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Understanding the roles of tech, instructional coaches and how they are evolving

By Tim Douglas
April 1, 2017
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When we’re young, we have a seemingly endless stable of real-life, human resources to help us along our path. We have tutors, teachers, principals, specialists, childcare professionals, and yes, coaches, but usually for athletic pursuits.

As we turn into adults, our access to coaches tends to drift away. Maybe we think we don’t need that type of influence. Maybe we feel like we need to do everything ourselves. Maybe we believe we know best. Maybe we’re too embarrassed to ask for help
In the world of athletics, teams do everything they can to compete, to succeed and to win. Sports organizations invest in strength experts, nutritionists and a variety of specialists to gain an advantage. Many schools have done the same by employing technology coaches to help teachers improve their practice and support educators along the spectrum of integrating technology into their classrooms.

How tech coaching works, what the goals are and exactly who takes on this role is being worked out in classrooms and districts around the globe. And while there may be some uncertainty as to how to navigate the coaching terrain, experts say the relationships among the various stakeholders are the bedrock.

“The best coaches know their players – in this case, teachers,” says Ruth Okoye, an ISTE member and director of k-12 Initiatives at The Source for Learning, the parent company of the TeachersFirst community based in Virginia. “You need to know your players because you need to understand who you’re coaching. This builds trust.”

ISTE member Kara Gann, who manages strategic partnerships at Schoology, an online learning management system, is even more direct in describing how relationships need to work for everyone involved, from the district to school leadership to the teacher: “A lack of trust will lead to failure.”

Getting started

The first introduction many educators have to their edtech coach is asking for help with some aspect of classroom technology. ISTE member Christina DiMicelli is a technology integration specialist at Pinkerton Academy, the largest independent high school in the nation, with around 3,200 students. DiMicelli says that is only the beginning of what edtech coaches have to offer.

Edtech coaches walk educators through the rollout of tech initiatives, offer professional development opportunities, and work specifically with departments or teachers who want help creating a project for their students. Developing relationships between tech coaches and teachers, says DiMicelli, is key to improving learning outcomes for students.

For example, a social studies teacher at Pinkerton asked for DiMicelli’s help with his contemporary issues class. The teacher had asked students to research a subject of their choice and wanted to guide them through some media literacy development using technology. The school uses Chromebooks, so he and DiMicelli discussed some Chrome extensions, settling on Feedly, which allowed the students to personalize and organize information based on key words or publications. DiMicelli put together some instructions on how to use Feedly, then visited the class to give a demonstration.

“Any time you can get students to look at the large amount of information coming at them in a different way or find a better way to organize it,” she says, “you’re helping them take better care of their own learning environment. And, yes, now we’re hitting one of the ISTE Standards.”

The coaching didn’t end there. After visiting the classroom, DiMicelli continued to check in on the teacher, asking if he needed any help and, in the process, got a better sense for the classroom culture and where he was hoping to take his students. A few weeks later, when she came across a news piece about the Facebook Journalism Project, she forwarded it to the teacher. He responded with interest and now the coaching relationship continues to flourish.

“Integrating tech can often be very overwhelming for teachers,” says DiMicelli. Coaches can bring the human side of technology, showing educators that it’s not as big and overwhelming as they think while also getting to know their classroom culture, “since it doesn’t matter how bright and shiny the tech is if it doesn’t further the learning objectives.”

Coaching the coach

With a swirling of scenarios based on individual educators’ needs, how does a coach know what to do and when to do it? Given the balancing act between the district and the classroom, where can a coach turn? The district may have a hands-off approach because perhaps the leadership doesn’t quite know what to do with this new position. A teacher may not understand how to integrate the coach into the classroom.

Despite what is usually a lack of universal protocol or a clearly defined position, many feel it’s still up to the coach to make it work. Trust building, situational analysis, understanding what is needed and how to deliver, that’s a lot of hats. Who better to lean on than those who are experiencing the same frustrations, challenges and obstacles?

As the president of iste’s Edtech Coaches Network, ISTE member Katie Siemer, director of curriculum and technology integration with Forward Edge, is proud of the invaluable insight this pln provides, especially in helping coaches show their value and define the position.

