Instructional Coaching: Tools Every Teacher Needs

This is the third post in a series on Instructional Coaching. For this post, I’m falling back to my “Three Truths and a Leap” series structure because it fits perfectly with what I’ve learned about coaching and with what I want to share in this post. For those who aren’t yet familiar, I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues.

Truth: I have wicked bad anxiety about attending any formal classes. I’ve felt this way since some point in kindergarten.

Truth: I’ve never stopped learning. If Ph.D.’s were awarded for self-direction and growth, I’d have one.

Truth: I started peer coaching and cognitive coaching long before I knew they were a thing, and you should too.

The Leap: I’m giving you some materials to get you started, and I’m assuming you’ll want to!

When I think about my growth over the last 15 years, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- a teacher friend in New Hampshire who I immediately bonded with as we began our first years in the classroom. Teachers in my current school who I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. And even our instructional coach and administrators who are always willing to chat, reflect, and plan as if we have an ongoing professional learning community each time we encounter each other in the hallway! Considering Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that all of our open and honest encounters, all of the reflecting time in between, the learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking have helped us grow.

When I said that started peer coaching and cognitive coaching before I knew they were a thing, I wasn’t kidding. But here’s the bit I didn’t reveal: I coached myself for a long time. I videotaped my lessons, I watched and tallied, and reflected, and set goals. And then I videotaped again. A few years into teaching in my current school, I’d had enough day to day interactions with team members to begin really peer coaching, but again, it wasn’t formal. No one asked us to take part or taught us how it worked. But we learned and we grew because we trusted each other enough to reveal problems we were having in the classroom and respected each other enough to accept the guidance and support needed to grow.

Since moving to the reading intervention position, I’m no longer part of a specific team, but I’m still part of peer coaching relationships, and I coach teachers on best practices in literacy instruction. In this role, I’m in the classroom often supporting students who read below grade level and teaching staff literacy instruction strategies. The tools I use are aligned with our school-wide goals and are designed help me do three specific things: (1) I use them to teach intervention students to connect what they’re learning in content classes with what we’re learning in reading intervention, (2) I use them to accurately share observations with teachers, and (3) I use them to plan next steps with the instructional coach as we work with teachers on increasing nonfiction reading instruction. If you are not in a coaching role and don’t yet have a peer coaching relationship, use these tools to reflect on your instruction. They’ll help you recognize areas of strength and also help you notice important pieces that are missing in your practice.

Observation Tools:

Literacy Instruction Observations

Nonfiction Reading Instruction Checklist

Nonfiction Reading Strategies Teacher Self-Assessment

Do you have any favorite observation or reflection tools? If yes, comment and tell us how you use them.

unsplash-logoClark Tibbs

Coaching Models: Choose Wisely to Meet Your Goals

Choosing a coaching model for staff is a lot like choosing instructional strategies for students. Like students, all faculties have different abilities, depth of knowledge, diverse needs and comfort levels. It can be overwhelming to choose between coaching models unless you’re systematic in figuring out the best fit for your staff. Use the following steps to focus on your current needs, determine goals, and to choose the most effective coaching model to help you accomplish them.

Step One: Determine Needs Analyze assessment data to determine the knowledge and skills students lack. When we analyzed state and district assessment data, one glaring need across all content areas was instruction in reading informational text.

Step Two: Develop Goals Consider school and district goals, as well as specific grade level and content area goals. Determine how you’ll measure progress toward each of these goals. Our school goal is that all students meet the median growth percentile of 50.0 or above on English Language Arts state and district assessments. Each content area (language arts, social studies, and science) developed specific goals within their disciplines with the same purpose of increasing nonfiction reading strategy instruction.

Step Three: Determine the Knowledge and Skills Staff Needs Choose the skills and knowledge that will help teachers meet the student goals in Step Two. Asking teachers to reflect on what they believe they need is an important part of developing a reflective environment. The needs of staff can be as diverse as the needs of students, so we developed a self-reflection tool for teachers to determine their current skill level and to guide the process of increasing nonfiction reading instruction. This form is also a useful observation tool as it lists best practices in reading instruction and can be used quickly during a walk-through observation.

Step four: Analyze Effective Coaching Models Discuss the similarities and differences between models, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for each in regards to your goals and the needs of teachers. Most of our teachers determined they needed help understanding the purpose for different instructional strategies like annotation and modeling and practice using nonfiction reading strategies themselves.

Step five: Choose a Model or Various Models Different goals and the varying needs of Coaching Modelsstaff will require flexibility, and it is likely that more than one model will be implemented. Another important consideration in choosing a coaching model is the current culture of your building. If your school has had a lot of recent hiring, it is likely that you’ll need time to build relationships before implementing peer coaching but mentoring new teachers might meet your needs. Yet, if your faculty is well-established with strong relationships and effective professional learning communities, a peer coaching model might be the most effective way to meet your goals. If your staff has had movement across grade levels or contents, then subject-specific coaching might be your go-to model at this time.

