A Team of Tendons (Anthony Smith)


In my previous post, “On Being a Tendon”, I’m afraid that I may have oversimplified instructional coaching in the Albemarle County Public Schools, possibly leaving a reader with the impression that a single tendon (one instructional coach) is all that’s required to help muscles (teachers) move the skeleton (the curriculum).   While a single instructional coach can certainly help teachers move forward, systemic growth requires multiple tendons, a team of them in fact, collaborating purposefully.

Collaboration between instructional coaches starts with open conversations about collaboration itself:  what it looks like; when, how and why it is beneficial; and even when it is not beneficial or practical.  In terms of what it looks like, we’ve landed on things like:  sharing the work equitably, treating each other as full partners, disagreeing respectfully, assuming best intentions, and proactively incorporating others’ ideas.

As a fifth-year coach in my final year of coaching (we make a 3 to 5 year commitment to this work), collaboration is purposeful but relatively unstructured. As the school year progresses, experienced coaches like me help newer coaches to develop relationships with teachers and navigate school dynamics; we bring newer coaches into existing projects as full partners; and we provide feedback and praise as novice coaches learn about their new role.  In short, we work to maintain and grow the instructional coaching model in our schools.

As a team of coaches, though, collaboration is more structured, the sort of structure that doesn’t disappear with the changing of the guard; nothing is left to chance.  Here’s what our collaboration looks like:

  1. We meet weekly to share what we’re working on. We talk about new relationships and projects, share successes and struggles, and brainstorm ideas for moving forward.  We have norms for these meetings, one of which is to “seek opportunities to expand collaboration” (my team has an almost palpable pride in collaborating well).
  2. Because a large number of grade level PLCs have asked us to attend their meetings, we rotate ourselves in and out of the meetings. Coach A might attend the 5th grade PLC at a school one week, for example, Coach B the next week, and Coach C the week after.  We also do this with the 5th grade PLCs at our other schools (we are all at three schools).  Such a schedule forces collaboration and communication for all of us, gives the new coaches an immediate “in” with teachers, and helps teachers learn what instruction and assessment look like in other schools.
  3. We use online calendars to share our schedules and online documents to share our progress with PLCs and on various projects. We take copious notes on goings-on so that we all know what any one of us knows.

Teachers don’t see all of this collaboration, of course, but what they do see is a team that works fluidly, seamlessly, and thoughtfully.  They know that when they are ready to move forward, they are doing so with the full support of a strong team.



On Being a Tendon (Anthony Smith)

As an instructional coach, I see myself as connective tissue, sort of like a tendon. For those of you who aren’t quite sure what a tendon is or does, it’s the flexible but non-elastic cord that connects muscles to bones. If we extend the analogy and adhere strictly to the definition of a tendon, then I suppose the Albemarle County Public Schools are the bones or framework (curricular or instructional expectations) while the teachers doing the hard work within the schools are the muscles. Teachers make the curriculum come alive in much the same way that muscles animate a skeleton. As a tendon, while I’m certainly connected to the bones, my purpose is to help the muscles grow (while hopefully not untethering them from the county or state expectations).

Fortunately for ACPS teachers and instructional coaches, the skeleton itself is flexible. Though research-based instruction is the expectation and the norm, there is no mandate to teach this way or that way. New instructional practices and ideas, both low- and high-tech, are more than welcome, and teachers are encouraged to learn from each other. It is the fostering of this teacher-to-teacher (muscle to muscle) connection that I, as a tendon, find most energizing (technically, I know that a tendon doesn’t connect muscle to muscle, but few analogies are perfect). The beauty of these teacher-to-teacher connections is that all of the teachers grow from the experience; the teachers we observe or borrow ideas from feel valued and validated and the borrowing teachers have new, proven techniques and strategies to implement. And because I work across different schools, grade levels, and content areas, I’m able to connect teachers who otherwise would have no real way of connecting with each other.

What does this look like in real life? In my work over the past year, I connected a Kindergarten teacher with a 2nd grade teacher at another school to see how the latter incorporates learning stations as part of math instruction. I connected Response to Intervention (RTI) and Special Education teachers at four schools to help them embark on a sight-word project in which images help to anchor words in their students’ long-term memories. I connected a 3rd grade team with a 5th grade team at another school who use interactive notebooks and Marzano’s strategies to improve student comprehension of non-fiction texts. I connected an elementary teacher interested in entrepreneurship for her students with a middle school teacher who is piloting a class with 8th graders. The list goes on.

In none of this work was I the focus. I was simply the tendon, listening to what teachers need and what they are good at, inviting myself into their rooms to see them in action, and spreading the word (with their permission) when I see something shareable. Tendons know that it is not about us. At the gym, nobody is going to ooh and ahh over good tendons, no matter how good they are. It’s all about making the muscles look good.

Reflections of an ACPS Instructional Coach (Jennifer Underwood)

“What do Instructional Coaches do anyway?” is a question I am asked frequently, and I often reflect upon that question myself. When looking at current research we find the role of coaches is multi-faceted. Elena Aguilar (2012) concludes, “Coaches can bring teams together in healthy ways, they can support teachers to increase their emotional resiliency, and they can facilitate systems change” (para. 2).
JU_IMG_5299Other roles of the instructional coach include: listener, encourager, and confidante. I find many times until the teacher shares the emotions he or she is feeling that day, we can’t begin the lesson planning, data analysis, or other project. It is important for coaches to understand the fast-pace of the educational life and how emotion can certainly play a part. My job as a coach is to meet people where they are and help them move forward. Change does not happen overnight, but it can begin one “interaction” at a time.

When you ask teachers what their role with coaches looks like you may uncover varying aspects such as: supporter, reflective partner, facilitator, mediator, resource-gatherer, data-researcher, co-teacher, co-planner, and overall sounding board.

Aguilar (2012) says it well, “Coaches often see the parts and the whole at the same time — this is essential” (para. 6). When I review my own personal data, I see trends in my work that include: technology, engineering, maker space, and other current digital integration, as well as collaboration on student engagement, project-based learning, unpacking curriculum, implementing new research-based literacy components, facilitating in professional learning communities, observing classroom instruction to gather data for teachers, and much, much more.

And I find teachers appreciate the opportunity to stretch themselves, to collaborate with a fellow teacher and to better understand the process of lifelong learning. Do you know what the best part of my job is? I am learning, too! I feel so blessed to go to work every day enveloping a true model of collaboration, reflection, and progression.

I believe instructional coacJUhes are able to unite teachers around the core purpose of Albemarle County Public Schools (2015), “to establish a community of learners and learning, through relationships, relevance and rigor”.  I cannot think of a better model for building relationships, instilling a positive learning community and ensuring our students the very best educational system.



Welcome to our ACPS Instructional Coaching Blog! We invite you to check back often to hear stories about instructional coaching. A blog seems like the perfect way for us to model “collaborative, public, and reflective” practices that are the foundation of our model.

We will start with posts by instructional coaches, but hope to expand soon to include posts by teachers and coaches together.

– The Lead Coach Team