Guest Post: How to Cultivate a Learner Culture in 3 Easy Steps

A school’s growth is a reflection of the culture. You can see, hear, and feel a school’s Captureculture at staff meetings, professional development, daily interactions, the office, the hallways, and so on. As instructional coaches, our goal should be to cultivate a culture in which learning occurs not only for students, but also for teachers.

How can you make a difference in your school’s culture?


  • Name and notice the great work already taking place


Any great school leader knows that the key to success is a staff that feels valued and appreciated. Amplifying the energy and productivity of a staff requires that teachers are made aware of their worth. Focusing attention on daily behavior that is valued can increase that behavior. Introducing new learning will be less intimidating if teachers know their work is highly valued. Don’t be afraid to make note of the great instruction taking place and then follow up with a question to push a teacher’s thinking even further.


  • Make connections between teachers


After naming and noticing the great work, figure out a way to get teachers in one another’s classroom. When a teacher asks about a certain strategy, mention another teacher who is also working on that strategy or suggest a classroom that they may want to observe. The best way to grow our practice is by learning from one another. As the instructional coach, we have the unique ability to serve as a bridge in the school. Seize opportunities to increase communication and collaborative experiences.


  • Embed professional development in the classroom


One of our primary responsibilities as instructional coaches is to provide great professional development. The most powerful professional development for teachers takes place in the classroom. Structures such as learning labs, learning walks, #observeme, and build-a-labs give teachers the opportunity to try new instructional practices in the classroom. This blog by Cult of Pedagogy is a great resource for effective professional development and lays out these structures. By providing teachers with on the spot teaching, learning becomes more transferable to their own classrooms.

As instructional coaches, our role is to be a leader for successful change and improvement efforts. This must begin by creating a culture in which teachers are willing to learn and take risks. Otherwise, we may fall short due to resistance and an unwillingness to grow. Taking these three easy steps to cultivate a learner culture is one way to increase your chances of success!

About our Guest Author: Tonya Moody is an Instructional Coach in Westfield Washington School District in central Indiana and has over ten years of teaching experience. Prior to coaching, she taught Kindergarten, Second Grade, and was a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach. She has a passion for encouraging her colleagues and collaborating with fellow educators.  Tonya loves growing her PLN on Twitter (@MrsMoodyIC) and would love to connect with you!

Guest Post: Who Sits In the Big Chair? Reflections on Building Collaborative Partnerships with Teachers

Last spring, I attended a day-long session facilitated by Jim Knight on using video as a tool for instructional coaching. Jim started the day with his Partnership Principles. I was equally inspired and mortified. I was inspired to learn more about how I can strengthen the partnerships with teachers I support, but mortified to think of all the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years in my practice as an instructional coach.

                                     Photo by Federica Campanaro    Otranto, Italy

Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles include these “touchstones” that guide the work of instructional coaches: Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Reflection, Praxis, and Reciprocity. I want to be able to carry these profound principles with me into each coaching session, so I’ve organized them into three memorable tips.

A Firm Belief in Equality

With each opportunity to work alongside a teacher, I am reminded that I learn as much, maybe more, as the individual sitting at the table with me. Coaching is not an exercise in educational arm-twisting. It’s not my job to convert a teacher to my way of thinking.

In this partnership, I fully expect to discover the strengths and distinctive values of the teacher, and how she approaches instruction and learning for her students. The primary responsibility for me as a coach is to listen and respond with thought-provoking questions so the lion’s share of the work is done in a collaborative manner.

Four years ago, when I went through a multi-day coaching institute, I remember balking a little at the idea that all the heavy work was to be done by the teacher. “It’s imperative that the coach ask questions that allow the teacher to choose the path for change.”

I’ll admit I struggled with that idea.

Why are they calling in the “experts” to coach and then empowering the teacher to choose? Shouldn’t I be leading the teacher to make the changes I decide should be made in the classroom instruction and practice?

It’s really difficult to admit my arrogance as a “newbie” instructional coach. Thank goodness I quickly realized the expert is and always will be the teacher in that classroom.

Jim Knight paints a compelling picture with his description of the relationship between teacher and instructional coach: “The teacher sits in the big chair and the coach willingly chooses the little chair.”

A Commitment to Choice and Voice

Implicit in this equal partnership is the idea that coaches work collaboratively to ensure teachers make their own personal, values-driven choices. The intentional way I communicate as a coach should empower the teacher to express her opinion about the solutions to specific instructional, management or assessment issues in the classroom.

Recently, I met with a third-grade team and their campus instructional specialist. We took a look at their most recent data and then I asked them to consider some instructional implications based on their analysis of the data.

The response from one of the teachers caught me a little off guard. She made an altogether different connection between the data and instruction than I would have. I was equally surprised at my initial inward response. I found myself thinking, “That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that.”

In the past, my heart rate would have quickened, my scalp would’ve tightened and I would have struggled to control my facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

Instead, I found myself asking questions that facilitated their design of a multi-week unit to support students in mastery of a difficult standard in the language arts curriculum. As I drove home, I was amused at the fact that it’s only taken me four years to learn it’s not my job as an instructional coach to “manipulate” the teachers I support.

