Coaching for Innovation

Innovation, not achievement

The focus of instructional coaching is to improve teaching practice and student achievement. The focus of innovation coaching is to foster the types of dispositions needed by teachers in today’s classrooms in order to prepare learners for an unpredictable future. The focus is on learning and growing rather than academic achievement and test scores. There is a place for both instructional coaching and innovation coaching. In fact, innovation coaching is not necessarily a separate task. I see instructional coaching as something that may take place within an innovation coaching situation depending on the coaching goals.

Spiral or winding path?

Traditionally, educators (and the American education system) try to find something that works and use that…forever. I don’t think most people say that out loud or even believe this in theory but if we are honest and think about the discomfort and frustration that comes with change in the education system, this is what is happening. Every year that there is a new initiative, teachers will complain that they now need to “change everything”. Also, if we consider how slow the education system changes despite all the evidence that it should change, it is difficult to argue that this is not a reality whether we want it to be or not. This can’t be our reality anymore. And we need a plan that will last within a changing environment.  The technology and the conditions of our world socially, economically, politically, and otherwise are simply changing too fast. This doesn’t mean throw everything out every week and be constantly changing. I will say that again because I know there are people out there who will interpret this in a way that is unbalanced and not helpful. This doesn’t mean throw everything out every week and be constantly changing. Innovation is about constantly changing but it isn’t about starting new every time. This is such an important idea. We should never stop doing something if it is working; that would be pretty silly. It is what can happen though when teachers are constantly reacting to new initiatives. It creates a spiral movement where we are constantly circling back around and change ends up happening very slowly when we could just veer a little to the left and continue moving forward. Developing habits, routines, and behaviors that thrive in a changing environment is a wise investment.

Building on what works

George Couros defines “innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better” in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset (Couros, 2015). Similarly, it is improving what already works to make it even better. It could also be taking multiple strategies that are working and combining them to make something brand new or maybe using a strategy that was created for one subject and generalizing it to another subject. In any case, it is never throwing everything one knows out the window and starting from complete scratch. That would be terribly inefficient. And the whole purpose of innovation coaching is to change this slow-moving spiral version of school transformation into a faster, more efficient squiggly line version of change. The point is to not only improve the pace but keep up with the demands of our world and the technology that is an integral part of that world.

Developing Habits

In order to keep up with this pace, teachers must have certain dispositions. They don’t teach these dispositions in teacher education programs. They are all learnable behaviors. They can be fostered by coaches and administrators through their actions. Modeling these dispositions for learners will help them adjust to the frequently changing conditions in their world. I would argue that coaching is the best professional learning model out there for teachers right now. It allows for real-time, personalized learning to take place and our traditional in-service structures certainly don’t do this. So coaching is an excellent place to embed innovation dispositions. I chose these eight dispositions as the most important and impactful ones. While I agree with some of the dispositions identified in Innovator’s Mindset, I think that there are some others that are more important for teachers and students. The eight dispositions I identified include empathy, risk-taking, collaboration, resilience, creativity, optimism, curiosity, and persistence. It is important to understand not only their definitions but what they look like in action and how and why they manifest (or don’t manifest) when a teacher is in the thick of her classroom dynamics. Teachers have extremely complex jobs. The vision of the teacher in many 1980’s films, sitting at their desk with their feet up, reading a newspaper while students complete a test at their desks doesn’t exist. Teaching and learning are extremely complex. A teacher is dealing with relationships, content, social dynamics, individual learning needs, and many other factors all at the same time. In order for a teacher to also demonstrate these dispositions, they must be automatic. When a teacher is in the thick of things happening in their classrooms, their brains simply don’t have the energy to consciously consider how they can be empathetic at that moment. We know that when things get hard, people revert to their most comfortable methods. It is just human nature. So, these dispositions must become habitual.

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