Who is your target audience for this book?
JI: This book is for anyone who operates in a coaching capacity. That could be a formal literacy coach, a formal instructional coach or curriculum director, an assistant principal, principal, or team leader. The book really is pitched at a very wide audience―anyone who finds they have responsibility for supporting adult learning and improvement.
RB: We’d also like to see it in universities and colleges where educators are prepared for this new type of leadership role in schools.
In your book, you discuss the differences in coaching for system-wide changes as opposed to one-on-one coaching and that many coaches make the mistake of assuming that the sum of individual changes equals systemic change. Why isn’t this the case?
RI: Researchers have learned that there is a need to look at the school as a system and change the ways in which the school functions. Working one-on-one might help individual teachers to improve, but it’s not going to change what happens in the school overall. There is a need for a common vision where all involved are moving toward the same goals.
JI: There’s a high possibility that the good work that you do one-on-one won’t necessarily come together to actually form system-wide change. Our goal is to help coaches think about individuals and systems together, to bring about the school-wide change we’re all hoping for.
You write about an adaptive versus technical learning focus. What are the differences and benefits of one approach over the other?
RB: Both are necessary. You certainly need to know how to manage details. You need to know how to arrange a schedule. You need to know how to organize grouping situations for children, and so on. At the same time, adaptive leadership is going to lead you toward overall school change because that’s the type of leadership that promotes new ways of thinking and working together, of questioning current practices and being willing to make hard decisions about improving them.
JI: Often we want to think about dilemmas as technical, so we want to offer technical solutions. Adaptive learning requires a fundamental shift in our actions, collaborative learning structures, or our beliefs. A coach’s job is to help the teams to distinguish between technical and adaptive dilemmas and to realize they shouldn’t rush too quickly to a technical fix.
You write that educators should be striving for the kind of learning that results in a fundamental questioning of beliefs, assumptions, and practices as steps toward transforming teaching and learning. Have you found this to be difficult for coaches to approach with individuals? How open are administrators, in particular, to this approach?
JI: It goes back to this idea of technical versus adaptive change. As a coach you have to balance the interests and needs of students, teachers, and administrators with a vision for a better future. You may want to push for a big adaptive shift to revolutionize the school, but you have to understand that change is difficult, and it can be scary. You can’t force people into something big too quickly.
RB: And there needs to be continual effort at working toward changes in attitude and beliefs—otherwise, changes in teaching practices won’t occur. Teachers need to believe that change is essential and, moreover, have some ownership of the changes. It can take a long time and an understanding of what we call levels of intensity. Coaches begin by building strong relationships of trust. Then they can help teachers understand the process for change and that it’s going to take a while to get to the transformation stage. It’s easy in many ways to change specific routine behavior, but a lot of times that’s where we stop. Instead, we need to move beyond the routine, where teachers are reflecting on their work and making decisions about what works best for their students.
You say you don’t expect coaches to work through the activities outlined in the book in a linear fashion. What’s the best way for a coach to make the best use of your book?
RB: We think that coaches will decide how to use the book depending on their needs and level of knowledge. A coach who works a great deal with groups of teachers will focus on the chapter about working with groups. A literacy leader who’s been charged with building community programs can go to the corresponding chapter for applicable information. Our goal was to provide many practical ideas. You don’t need to read the book from beginning to end. We hope readers refer to the book often, earmarking pages, highlighting, and making notes that help them find what they need.
JI: I teach graduate courses for future reading specialists and literacy coaches, as well as future principals. In a graduate classroom, the book could be used in a linear fashion and certainly makes a lot of sense that way. In the field, current coaches, teacher leaders, principals, curriculum directors, or department heads might be best served by reading the first few chapters, and then dipping in and out of chapters that are most pressing for their particular work.
There is an entire chapter in your book on the way the culture of a school predicts the success of coaching. Can you speak a little bit about that?
JI: Much of the influence for this book comes from the merging of different fields of research. We really wanted to zoom in on the role that culture can play in supporting or sometimes subverting coaching work. Coaching really is a lot of skillful facilitation and building alliances. It’s trying to figure out within the school structure, “Where are the pockets of power, and how can I navigate them?” That is all part of the culture.
RB: We also felt it was important to discuss what we mean by culture—simply put, it’s the way things work in a school. An important aspect of culture is the demographics of students and teachers―what we call human capital. What backgrounds and knowledge do the students and teachers bring to school? An effective instructional program can’t be built unless there is understanding of the diversity that exists in the school. Another important part of school culture is how people work together to achieve goals. That’s especially important when we talk about coaching. When I ask coaches what makes their work effective, they always say, “My relationship with the principal and the support the principal gave to me.” If the principal doesn’t believe in coaching and doesn’t want it to happen, that coach won’t be effective. In our book, we make suggestions about how coaches can work effectively with principals and how principals can support coaching.
Dr. Ippolito, you just mentioned building alliances. And in the book, you write about trust, integrity, and commitment when talking about effective coaching. This sounds relational instead of simply problem-solving. Do you see much of what coaches do as relationship building?
JI: Definitely. Without trust, authentic collaboration, and collective learning, coaching is difficult, if not impossible. Relational trust needs to be present between coaches and teachers, coaches and administrators, and coaches and other specialists. Ultimately, trust is established by doing what you say, admitting when you don’t know something (then working to figure it out), and over-delivering on promises time and time again. Trust is also developed by keeping confidences so that all those who work with a coach can feel comfortable opening up and talking honestly about their work.
In your book, you list four essential frames of coaching: thinking like a leader, thinking like a facilitator, thinking like a designer, and thinking like an advocate. Should coaches move between the frames as the need arises or are the frames progressive?
JI: I think that coaches move between them continuously. It’s the interaction of the four that produces the best coaching work. One of the mechanisms we tried to build into the book is a framework for folks to think about in each chapter. Which of those lenses are they reading the chapter through? Which lens would they like to spend time strengthening? The reader can focus on one lens in one chapter, then another in the next chapter, to strengthen both the capacity to view situations through the different lenses and to zero in on the technical skills that connect with each.
What makes this book different from other books on coaching?
RB: First, Jacy and I bring different aspects of our experience to the book. My focus has always been more elementary. Jacy’s has always been more secondary. I bring my experiences with assessment and school-wide literacy programs. Jacy brings lots of experiences with leadership and how it is enacted in schools. Second, we’re approaching coaching as an activity rather than a role—a responsibility of many educators beyond those with the title of coach. Third, we believe that our framework of thinking and working like a coach can help individuals internalize the different mindsets that are essential for coaching. The mindsets are very important because they ask: How do you see yourself as a leader, a facilitator, a designer, and as an advocate? How do you enact those behaviors? What do you do well and where might you improve?
JI: So much of this book comes out of our professional lives as reading specialists, coaches, and literacy consultants in schools. Really, this is the book I wish I had when I first began coaching in schools—research-based, conversational, chock full of practical tips and tricks, but it also provides some big frames for thinking about the work of supporting adult learning in schools. It can be very tricky to create a resource that has equal appeal in schools and in graduate courses, but I think Cultivating Coaching Mindsets does it well.