Our staff is a mixture of new and established teachers, we’ve been working in professional learning communities for several years, and we have diverse needs in terms of the skills and knowledge teachers identified as needs. We’ve implemented peer coaching and cognitive coaching depending on each staff member’s needs. Subject-specific coaching is not being utilized because the main need is an instructional need (teaching nonfiction reading strategies) versus lack of content knowledge.

Using these steps was productive for our staff. It was the first time all content areas had been part of determining goals for their department (Our administration had asked all staff to be involved in looking at the assessment data and determining needs based on it.) It was also the first time we’d asked teachers to reflect and self-evaluate their level of nonfiction reading strategy instruction. Determining coaching models was a longer process as we relationships developed throughout the semester and we learned more about what each teacher wanted and needed.

The outcome of all of this work? Our students showed a lot of growth in nonfiction reading on their mid-year district reading assessment. The average growth for reading intervention students was 31 points (expected growth to catch up over several years’ time is 13-15 points)! Our staff will analyze this recent assessment data and reflect on our current needs as we move into second semester. Coaching models will fluctuate as we learn more and as students grow, as they should. And we are on the right track with a staff who has common goals, trusting relationships, and a desire to grow!


Sociocultural Learning Theory

Is this Really Needed in Schools Today?

Sociocultural learning theory is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky. The main premise is that our understanding stems from our social interactions. Sounds obvious, right? Especially for those who teach in middle or high school! Colleagues and I talk daily about how social our middle level kiddos are! Socialcultural theory gives us a structure to maximize on this trait if we are puposeful in our planning.

There are three areas of sociocultural learning theory, and if we plan for each of these in coaching situations and in the classroom, we will boost student and staff learning.

What is it, really?

  1. Social Interaction: Knowledge and understanding stem from interaction with others. As we communicate with others, we develop and grow.
  2. The More Knowledgeable Other: Someone who has a greater understanding and a higher level and ability than another in a relationship should model desired behaviors and actions, as well as give support.
  3. Zone of Proximal Development: Language and learning occurs within this zone. These are the skills learners can do with guidance from others who can already do them independently.

What Does it Look Like?

When I think about my growth as a teacher, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- teachers I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. Considering Vygotsy’s Socioculteral Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that reflecting on our work, learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking and practices has helped us grow.

Social Interaction: As we communicate with others, we develop and grow. Peer coaching is most rewarding when teachers form these relationships on their own versus being paired by administration. One of the goals of peer coaching is to reduce teacher isolation. In my own practice, I have two peer coaching relationships. Both were formed organically out of our own needs. Both relationships took time to develop as we learned to trust each other enough to share the issues and concerns we had about our practice. Our interactions are informal and cyclical- its a lot like having a really high-functioning, 24/7,  professional learning community!

The More Knowledgeable Other: One person might be more knowledgeable in one area while the other has more experience in another area. Peer coaching focuses on individual growth with two important goals being to increase student learning and to promote collaboration among colleagues. In my peer coaching relationships, we each have different strengths, and the “more knowledgeable other” changes based on the current topic. One of my peer-coaching relationships is with our school’s instructional coach because is my role as a reading specialist I also coach teachers. Our instructional coach is the more knowledgeable other in terms of strategies for teaching adults while I am the more knowledgeable other in terms of literacy strategies. We learn from each other’s strengths daily!

Zone of Proximal Development: Learning occurs within our personal learning zone, which is a bit beyond what we can do independently. The wonderful thing about peer coaching is that it is specific to each person’s needs. Understanding our own needs requires reflection (another goal of peer coaching), and when we’re honest with ourselves about areas we need to grow, and we’ve formed a trusting relationship with a colleague (or two), we can work with them on the best approach to learning within our zone.


Social Development Theory (Vygotsky). (2016, September 8). Retrieved from




Teaching Thinking Strategies- Synthesis

What is Synthesis… really?

Synthesis is one of the most difficult thinking strategies for students. In the past, readers have been expected to be able to synthesize at the word and text level.  The Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC), explains this type of synthesis:

Synthesizing Information at a text level, readers…

  • continually monitor overall meaning, important concepts and themes while reading
  • recognize ways in which text elements fit together to create larger meaning
  • create new and personal meaning
  • develop holistic and/or thematic statements which encapsulate the overall meaning of the text
  • capitalize on opportunities to share, recommend and criticize books
  • attend to the evolution of their thoughts across time while reading a text, and while reading many texts

Synthesizing information at a word level, readers…

  • select specific vocabulary from the text(s) to include in their synthesis because they know that specific language is highly meaning-laden
  • know when certain vocabulary is critical to the text’s overall meaning, and therefore, must be understood if comprehension is to be achieved

Recently, with Common Core State Standards, students are expected use these synthesis skills across multiple texts of different genres and formats.

