What is Virtual Coaching?
How can instructional coaches be of service during remote & hybrid learning?
We all want to get better. The role of a Leadership or Instructional Coach is to provide job embedded professional development that mediates thinking and allows an individual to access internal resources, reflect on current actions or issues, and to provide a structure for planning and reflecting conversations. Simply, a coach creates a space for very busy professionals to pause and plan, reflect or problem solve. Occasionally, leadership and instructional coaches take on other stances, such as collaborator, facilitator, mentor, feedback provider, or mediator, all in service of improving student outcomes.
Typically, leadership or instructional coaching takes place side-by-side in schools and classrooms while students and colleagues are engaged in the work of teaching and learning. In many areas of the country, this simply isn’t possible right now due to COVID-related restrictions that have isolated many teachers and leaders from their peers. School-based coaching is still possible in a virtual setting. Let us envision what might it look like, and how can we ensure its success.
Teachers and school administrators face immense pressure as we begin a school year unlike any other: Educators are planning for uncertainty, learning new technology, balancing work and home responsibilities, resolving fears, grappling with social unrest, managing increased workloads, struggling with economic changes and caring for family members, all in isolation from colleagues. Coaching is perhaps more important now than ever before. Coaches are resources and allies who can support each individual being at her or his professional best.
So what are the conditions that make virtual coaching successful? I recently interviewed various teachers and leaders about their experiences with virtual coaching during a Virtual Coaching Round Table. Through conversation, the panel and I discovered that successful virtual coaching depends on the same conditions as effective in-person coaching: people, purposeful process, and presence matter most.
Effective coaching is dependent on cultivating personal and professional relationships. In a virtual world, we don’t have the same opportunities to establish rapport by stopping by classrooms, sharing a turkey sandwich, or simply spending a few moments smiling and saying good morning. Brittany Pachecho, a STEM Instructional Coach from Aurora, Colorado shared, “Virtual or in person have been the same experience for me in terms of coaching. Wendy, my PEBC coach, has supported my thinking through deep and thoughtful questioning, which would also happen in person. Though Wendy and I haven’t had a chance yet to actually meet in person, I feel that she has gotten to know me as a learner and as a human. I think at the end of the day, it is all about the coach and the coachee relationship that makes the coaching successful, regardless of the platform.”
Leanna Leisenring, a third grade teacher from Arvada, Colorado, shared her experience with another PEBC Instructional Coach, “Michelle always asks about me, my boys, and my life.. She takes the time to connect with me personally, and then we dive into talking about teaching.. Last spring it was fantastic to be able to have deep reflection about my practices and the students. Our conversation fueled my agency and enthusiasm to continue to face the challenges of Remote Learning.”
Both Brittany and Leanna’s reflections highlight the importance of cultivating relationships to ensure that the important work of learning and growth can occur – and that these relationships can still be fostered in a virtual world.
Great coaching is purposeful and related to instruction. Mario Giardiello, a Director of Schools for the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, emphasized that purposeful remote coaching still needs to be, “all about the kids; virtual coaching must remain student centered.” Having clear purpose ensures that the coaching session remains on track and efficient, and helps avoid going down the proverbial rabbit holes that can distract us from meeting our goals.
As noted in The Distance Learning Playbook by Fisher, Frey and Hattie, instructional best practices for in-person learning can be adjusted and implemented during remote and hybrid learning, and yet this transfer takes a lot of cognitive energy. In a virtual setting, the instructional coach and coachee can still establish goals, create a schedule for meeting, and reflect at regular intervals.
When coaching groups, successful virtual coaches can ‘read the room’ and help the group stay on track by using an array of digital tools. Chase Christensen, a principal from Goshen County Schools in Wyoming, shared that his PEBC Staff Developer & Leadership Coach, Scott Murphy, models different ways to facilitate discourse during their group sessions so that his teachers have an opportunity to learn new content and processes. When coaching individuals or groups virtually, the coach’s ability to maintain a clear focus on a shared purpose is critical.
Effective coaches listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. Each panelist agreed that virtual coaches need to be similarly present in ways that are supportive during this time. The educators on our panel concurred that right now their biggest need is for collaborative planning conversations.
As each and every educator weighs many options, tries out new technology, and heads into the unknown, thought partners can make this adventure more manageable. Kerry McGonigle, a third grade teacher from Aspen, Colorado, shared that last spring, her instructional coach from the PEBC, Heather, actually co-planned with her via Google Meet and then popped into her virtual classroom to observe how things were going. Kerry felt supported in taking risks with Heather “in the room” and able to provide timely observational feedback.
One of the biggest upsides of virtual coaching, the panel agreed, is flexibility, Chase noted that virtual coaching allows his coach to meet with more teachers by reducing travel time in his rural district. Brittany noted that virtual coaching conversations can be planned at various times in the day, before or after school hours, which wasn’t always the case with in-person coaching.
People, Purposeful Process and Presence ensure the success of effective virtual coaching experiences. When we asked our panel, in closing, what they would like leadership and instructional coaches to know right now, they suggested that we…
- Encourage risk taking! Not everybody has it all figured out, so please be supportive not judgmental as teachers and leaders try out new ideas. (We will!)
- Build relationships! Human connections matter more now than ever before. (We agree!)
- Support best practices! There are a lot of distractions, apps, and shiny objects out there, so please help us stay focused on our beliefs and how to bring those to life through instructional practices that support learning. (Got it!)
- Mediate thinking! Ask us big questions and give us time to process everything we are learning, experiencing, and thinking. Educators love learning. (So do we!)
- Humanize individuals! With so much emphasis on technology, remember that we are people, and remind us that we are teaching people. (Yes, it’s all about people.)
We are so grateful for these panelists sharing their thinking with us to support our journey of continuous improvement as instructional coaches in this virtual setting. We would be delighted to partner with you and your district to bring this learning to life in service student growth. For more information about how to engage with PEBC, please contact Craig DeLeone.
Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Hattie, J. (2020) The Distance Learning Playbook. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.