Coaching with the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching: Johnny Cash, Spike Lee, and a Big Fluffy Pair of Headphones

The MATCH Teacher Residency churns out some of the highest performing rookie teachers in the country.   One laudable aspect of the programming is that each resident (i.e. teaching in training) receives individual coaching.  Starting a career with individual coaching rather than a room key and a prayer-sweet progress.

Their residents (rookie teachers in training) were giving consistently high survey scores to all of their coaches*  No one was getting lower than an 8 out of 10.  However there were observable differences in the progress of residents.   While hiring a new coach for the program revelation struck.  What if we changed the question?   Instead of  asking about overall satisfaction, the MTR leadership laid out three criteria for effective coaching and asked the residents:

  1. Did your coaching lead to accurate (i.e.supported with evidence) diagnosis of the teaching and learning?
  2. Did you your coaching lead you to an clear and actionable next step?
  3. Did your coach hold you accountable for your action step?

Teaching is  dense,  emotionally and cognitively demanding work often done without another adult in earshot.  Regular contact with a decently smart adult will make most teachers happier. However  these three criteria truly move the needle on performance; in particular #3 separates helpful and truly transformational coaching.

If these three criteria are the what of coaching, what is the how of coaching?  I’ll propose three skill/mind sets for coaches to accompany the three criteria.

(Hard) Soft Skills & a Johnny Case mindset.  In other words the behaviors in the Self & Others element of the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (KFET for short) are essential for a coach to move teachers’ performance. A coach has to maintain the self awareness to monitor tone, actively listen, and adjust his or her approach to the needs of the teacher.  These self & other skills allow the coach to walk the line between collaborating and managing.*

You can find a slew of articles that advocate for coaching minus evaluation.  It’s unrealistic for our schools; the money and more importantly human resources to support that kind of coaching aren’t there.  Most KIPP schools that provide solid coaching to their teachers are able to do so because many of the coaches are also teaching.

This coaching without evaluation idea also misses one of the key points of coaching: a recognition by the coached that I need to be pushed and I want to be held accountable.  I always wanted to eat healthy but I didn’t stop eating Chinese-American buffets and Hardee’s Triple Deckers until I was married and someone across the table called me on a crappy diet.

The mindset and toolsets of a doctor trying to prevent an outbreak and a director trying to coax a star turn from an actor In other words the coach needs to possess a palpable curiosity about the teaching and learning in a room while at the same time winnowing that information into a few key levers for improvement. Excellent teaching is undoubtedly chemistry that sometimes feels like alchemy.   There is never one simple lever for improvement but focus on a few behaviors at a time produces a loop of constant small improvement. Coaches, like an good diagnostician must mix data analysis and observation (of classrooms, plans, student interactions).  Coaches, like a great director have to move skillfully along a continuum of directiveness when coaching the artist (teacher). Sometimes we help teachers solve problems themselves, sometimes more telling is required.


Organizational tools and a pair of good headphones.  Many aspects of coaching are Q2 work (important but not urgent or at least not urgent in the way a crying fifth grader or leaking boys’ room toilet is urgent***).  Looking at plans, scouring data, and writing agendas for thirty minute meetings can all be crushed underneath more urgent (though less important tasks). In our small schools and regions coaches are often the most effective and respected teachers in the building.  This means they are often the go to person for thousands of different issues.   The coach needs to not only calendar and schedule effectively he or she needs to figure out how occasionally put on the headphones and ignore the world in order to study a lesson plan.

Develop a team, even if one doesn’t exist yet.  The more coaches talk to other coaches and even better observe with other coaches the better they will become.  I’d urge coaches who aren’t part of a formal group of coaches in their building to try to create an informal practice of co-observation and at least periodically get someone to watch them coach.

A few outlying questions about coaching:

How to move a teacher who knows more about the content than you do?

How do I move a coach when neither of us know the content as well as we should?

How do I coach teachers on Self & Others?

When do I do planning conferences?  data conferences?  look at student work?  observe class?

How often should I meet with or observe a teacher?  What is the minimum frequency that makes a difference?

I’d love to hear more from coaches and coached.

* This anecdote was shared by Orrin Gutlerner, director of MTR and fellow ’96 TFA Eastern North Carolina corps member.  In other words one of the few people in Boston who knows???.

**I learned this idea of a continuum for coaching style from Jon Saphier and the good folks at RBT.  It comes from Carl Glickman’s SuperVision.

*** Especially urgent if the crying fifth grader and the leaking toilet are connected.

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3 Responses to “Coaching with the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching: Johnny Cash, Spike Lee, and a Big Fluffy Pair of Headphones”

  1. Dr. Ed Fuller Says:

    How do we know those “outstanding teachers” did not simply teach to the test to raise scores? Was there other outcomes measures that validated the rise in test scores? If not, then the evaluation was not well done and we should still view the program skeptically as we should all programs without solid evidence.

  2. Dr. Ed Fuller Says:

    And given that 50% of the KIPP schools in Houston have negative student growth, why should we think the KIPP model of coaching is effective?

    • mrdolan Says:

      Dr. Fuller,

      Thanks for the questions.

      The blog posts are totally based on my experiences and the experiences of other KIPP leaders I work closely with. There’s no research other than that. Outstanding teaching (defined through our KIPP Framework) is teaching that leads to transformational student growth and achievement in both character and academics.

      If you are interested in more formal research about KIPP check out the Mathematica study about KIPP on kipp.org or the MIT study about KIPP Lynn (the region where I work). http://econ-www.mit.edu/files/5465

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