Hahaha! Can you give us an example of a unique drill that you use at Jounce?

Paul: Sure – let me tell you about the “meetings start drill.” This drill is aimed at turning more of the interactions that coaches have with their teachers into coaching touchpoints. For instance, let’s say you bump into a reading teacher that you coach and you’re both walking to the cafeteria. You could use this interaction as an opportunity to discuss an item from their class and spend a few minutes practicing. In this case, that might be rehearsing reading prompts that could be given to students. The main purpose of this drill is that coaches get to work on the language they use to quickly turn normal interactions with staff into learning moments. We literally practice the first 30 seconds of that conversation – going from “Hi, Mr. Smith” to prompting practice on a skill – again and again so that leaders become very comfortable with quickly turning conversation into coaching.

Thriving Schools: It’s fascinating to see how you’ve dissected a very specific interaction and turned it into a coaching touchpoint. Can we get another drill example?

Paul: In order to understand this next one, let me explain one of the strategic goals we have when working with any school partner. What we try to do when we come in is examine a school’s existing protocols and see how we can turn them into drills. What’s the difference? Let me explain. Most schools have numerous protocols. For example, they have clear expectations for what student work or lesson plans should look like. But a protocol is simply a series of steps that one can follow each and every time something needs to get done. There is no deep practice involved. By turning a protocol into a drill, the aim is to instill a habit of thinking rather than checking a series of boxes.

Thriving Schools: So how do you turn a protocol into a drill? Can you give us an example of this?

Paul: One example is what we call “80/90/100.” This is how it works. Many schools require their teachers to include objectives and sample student responses in their lesson plans. But again, that’s a simple requirement, or what I’ve been referring to as a protocol. In order to turn this into a drill, I might ask the following questions: “What does a student’s understanding of this content look like at 80% mastery? How about at 81%? 82%? 83%?” And so on, allowing for a teacher to respond after each question. What we find is that by the time we get to 83%, most teachers are telling us what exemplar student work should look like. So in this way, teachers develop a more nuanced view of their content and anticipate more of the student misconceptions that arise between 80% and 100%. This is also an example of how we’ve taken a protocol and turned it into a drill that gives teachers an opportunity to practice developing a knack for nuance.

Thriving Schools: Switching gears a bit - can you give us any guidelines on how much feedback coaches should provide teachers and how to transmit that feedback?

Paul: Well, every teacher should be getting multiple coaching touchpoints every day. Keeping in mind that different teachers have different needs, that means 1-minute observations and 2 to 3-minute coaching conversations are perfectly acceptable forms of feedback (so long as they’re effective). It also means that everyone on the leadership team needs to be involved in the coaching process and that they’re striving to spend 80% of their time developing their staff.

Thriving Schools: It sounds like how a school team practices is also very important. What thoughts do you have on practice style?

Paul: Yes, we need to emphasize the importance of how you practice. We believe that more repetitions should come after mastery than before. For instance, if you feel like it took you 10 attempts to get something right (mastery), you should do it 10 more times after that. That’s how you take a mastered skill and make it an automatic habit. Finally, nuance is important! When the bar’s high, the details matter. Let me give you an example of how we improve the “self-interrupt drill” (a behavior management technique used to regain class attention). As teachers learn to self-interrupt, most are taught to simply stop at the end of a word or sentence. However, we’ve found that it’s much more powerful and effective to cut yourself off mid-word. And so that’s the type of nuance that we try to coach on.

Thriving Schools: What resources or books would you recommend to someone wanting to improve the coaching they provide to their teachers?

Paul: Let me give you a few:

1) Practice Perfect

The next two are for building content knowledge into bite-sized skills:

2) Great Habits, Great Readers

3) Children’s Mathematics

4) Finally, I would recommend gaining access to a teaching video library. For example, you may want to take a look at Mission 100%. What I do is watch a 30-second clip of teaching, get up in a classroom, and then re-teach it focusing on a skill or two I want to get better at. Then, I do the same thing from in a coach’s role. How would you coach that teacher? And ideally, you would do this process as a team!