Complexity in Coaching: Jed Stefanowicz, February 2023
After teaching third grade for twenty years, I shifted roles to become a Digital Learning Coach six years ago. Since then, my work has continued to evolve toward integrated job-embedded professional development with instructional coaching to support innovative teaching and learning. It’s my belief that technology transforms teachers more than teaching, and that the process is developmental, personal, and incremental. A digital learning coach can be an invaluable partner in that process.
My personal coaching mantra is to work in partnership with educators to turn ideas to action. One of my primary objectives in that partnership is to clear the runway and to identify and eliminate (where possible) obstacles that challenge that transition from idea to action. It was very early (and transformational) in my new role that I realized that instead of delivering my ideas, I had to shift my mindset to supporting teachers in discovering theirs. I’ll admit there are still times when my ideas became the obstacles, where I find myself instinctually doing some of the thinking, problem solving, or creative thinking that a coach is meant to draw from the educator they partner with.
Coaching success depends on a culture’s need, the climate’s desire, and leadership’s perceived and expressed value. When any of these elements is absent or unclear, the task of building relationships and advancing innovative instruction is significantly inhibited. It isn’t impossible, but removing and improving these obstacles will greatly improve the professional learning and growth opportunity for all parties- the coach, the partner-teacher, and the school and district as a whole.
A primary goal of an instructional coach is to encourage educators to reach outside their comfort zones. The fact of the matter, however, is that most educators are only beginning to rediscover or reclaim their comfort zones after having been thrust outside them throughout and beyond the pandemic. Instructional coaching before, during, and after Covid has presented wildly varied landscapes for the need, the impact, and delivery of professional learning.
Besides the obvious detriments of pandemic-era instruction, I do think Covid presented a unique dynamic in schools. Covid disempowered us all, but it also empowered personalized professional learning in a way that made some traditional pd or coaching protocols almost irrelevant or antiquated, primarily in selecting what, when, and how teachers engage with their own professional learning. It forced the delineation of some of the vagaries that exist between professional development and professional learning.
Coaching Tech, Tools, or Teachers?
When your instructional, innovation, or digital learning coaches are also your front-line tech support, there will be ambiguity, take my word for it. You can’t call someone a coach when some team members regard them (and honestly need them) as their equipment manager. This speaks to the blurred lines present in most roles in schools that intersect technology with teaching.
Whether the titles are tech-integration specialists, innovation leads, or digital learning coaches, the job descriptions often share common elements, and the elements often fail to articulate the difference between the role of supporting the operation of equipment and the integration of that equipment to advance instruction and student learning. It’s worth asking the following question: Is our focus operational or instructional?
Academic technology should be embedded into instruction, and should elevate learning. If its integration looks like accessorizing, then it’s meaningless or worse. That’s where we run into one-off activities that don’t lead to sustained implementation or evolved learning practices.
Even when we feel more like trainers than coaches, are we prioritizing that operational capacity toward a pedagogical shift? These questions frame every coaching conversation for me and help keep my attention focused on practices over products. When we keep that focus clear, we remain tethered to our pedagogical mission and mindset, regardless of the degree to which we’ve had to “innovate.” Sometimes innovation is just allowing yourself the flexibility to find a way to give specific kids just the right thing at just the right time.
One of the things that keeps me focused is remaining true to my instincts as an educator. I find myself thinking about what I believe about teaching, what I know to be true about learning, and what I value as an experienced educator in order to decide what I can bring to a situation, a lesson, or a coaching conversation.
Discovering (not just identifying) Goals
A key component of any coaching cycle or framework is goal-setting, and now more than ever, it’s critical that educators drive this process. This can be a make or break moment, as it’s the tangible tag we attach to the process, and if both parties aren’t aligned with their articulated goals, then they aren’t aligned with their motivations or strategies to achieve them. Identifying a goal carries weight when there’s meaning, attachment, or motivation behind it. In other words, a goal needs to authentically matter if we expect to spend our time and resources meaningfully.
Goals should be easy to articulate, even if they may seem complicated to accomplish. There may very well be increased complexity over time and span of a particular objective but it’s important that the complexity doesn’t interfere with accomplishing the goal.
Goals should be hopeful, but simple. They should be easy to envision in action, easy to describe in delivery, and easy to articulate in terms of educational impact for learners. That doesn’t mean that they should include complexity, or else they would not require a goal or focus to turn to action. Jim Knight reminds us that “any powerful goal to be met in a classroom is going to involve challenges” (Instructional Coaching 2022). Those challenges are where the work of coaching lives.
Identifying a focus and goal is where the partnership stretches to incorporate and evaluate instructional strategies to activate engagement and creation that demonstrates student learning. Focus is everything. Through varied models, the most successful coaching frameworks all center on the intentional focus toward a truly desired and achievable outcome, whether it’s a project design, a product integration, or a professional goal that both educators can articulate and share a common vision for meeting.
Calibration is critical. In order to have the types of conversations build impact beyond the immediate lesson, I find that it requires me to be attuned to the needs, the mindset, and the brain space of the teacher I’m working with. That means I have to provide the space and let go of my specific ideas in order to respect the process of developing an idea or pursuing a process in partnership. When I intentionally pay attention to this practice, I find that the lesson is inevitably improved, and the groundwork is in place to build upon that partner-process for subsequent conversations.
It can be easy (and even important at times) to spill out frustrations and constraints, but how do we spell out the needs (specific and focused) that are pressing or in need of addressing? Both parties need to remain reflective in order to build a partnership that is beneficial to both.
One factor that can maintain a balanced partnership is keeping a perspective of experience vs.expertise when it comes to discussions, coaching conversations, or even modeled lessons. As soon as either party feels like one is an expert attempting to impart their wisdom or will upon the other, an imbalanced dynamic is created where the partnership connection snaps. Even when providing demo/model strategy or lesson, the dynamic is worth stating that the model is in service of the educator over the lesson and students. This maintains the reflective partnership committed to the shared goal of pedagogical shift.
Coaching is a craft, just like any other that requires attunement and progress to evolve. My own definition of this craft, beyond any of our ambiguous job-titles, will always remain rooted in collaboration: Working in partnership with highly-skilled educators to increase instructional capacity and meet pedagogical goals through innovative technologies.