Defining Coaching: a Tool for Busting the "Unicorn" Myth

Header - Kanke - Defining Coaching

"Is that what I think it is? It's an IC!" Joseph Kanke, statewide coaching coordinator in Wisconsin, makes the case for using shared language to better define the role of the coach, help make them more accessible and approachable, and support coach growth at the organization level.


ften when I ask leaders to describe the role of a coach, their response can be summarized as "coaches are unicorns," magical creatures able to solve every problem with a switch of their glittery tails.

All kidding aside, many instructional leaders hire educational coaches after seeing the Joyce and Showers research, or similar data which demonstrates how coaching support improves teacher practice. But without a clear definition of what coaching is—and a system of support for those coaches—their outcomes are unlikely to meet the promise of the research.

To break it down further, there are a number of problems with equating coaches with unicorns. That intangible, magical quality makes it difficult to find and train new coaches because it's hard to know what you're looking for. It also makes it tricky to pinpoint what the best coaches do well, and to share that best practice with other coaches. More worryingly, it fails to take into account the fact that coaches need coaches too. As educators, we should all be engaged in continuous improvement. To make coaching workable and sustainable, there needs to be a shared definition of coaching which everyone can reference.

Practice profiles

Realizing this, the state of Wisconsin pulled together a team to comb through the research and develop a definition of coaching which could be accessed consistently across the state. The final result was the Coaching Competency Practice Profile (CCPP).

Like a rubric, a practice profile includes the what and the how. Unlike a rubric, it also specifically identifies the why and the how NOT.

Kanke - Anatomy of the CCPP

How Wisconsin's "Coaching Competency Practice Profile" works.

Each of the six competencies includes the "contribution to system change," or the "why." This explains why the competency has been included and why it's important. Further detail for each competency (the "what") is described in the components—or the essential functions—down the left hand column. Each of the three columns describes the practitioner's behavior as expected use in practice, developing skills (the "how"), and unacceptable use in practice (the "how not").

Using the tool

A practice profile is not intended to be used in an evaluative manner for individual coaches, but rather to inform a comprehensive coaching system that supports individual coaches. It is a way to operationalize coaching in the field, making sure it is teachable, learnable, and doable. As a result, the tool lends itself to informing coaching practice, selecting, training, and coaching coaches.

Self assessment and goal setting

In Wisconsin, we offer a coaching competency self assessment to be used in tandem with the practice profile. After coaches self-assess a series of skills from low to high, the downloadable PDF results indicate which competencies were assessed the highest and which were opportunities for growth.

Coaches can then turn to the "expected use" column of the practice profile to formulate a personal coaching goal.

Identifying training needs

Teams and districts can compile the dis-aggregated results of coaches' self assessments to look for trends. If, for example, in a district of 60 coaches over half of survey participants have indicated opportunities for growth in "Change Facilitation," the district could narrow their selection or development of training and allocation of resources to focus on that particular competency.

This tool may also inform conversations with supervisors about ways to further develop the capacity and scope of the coach.

Recruiting new coaches

As teams consider selecting individuals to engage in the important work of coaching, this tool can serve as a guide in creating position vacancy descriptions. It can also be of use in other job selection tools such as interview questions, exam questions, and candidacy qualification "look-fors" in the hiring process.

Final note

While coaches can be pivotal to changing teacher practice, expecting them to embody a mythical, magical beast without clear parameters and support is little more than wishful thinking!

Once a definition of coaching is developed or adopted, coaches and administrators alike will have a premise for building out job descriptions, collecting data, creating personalized growth goals, and providing targeted professional learning opportunities.

About our Guest Blogger

Joseph is in his second year as Wisconsin's statewide coaching coordinator. Prior to this position, he worked as a coach for an educational service center in Austin, TX and as a campus-based instructional coach.

His mission is to act as a liaison between the field and the state with the intention of creating a statewide system of coaching support for regions, districts, and schools to access as they develop their own coaching programs. He is also passionate about equity and how coaches can hold this at the center of their work.

Be sure to check out Joseph's blog, Coaching Roots, and connect with him on Twitter @j_kanke!

Illustration by Icons 8.

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