“At the beginning of the year, we have a lot of coaches who make coaching menus,” she says. “It’s to educate the educators and principals about what we can do for you. This helps personalize the coach and show how [we can] be used.”

The pln also offers monthly webinars presented by its members and a fall and spring book study, along with monthly Twitter chats and other opportunities. Okoye says the more, the better.

“One of the problems is a lack of professional development,” Okoye says. “For technology coaches, there is really a shortage of helping them understand  how to be a coach. They’re great at tech but not the coaching part of it. That needs to be connected.”

Fixers versus guides

As districts, teachers and coaches paint a clear picture of the position, it’s just as important to define what a coach isn’t.

“When I work with teachers, I always say if it’s broken, I probably can’t help you fix it. I’m the person who will help you use the tech,” Siemer says, as an example.

It may be up to the coach to make the best of the opportunity, but the real power rests elsewhere. The most important perception about the role of a tech coach comes from the district. Ultimately, district administrators play a significant role by determining whether to fund and hire staff for this position. 

“School leaders like coaches, especially if the coach operates at the district level and can reinforce the district’s goals,” adds Gann.

How it looks live

When Dansville High School English teacher Janelle Rinker was ready to introduce her class to The Great Gatsby, she knew she needed to first introduce them to America in the 1920s, a time period with which many of her students were unfamiliar.

Rinker, whose school is in New York, enlisted the help of Kim Derrenbacher, a Google For Education certified trainer in her small, rural district. Derrenbacher and Rinker spent a class period brainstorming. Together, they decided to have students pick a famous person from the era and learn what the flappers and gangsters of the 1920s were wearing, where they were going, what music they listened to, and what they did for fun.

Derrenbacher suggested the students make either a Pinterest board, Google My Map or a ThingLink. The projects also included an audio component where the famous characters had a 60-second conversation with each other. For example, Bessie Smith had a conversation with Louis Armstrong using an audio recorder extension, Google Translate and Pholody.

Derrenbacher created three mock-up projects, one for each platform, to give the students an idea of the expectation. Rinker says that besides engaging students, the project touched on many learning objectives, including perspective, research and plagiarism, speaking and listening skills, peer feedback and reflection. Additionally, because the students were able to activate prior knowledge, they gained insight into the novel and their papers at the end were more insightful than they would have been otherwise.

“Kim pushes teachers, gently, to embed meaningful technology into their instruction, even small components,” says Rinker. “She also makes teachers aware that they can contact her at anytime to do mini lessons and help plan lessons.” 

Darrenbacher says the challenges her teachers face are that they have very little time thanks to high-stakes testing and other requirements. They can’t sit around and play with apps all day to find what is suitable. Further, they’re often afraid to bring something into the classroom that they’re not familiar with. She says not to worry, those things are in the coach’s job description.

A teacher can tell the coach what they want to accomplish and what the expectations are and the coach can help find the right technology. “Also, don’t forget that the kids can mostly learn the tech on their own,” she says. “Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘Hey, you’re going to know a lot more about this product than I do.’ Almost without fail, the kids will exceed expectations.”

Currently, the use of technology coaches is scattershot, Okoye says. And where there are tech coaches, their roles vary given the district, state or overseeing body. “Coaching is in a different shape, in different places, but I’ve seen it succeed. I know it can succeed.”

“It’s rapidly evolving,” says Siemer. “Principals and schools have often thought until now ‘well, we have the software and the devices, now the magic will happen.’ This isn’t how it works. There [needs to be] a shift in awareness of the role and acknowledgement that [coaching’s] an important position.”

But while an effective, traditional coach wears many hats, there needs to be some common ground and expectations, and while there is no blueprint, there are some guides to help create successful coaching/teaching collaborations.