(Patience, please–I’m a slow learner.)

An Emphasis on Reflective Dialogue

An effective instructional coach is clear on the importance of dialogue that promotes reflection. Teachers must have the freedom and encouragement to think through solutions and weigh the factors involved in important changes (however small) in their practice.

There’s inestimable wisdom in offering teachers the ability to embrace or reject instructional practices. True, transparent partnerships are defined by the freedom to consider and cast-off. The choice to redesign and individualize content in ways that are most valuable for the individual is critical.

It makes no sense whatsoever for a coach to dictate practices and/or classroom procedures that are an uncomfortable fit for the teacher and her students.

I had the privilege of working with a grade level team last year that was made up of first year teachers. I worried that the pressure of accountability and responsibility for this team would be crushing.

What I observed over the weeks we were together was the sagacity these ladies possessed. They had an uncanny ability to take the ridiculous amount of information and overwhelming tasks for classroom teachers and distill it to the most important bits. They asked thoughtful, discerning questions and then made decisions that simultaneously challenged and supported their young learners.

Amazed and inspired each time I left a planning session with these amazing women, I now consider them as heroes and mentors.

Instructional coaching is tricky work. I’m tempted to fret over the fact that I’m not doing my best to maintain authentic collaborative partnerships.

Not to worry.

Now that I know who sits in the big chair, I think I’ve got this.

About our Guest Author: Valinda Kimmel has flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. For the past 7 years, she’s worked as a K-6 facilitator/instructional coach in a large school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in conversations with her on Twitter () and on her blog at

We could be heroes! Just for one day…

“Sometimes you stumble across a few chords that put you in a reflective place.”                -David Bowie

I was recently on Twitter (not much of a shock there). In the spur of the moment, I tweeted:

Over the next few days, responses, retweets, and favorites rolled in. As I read each word and phrase, I felt like Bowie stumbling on those few chords and found mysef in a reflective place.  The responses from my professional learning network (PLN) are arranged in the Popplet below (try it your self here).

Great Coach

I am and have always been impressed with the power of a PLN on Twitter. I encourage you to follow each of the folks in the Popplet and add them to your own PLN.  Remember that whatever word or phrase you would choose, as an instructional coach you don’t need to be a hero, but follow the example of David Bowie:

“I believe that I often bring out the best in somebody’s talents.” -David Bowie



Take a chance on me!

Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie relationships

If you put me to the test, if you let me try

Take a chance on me… -ABBA (Union Songs Musikforlag AB)

Working with an instructional coach represents a risk for many teachers, and teachers are often reluctant to take the chance.

Why might this be?

There are likely as many explanations as there are teachers. To name just a few, teachers may view coaches as reserved for struggling colleagues, as curriculum police, or as administrative spies. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand the reluctance to welcome coaches with open arms.

If an attitude of hesitancy or resistance persists throughout your school, your work as an instructional coach will fail to positively impact teacher practice and student achievement.

You can only fulfill these goals when instructional coaching is embraced as personalized professional development: two (or more) people, in a positive, collaborative relationship to learn and grow as professional educators.

How can you personalize professional learning? The next time you work with a particular teacher — be they resistant or welcoming — collaborate to create a personalized coaching plan. You might consider the following:

  • Personalized Mode: Will you focus on conversation, classroom modeling, co-teaching, or feedback?
  • Personalized Goals: Will you focus on a particular instructional strategy, student skill, or content knowledge?
  • Personalized delivery: Will you collaborate using face to face meeting, using a journal (paper or cloud), or online platform?
  • Personalized Calendar: Will you work together on a regular schedule or as needed?
  • Personalized pacing: How will you know if you are working too fast, not too slow, or just right?

By working together, you can roll out a personalized PD plan with patience, persistence, and mutual accountability.

If both teacher and coach will just take a chance, take a chance, take a take a chance chance…

If you need me, let me know, gonna be around

If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down

Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie

If you put me to the test, if you let me try

Take a chance on me…

(This post is also featured by the great folks at TeachBoost at

That’s what friends are for!

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”conversation
― Ernest Hemingway

Tonight, I was reminded how great it is to have a conversation with a true friend.  In recent posts, I have discussed facilitation of conversations that are more about the learning and growth of others (teachers, principals, etc).  Don’t forget that conversations can also benefit your own growth and learning.

More importantly, these conversations can often be good for your own well being. Coaching, like any job in education, is hard work.  It can be mentally, spiritually, and even physically demanding.  An honest conversation can help to ease these demands.

My advice to you: find that one friend to have the toughest conversations, perhaps a colleague with experience in coaching .  Remember that these conversations must have balance between speaking and listening.  Be there for your friend, as they are there for you. These relationships are an essential part of your support network as you move forward in this work.  Think of these words from Leo Buscaglia:

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Thanks for the conversation, CF.