K-12 Outreach: Coaching Conversations

December 18, 2014


Changing school culture, one conversation at a time

By Kathleen McKee Snyder

Regardless of your philosophy about educating young people, there is one principle upon which everyone agrees: the teacher makes a significant difference in student learning. This difference isn’t just about delivering a lesson. It’s also about the ability of a teacher to respond to the widely varied needs of students within the school setting. This is complex and multifaceted work, and most teachers need support in developing the kind of reflective practice that can respond to this demanding role.

Educational coaching can provide this support and guidance as teachers strive to improve student achievement. Michigan State University’s Office of K-12 Outreach has been a leader and innovator in training educational coaches for more than a decade and continues this valuable work with Coaching 101, a program developed for MI Excel, the Statewide System of Support for Priority and Focus schools.

“There are different kinds of educational coaches, and what we heard from the field was that there was incoherence among coaches who serviced Michigan schools,” said Barbara Markle, assistant dean of K-12 outreach. In response, Coaching 101 (C101) was launched in 2010 to create a common definition and language around coaching, and to develop a coherent coaching approach across the state.

C101-proficient coaches are highly skilled in active listening, posing powerful questions and providing structured feedback through the one-to-one coaching conversation.

These professional conversations provide opportunities for teachers to explore their beliefs, assumptions and pedagogy. The coaching process is a solid structure for holding conversations, and coaching skills bind that process together. To date, over 900 coaches have attained proficiency in these skills through the C101 program.

k-12-sidebarChanging Attitudes, Transforming Practice

In the context of education, teachers’ beliefs and expectations are critical to changing the educational landscape. They must believe in their own ability to impact learning, and in the student’s ability to achieve proficiency. Through the coaching conversation, teachers’ beliefs are explored through the process of mediation. Mediation is defined as the intentional influence of thinking and feeling through the posing of powerful questions by the coach. A skillful and well-intentioned coach can mediate teachers’ thinking to help them believe in their capacity to transform their practice, clarify specific goals and build their capacity to increase student achievement. This transformation occurs one conversation at a time.

“The power of coaching has been very evident in the schools where our coaches work,” says Diane Jackson, program director for C101.

“Coaches actively engage teachers and help them think differently about their practice. Administrators have noticed the change in teacher practice, the power of conversations and the impact it has on their leadership and their school culture, and often become interested in learning these skills themselves.”

To become an educational coach through C101, participants attend an intensive, four-day training. More than a lecture, C101 is hands-on; participants see live and virtual examples of coaching conversations and are able to test out what they’ve learned in videotaped practice sessions. They also explore the mindsets they themselves bring to the coaching conversation. “Self-awareness is one of the keys to effective coaching,” says Jackson.

To ensure coaches are proficient, participants must successfully complete a comprehensive online assessment. Individuals who don’t demonstrate proficiency in one or more areas can get additional training through the C101 academies. C101 also offers educational coaches ongoing professional development opportunities through “Going Deeper” sessions, offered two or three times a year.

Educational coaching has powerful implications for both the classroom and school culture. When administrators are trained in the skills of coaching and model the skills to support teacher growth and development, a rippling effect occurs. Teachers become empowered; they take responsibility for the outcomes of their teaching. In turn, the teacher utilizes these coaching skills to support student thinking; students then become engaged in their own learning. Teacher by teacher, student by student, cultural change is fostered through this dynamic process of mediation. Coaching 101 training is the vehicle to begin the journey.


The Coaching 101 team (left to right): Dale Moss, Patricia Rushing, Diane Jackson, Patricia Vandelinder and Virginia Winters

Embracing this potential, C101 has extended an invitation to participate to school and district administrators. Administrators can now bring school teams and coaches to the C101 Foundations training to learn the critical skills needed to engage in productive and often transformative conversations.

Charity Jones from Oak Park Schools attests to the benefits of coaching: “It is allowing us to mediate thinking together and to move forward in … helping to improve student achievement.”

“Educational coaching isn’t just ‘talk,’” says Jackson. “It’s about action and forward movement. When we coach, we want people to notice where they are and where they want to be, and learn the skills to not only change their practice, but to reflect on and evaluate whether those changes are working.”

Learn More

How do Coaching 101 coaches view the transformative process? Watch “Coaching 101 Going Deeper: Coaches Speak.”