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  • by Blaine Helwig

Instructional Coaches - What do they do all day?

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Organizing large groups of people to efficiently complete any complex human task is challenging. In antiquity, for example, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt were built by many thousands of workers where massive rocks had to be transported to the site, shaped and precisely placed on the structure. Additionally, all the workers had to be fed and housed with sleeping quarters each night – a massive planning and resource allocation task.

The need to organize large groups of humans efficiently has not changed for millenniums. When I worked as a technical project civil engineer for the Department of Defense in the early 1990’s, I visited large civil works construction projects (e.g., earthen dam or signature bridge erections), and it never failed to amaze me that so many workers were collectively engaged in one activity. Moreover, rarely did I see a lot of people standing around looking like they did not have anything to do. As one would expect, high levels of core organization with specific and meaningful support roles for every person is required to yield results regardless of the type of work. In a sentence, the organizational structure and resource movement in manpower on these multi-million or billion-dollar civil works projects are an engineering feat within their own right.

Large elementary schools have many moving parts and can also be an organizational challenge; however, they are simpler for a principal to physically manage due to the compartmentalization of 22 to 35 student groupings to specific classrooms. Of course, student movements for arrival, lunch, essential areas, recess and dismissal can both be a safety and organizational issue. But, once those systems are efficiently set-up, a school can function smoothly despite normal interruptions of absent office personnel or teachers for multiple school days.

Instructional coaches and/or specialists is another essential group of teaching personnel that a principal must organize. If accelerating academic achievement is a campus priority, there are about 6 critical decisions a campus administrator must make at the onset of each school year, and defining the instructional coach/specialist daily duties and responsibilities are one of them. However, unlike classroom teachers whose assignments are fairly standard on what they do each day, organizational decisions for instructional coaches vary due to philosophical differences.

The most common philosophy – and one of the worst decisions a principal can make is allowing instructional coaches/instructional specialists (i.e., ICs/ISs) to act as ‘mini-principals’ as their primary campus function. In this role, an IC/IS observes teachers during instruction and leaves short notes and/or constructive feedback. Now, if the campus is a non-Title 1 campus or the school is not in need of dramatic increases in academics, then this type of work assignment is justified and warranted. Students at these campuses do not usually possess significant prior grade level academic literacy and numeracy gaps, then instructional feedback in these situations can be very pragmatic and valuable.

Now, it is a different situation if the campus academics are low – 25% or more of the campus’ students failing the spring assessment in reading, math or science, then the IC/IS ‘mini-principal’ role is wholly ineffective. Why? Because the acting ‘mini-principal’ is observing a typical Title 1 teacher’s instruction with only 30 to 50 percent of his or her students on grade level. When the IC/IS ‘mini-principal’ exits the classroom, the children have the exact same academic literacy and numeracy gaps as when they entered. Little is accomplished to correct a classroom with those needs with that type of feedback. The principal must use the IC/IS to assist in eradicating student literacy and numeracy gaps. They must also be actively working with small groups of students in reading and/or math each day to support the classroom teachers with their workload. In doing so, needy students receive the attention they need to perform better on grade level work. These areas of support are listed in the related blog, “So, You Want to be a Principal???”.

Other areas that instructional coaches/specialists can provide support to classroom teachers are as follows:

  1. Model effective pedagogy – demonstrating a specific teaching technique – as the teacher observes.

  2. Conduct formative and summative student data analysis throughout the school year.

  3. Demonstrate effective classroom management support via modeling – as the teacher observes.

  4. Assist new teachers in setting up classrooms for efficient and smooth traffic flow.

  5. Provide novice teachers with support in establishing efficient classroom routines for passing out textbooks/chrome books, gathering independent student work completed during the day, and collecting students’ (completed) homework assignments each morning.

  6. Assist entry-level teachers in creating an accountable system for hallway and recess behavior as well as acceptable bathroom use.

However, these support roles should be ancillary in nature and not a full-time job. These duties can be worked into a weekly scheduling system, so the ICs/ISs daily work focuses primarily on eradicating the academic gaps and supporting teachers via small group instruction with academically struggling students. In short, if the campus has academic issues, it is a flagrant waste of Title 1 or school funding to use ICs/ISs as ‘mini-principals.’ The campus already has administration personnel. The campus administration does not need support in doing their assigned roles, but the Title 1 teachers require the ICs/ISs support in their classrooms in well-defined support roles!

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