Synthesizing information across multiple texts and genres…

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.9Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.7Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.9Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Synthesizing Multiple Texts

In order to synthesize multiple genres, students need a multitude of experiencesIMG_0521 reading different genres.  The students who synthesized texts for these lessons had read nonfiction articles, blog posts, memoirs, biographies, novels, short stories and picture books of various genres, and etc…, on different topics, daily for five months before I even attempted to ask them to synthesize across texts and genres.

Wait, keep reading!

If you’re realizing that this isn’t the case in your classroom yet, don’t worry: It can still happen.  In short, start asking students to read and annotate a nonfiction piece at least once a week, along with the group readings and independent reading students do daily. Soon, I’ll post my 60 Books in 6th Grade Reading Challenge which was inspired by a true book whisperer, Donalyn Miller.  I’ll also post the most effective thinking strategies I’ve learned in my thirteen years of teaching (I know, still a newbie, but I study wicked hard.) Both of these made it possible for students to synthesize across genres.

After students had read, annotated, and discussed many texts, with differing messages, but on the same topic (Gender Stereotypes), students voted on which texts we should synthesize.  We did this by a quick show of hands, and it was remarkably clear which texts this age wanted to analyze further:

  1. “Everything Will Be Okay” by James Howe
  2. Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters” by Sarah Stewart Holland (blog post at
  3. Various Disney film clips

Our next step was to list the major ideas we learned from each text.  The photo below shows students’ exact wording.  The three circles with bullets are the major ideas kids learned from each text.  I really should have taken a picture after that point (But who is going to interrupt thinking to take a photo?)  The middle section is the next step in synthesis.IMG_0522

After listing the major ideas we learned from each text, we turned and talked about what we could read between the lines and infer that these authors believe, and we looked for beliefs they have in common.  After discussing ideas as a class, we decided upon three BIG IDEAS the authors share:

  1. We learn gender stereotypes from society. (We acknowledged that family, teachers, media, books, friends, and ourselves are “society”.  Major aha! for kiddos- all with my asking the simple question, “Who is society?”  Lights went on in each of their eyes as they realized that they can contribute to or challenge stereotypes.  LOVED that moment.)
  2. Be who YOU want to be.
  3. Challenging gender stereotypes is a way to break stereotypes.

Next, we listed these BIG IDEAS on this chart, or graphic organizer, so that we could begin collecting text evidence to support these inferences.  We did this step by gradually releasing students so that by the time they worked individually, they’d work with confidence.  Students began by watching me think aloud as I read “Everything will be Okay”, looking for text evidence to support the BIG IDEAS we’d inferred.  Next, students worked with their partners to find text evidence in “Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters.”  Finally, students who were ready, worked individually to record evidence from class discussions and their personal interpretation of the Disney film clips we viewed.

Next Steps

Our next step in synthesis, will be to learn the reasons gender stereotypes exist, and why society upholds these stereotypes.  We’ll ask:  What purpose do these serve?  Once students have access to both sides of this issue, they’ll write an argument that synthesizes multiple texts and supports their belief about whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or challenged.

I’d love to have a conversation on ways you’ve taught students to synthesize across genres and texts? What’s been successful or challenging?  What questions to do have about our process?

Are You Asking, “Why Gender Stereotypes?”

I recognize how very challenging this topic is for adults, let alone middle school kids. Recognizing how we’ve contributed to stereotypes, or limited ourselves because of them, requires a firm sense of self.  Here is why I ask students to analyze this topic: there has never been one student, out of over 250 kids who’ve studied this topic with me, who didn’t recognize how limiting gender stereotypes feel to them every single day on the playground, in PE, in the hallway, in the classroom… EVERYWHERE.

I also acknowledge my personal beliefs, having grown up in a Free to Be, You and Me household.  No kidding; it feels like the record played daily. As well, my sister, Amanda Diekman, studies gender and society as a professor at Miami of Ohio.  In my home now, my daughter’s favorite sports to play are basketball and football.  Her favorite clothes are athletic anything!  She also loves crafts, doing her hair (for special occasions), playing baseball, reading, glitter, inventing, doing science experiments, writing, riding her bike, organizing and decorating her bedroom, hiking, wrestling… My two sons, ages two and four, love Legos, superheros, stuffed animals, cooking in their kitchen and with us, crafts, snuggling, reading, nursery rhymes, music, riding bikes, baby dolls…  I do share these tidbits of my daily life with students at times.

I also let students know that our purpose is to figure out what we each personally want for ourselves; we need to know that gender stereotypes exist in order to identify them when we are confronted with them, stop and think about our personal opinions and beliefs, and decide to either challenge the stereotype or to recognize the characteristic or behavior as something we truly feel is our own.

More on this topic later.  Too important to ignore.