Of all the things I do as an instructional coach, there’s one that has made me so uncomfortable that I can no longer bring myself to do it. That unpleasant task is making unannounced drop-in visits to teachers’ classrooms. My first two years as a coach I tried it, because for some reason I thought it was part of the job, but each time I felt uncomfortable and unnatural while visiting. I could never put my finger on exactly why it didn’t feel right, but one thing I’ve learned in life is to trust my gut instinct first, and analyze it later. I’m still analyzing this one.
As a classroom teacher myself, I never had an instructional coach just “drop in” to my classroom. If she visited, it was because I’d asked her to read with a child or help me model a book talk or help me analyze a problem with a lesson. My principal, on the other hand, regularly dropped in to squat next to a child and ask what he was learning about (invariably, she’d always ask the one clueless child, who had no idea of the point of the lesson. I quickly learned to seat the highly verbal, attentive children near the doorway). It made sense to me for my principal to drop in - I knew it was her job to check in on students and make sure that I was teaching well. I received my evaluations from her, and she had the responsibility of the entire school resting on her shoulders. From these “check-in” visits by my principal I got the same idea many teachers have – anyone who comes by unannounced just to visit is there for supervisory purposes.
It wasn’t until I began reading Jim Knight’s “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction” that I found evidence for why my discomfort with drop-ins might be justified. Jim argues that the coaching-teacher relationship should act as an equal partnership. The coach is a colleague and peer of the classroom teacher – not necessarily the “expert”, and certainly not a supervisor or the “program police”, there to ensure that teachers are correctly using district-bought materials. The coach is a fellow teacher whose job it is to provide time and space for reflection about teaching practice. Together, the coach and teacher act as partners to address whatever issues the teacher identifies. Coaching works best if the classroom teacher is a willing participant and the instigator of the partnership with the coach. Oftentimes coaches are asked by principals to work with teachers, but those situations are rarely as successful because of the sense that the coach as been “assigned” to help. Choice is an important aspect of the coaching-teacher partnership.
And I suppose that’s why I’m uncomfortable with dropping into classrooms – there’s no choice in that act on the part of the teacher. Anytime someone drops into a classroom our prior baggage in the field of education tells us that the person dropping in is evaluating us, however earnestly they may deny it. It’s immediately thought of as a supervisory behavior. And it’s not a behavior that equal partners do to each other. How many of your fellow teachers drop in unannounced to your classroom with no agenda but to just listen to your lesson, talk with your students, and surreptitiously see how your teaching’s going?
Of course, there are times when visits do feel more natural – mostly when they’re announced and agreed upon ahead of time. I feel much more comfortable if, for instance, we’ve been focusing our professional learning for the past few weeks on tying literacy centers to standards and we have come to an agreement as a group on what that should look like in our classrooms. After a period of time I can tell teachers I’ll be visiting to see how our professional learning has impacted procedures in classrooms according to our agreed-upon criteria. If I ask them to email me with specific things they’d like me to look for while I visit, then I’ve reintroduced the element of choice, and it becomes a two-sided conversation about our practice, rather than a one-sided drop-in that hints of supervision.
The coaching partnership should be a dialogue, where both parties have a voice. Voice and choice are perhaps the heart of coaching.