Walking the Line Between Non-Evaluative Feedback and Teacher Evaluations

Three Tips to Keep You on Track

By Maria Wilcox, Professional Services Director

Across the United States, the role of the instructional coach continues to gain momentum, change forms, and redefine itself to meet constantly evolving educator needs. As such, it is difficult to clearly outline the role and its responsibilities. One thing that is consistent and a critical component of the success of coaches is that coaches remain non-evaluative in their work.

Elena Aguilar, who wrote the popular book “The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation,” states “coaching tied with evaluation is a recipe for disaster; in order to be able to work with a coach and really learn, you have to be able to feel like you can really take risks. And if coaching is tied to evaluation, it’s not going to even be possible.” This piece of advice embodies the spirit of a successful teacher-coach relationship in that for professional growth and learning to take place, a supportive and feedback-rich environment is necessary.

However, in the age of high-stakes testing and increased teacher accountability, coaches are often brought in to address gap areas discovered during teacher evaluation processes. To ensure that truly meaningful coaching occurs, here are three tips for coaches to ensure their relationship with teachers remains supportive and fosters growth:

1. Outline roles and responsibilities of all professionals involved in the coaching process; this includes the coach, the teacher, and the principal or evaluator.

Ensuring that everyone knows their roles, the limits, and expectations creates a culture of transparency and honesty. If a teacher trusts the promise that coaching conversations remain confidential, he is more likely to be open with the coach and begin the work needed to change. Conversely, a principal’s respect of the growth process is critical.

2. Coaches should approach their work as a facilitator and learning guide, leaving agendas and ultimatums at the door.

When a coach approaches a teacher with an open mind and without ulterior motives, it allows the teacher to guide their learning process, select their outcomes, and be their own agent of change. Allowing teachers to do this fosters reflection and emphasizes reactive teaching, which drives them to further examine their practice critically and analytically. A coach should be there to listen, suggest, encourage, and provide feedback.

3. Approach coaching with student outcomes in mind; choose the coaching approach that best fits the district’s vision and needs.

There are a variety of coaching models; cognitive, inquiry-based, instructional, and student-centered. One is not better than the other and at the heart of each is the desire to improve student outcomes through effective and meaningful instruction. This cannot happen without honest and reflective practice from both the coach and the teacher.

Instructional coaching as a practice in schools, shows no signs of slowing down, nor are teacher evaluations going anywhere soon., It is our duty to grow as professionals to provide the best education and experience to our students. Instructional coaches have a unique and profound opportunity to guide a new generation of educators into the future, build capacity in our schools, and see kids succeed. As the saying goes, “behind every great person, is a great teacher”, and just maybe, an instructional coach too.

Strategies for Instructional Coaching

Experience tells us, and the field of andragogy confirms, that adults learn differently from children. Andragogy refers to the adult learning theory and was coined by American educator Malcolm Knowles. Instructional coaches need to employ principles of andragogy as they support teachers in improving their practice.

The four principles of adult learning are:

  • Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
  • Adults want to learn about subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

How do these principles apply to coaching teachers? It’s simple. According to the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform, “effective instructional coaching encourages collaborative, reflective teaching practice.” For example, if a teacher organizes a lesson a successful coach can help the teacher reflect on strengths and areas that need improvement. The best coaches offer guidance and resources related to teaching the subject or improving the delivery of lessons in a way that aims to tackle challenges in the classroom. An effective coach should also help teachers reflect on what they’ve learned during evaluations and help them apply it to their work with students.

It is equally important for teachers to use data to inform their practice. Data is a useful tool for understanding student challenges and identifying areas in need of focus. Sometimes isolating the right areas of focus can be difficult for teachers. In those instances, it is wise for the instructional coach – to support teachers to self-identify a focus area. The University of Kansas’ Center for Research on Learning provides a framework for coaches and teachers to decide where to start. It’s called “The Big Four.” These four focus areas include classroom management, content, instruction and assessment for learning.

Coaches can use these four focus areas to help teachers choose where to start. Support can expand to sharing data and monitoring progress with them over time. Applying current research in the area of focus as well as modeling research-validated instructional strategies for teachers is also helpful.

Five strategies to help translate research into practice from Jim Knight’s book, Instructional coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction:

  • Clarify: read, write, talk
  • Synthesize different sources
  • Break it down
  • See it through teachers’ (and students’) eyes – What does this look like in the classroom?

Finally, just as teachers should reflect on their area of focus, instructional coaches should reflect on their experience too.

We hope these strategies help guide your experiences helping teachers succeed.

Good luck and happy coaching!