ISTE Standards provide the road map

Many educators rely on the ISTE Standards for Coaches that focus on visionary leadership; teaching, learning and assessments; digital-age learning environments; professional development and program evaluation; digital citizenship; and content knowledge and professional growth.
The standards for coaches provide a framework for what coaching can look like in the digital age. These standards encourage reflection and professional development for both instructional and technology coaches in how to think about their roles as professionals and their engagement with teachers, explains Sarah Stoeckl, Ph.D., senior project manager for ISTE Standards.
“If a coach is open about their use of the coaching standards, that can also engage their teachers in thinking actively about the relationship between coach and teacher,” Stoeckl says.
New and experienced coaches as well as organizations anywhere on the tech-integration spectrum can leverage the coaching standards.

Those new to coaching will find the standards helpful in developing themselves as professionals who want to truly enhance teaching and learning with technology, and meaningfully integrate the valuable functional attributes technology can bring to coaching interactions, Stoeckl notes.
Internationally, the ISTE Standards for Coaches have been particularly useful in regions where technology integration is just getting underway, or where schools are making a concerted effort to think beyond replacement in their use of technology.

For example, last year in Malaysia, ISTE staff and faculty led coaches just beginning to adopt and integrate technology throughout their school system in understanding how the standards can support teachers and students in meaningfully using technology for learning. The training was part of a program contract ISTE established with the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (mdec) to train 90 coaches.

In the Gulf States, on the other hand, technology is often accessible in schools but the model of teaching is still traditional, so iste’s work with coaches and leaders in that region shows how to rethink learning design and teacher coaching.

“I think iste’s coaching standards have been a huge help in developing, defining and fulfilling a coach’s role,” Siemer says. “Oftentimes, people say, ‘I’ve become a coach, now what?’Or ‘we have the money for a coach, what do we do?’ The ISTE standards are helpful.”

The standards are a tremendous guide, and when it comes to “visionary leadership,” Siemer knows where to start.

“Coaches need to be part of developing the curriculum,” she says. “Coaches can bring a great deal of strategies and knowledge to the party.”

Site-level work is key

After taking into account federal mandates and other considerations, deciding the course of study in schools starts at the district level. Coaches need to have a clear connection to the district, especially regarding the curriculum, but the real work is done at the site or sites where they operate.

“Coaches who are based in districts tend to have a clearer vision,” says Gann. “I think a coach should come from the district, but they need the school’s support.”

Okoye agrees, but notes that the arrangement needs to fit the situation.

“It depends on how the division or district is organized,” she says. “If it is well organized, it’s best for the coach to coordinate things from [the district office]. If not, the coach should be at the school and work in the school.”

It’s about relationships

Regardless of the location, hierarchy or protocol, it comes back to the one-on-one between the teacher and the coach, and the onus is on the coach to find the right lanes.

“A coach can’t come in as a know-it-all. Understand your teacher, assess ability and go from there,” explains ISTE member Kathy Booth, special services coordinator and technology coach at Lopez Island School District in Washington.

For a coach, observation before action makes a great deal of sense. There is no need, and in fact it may be counterproductive, to leap before looking – a concept that resonates across the globe.

Responding via email, Zara Zac, who participated in an online course that was conducted by ISTE in Malaysia, writes, “In my view, coaches should have first experienced the environment at the school for three months before offering adjustments and changes. Understanding the environment also includes the interaction between the school and the district education department.”

Proof of concept

As with every position, the budget always looms large, but with this role, it seems to take on a little more importance.

“You need to show success,” says Gann. “When you fund something, you need to make sure it’s worth it. Coaches need to have metrics. Did their involvement in changing teacher practice help increase student achievement?”

“I have the privilege of looking at a variety of programs across the United States,” says Gann. “Some flourish, some are disjointed … there are many models for success. It’s evolving. So one of the main frustrations coaches have is, is this a one-year job? A coach says, ‘I see changes, but does the district see the value?’ It’s one of the first positions that may be cut.”
“Coaches need to let administrators know about their position,” Siemer says. “It’s a salary. They need to set aside money for this. And the work will also help tell the story, because once a coach shows progress, the word will spread very quickly. Teachers will talk and share success stories.”

Siemer believes that most coaches have already proven their worth.

“Tech coaches in 2017 are already as important as principals and teachers in order to make sure technology is being used effectively.”

Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the California State Assembly. Today, Douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.

Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. as a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.