Here’s a snippet from my new book Get Some Guts, Coach! on the four things that every coach must coach!
We need to establish what the term “quality instruction” really means. This is the meat of coaching, the “what” of the coaching role.
There are two main sections that underpin quality instruction: the Content and the Context. The context is what I consider the “base of the boat” – without the context, the instruction would sink to the bottom of the lake. The context is the “how” of the teaching.
The second section is the content – that is the “what” we teach. What’s interesting about the content right now is that, due to the implementation of the Common Core Standards, we are seeing larger and more profound shifts in the “what” than we have in decades. This brings a new complexity to coaching.
When you look at the context of quality instruction, you see that it has two components: classroom management and student engagement. Both management and engagement are totally and completely required in order for students to master the content of any lesson. Without it, you’re just “teaching the lesson” with no focus on how well students are learning or engaging with the content. It is not rare to overhear two teachers having a conversation in the staff room in which one teacher laments, “I taught that, I just don’t know why they didn’t pass the test!” This is a sign that, perhaps, the teacher taught the content, but didn’t plan to monitor behaviors and engage the students. Let’s be clear, the teacher is responsible for engaging students – if we leave whether or not to engage up to the students, we are in deep trouble!
When teachers have a solid behavioral and classroom management system in place and they expect that students will follow that system, they get more teaching done and more content taught. Why? Because high levels of classroom management are directly related to a teacher’s ability to instruct at a swift pace. Now, I’m not saying that because a teacher has a good management system, that they are automatically engaging their students at a high level, but what I am saying is that it is necessary for teachers to have a solid management system in order for content to be learned in their classrooms. There is no shortcut to management.
Once a management system is in place, the teacher must then work on engaging students in responding to and relating to the content. There are several ways to know if students are engaged: they are saying something about the content, they are writing something about the content and/or they are doing something physical in response to the content (raising a hand to vote for a concept or giving a thumbs-up, thumbs-down response to a question, for example).
Without ways to measure (verbal, written or physical) engagement, we can mistake engagement for kids sitting really quietly. In fact, we have quite a few teachers who believe that engagement equals sustained, silent staring. And I’m here to set the record straight: if you want to know whether kids are engaged, you can only determine their engagement levels by the actions they are taking. There is no way to measure engagement when kids are sitting quietly!
In fact, we know that the more engagement we have, the fewer behavior problems we see. And the fewer behavior problems we see, the more time we have to teach the content. And the more time we have to teach, model, practice and apply the content, the more students will master.
Yes! That issue of “not enough time to teach my grade level standards” goes away when we get a handle on the classroom management and engagement. And to think, all of this before we’ve even talked about the content itself! In fact, so often I will see well-meaning coaches skip over the very obvious need for coaching on classroom management with a teacher because they’re so focused on getting to Standard 5.9! When this happens, oftentimes the teacher and coach have to double back and fix management and engagement issues in the end, wasting coaching and preparation time. Focusing on context first allows the coach and teacher to clear the debris to make way for efficient and effective instruction.
Now onto the “what” of quality teaching: the instruction and the content. Delivery of instruction and preparation and planning are the two components of improving the quality of teaching. I have had the opportunity to coach hundreds of instructional coaches in prioritizing their efforts so that they can have the biggest impact. Besides forgetting to coach classroom management first, I see a second common error: Coaches jumping right into what the lesson looks like when the teacher is teaching the kids.
What coaches are missing is this: without a high focus on preparation and planning, we are always going to be doubling back and trying to fix a preparation problem. Preventive coaching is a much more efficient and effective practice for teachers and their kids. We must put our instructional focus at the point of lesson inception: the teacher’s plan book, as most lessons are made or broken during the planning and preparation time. I want us to make a distinction between planning and preparation that I believe to be very important: planning is figuring out what we’re going to teach. Preparation is figuring how we’re going to teach it.
I find that we are pretty darn good at getting the “what” in the plan book (For example, in Monday’s plan box I write something like: Teach “We, the People,” pg. 74), but when it comes down to really thinking through how I’m going to get kids engaged in that content, what questions I’ll use to get them discussing it, what kinds of responses I want them to have during the discussion, how I’ll scaffold for my English Language Learners, pre-teaching parts that are particularly difficult and who will partner best together…well, I see a lot of that as an afterthought.
The lesson is made in its preparation phase. And boy, we are missing a huge opportunity if we fail to coach teachers in how to prepare their lessons.