Busting the Coaching v. Supervision Myth

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Busting the Coaching v. Supervision Myth

By Dr. Gary Bloom

Bloom I wish I had a nickel for every time I have bumped up against the notion that a supervisor can’t serve as a coach. Thinking has shifted around this topic over the past few years, but the idea that a supervisor cannot both supervise and coach is still out there in the K-12 universe.

How did this myth come to be? I believe that it has its origins in Garmston and Costa’s early dissemination of Cognitive Coaching, the model that first popularized coaching as a professional development strategy in K-12. Don’t get me wrong, their work was a great contribution to our profession.  But Garmston and Costa initially took a hard line, suggesting that an effective coach could not serve simultaneously as a supervisor and evaluator. They later modified this position, but the taboo stuck.

Garmston and Costa are not the only thought leaders who have advocated for a wall between coaching and supervision. Jim Popham argues in Evaluating America’s Teachers: Mission Possible (2013) “a teacher evaluator cannot simultaneously be a summative and formative evaluator.  That’s because a teacher who needs to improve must honestly identify those personal deficit areas that need improvement.  Weaknesses can’t be remedies until they’ve been identified, and who knows better what teachers’ shortcomings are than those teachers themselves?”  This statement is oozing with mythology. The myths: 1. The notion that somehow by reflecting upon personal practice alone one can arrive at professional growth.  It ignores the fact that there is a body of professional knowledge that should shape our teaching practice and that can be learned from others . 2. The fallacy of a judgement/coaching dichotomy.  “Individuals who truly believe that a combined formative and summative teacher evaluation effort can succeed are most likely to have recently arrived from outer space.” Come on, Jim. Really?

In their book (Supervision that Improves Teaching and Learning (2005) Sullivan and Glanz argue that “bureaucratic inspectional supervision should have no place in schools in the 21st century” .. that we should move to a “democratic” model recognizing that “teaching is complex and not easily defined or understood”. Apparently teaching is a mystical undefinable practice that cannot be improved through the outside perspective that might be provided by a supervisor.

In her book Talk About Teaching (2016) Charolette Danielson suggests that there are three distinct categories of professional conversations; formal reflective conversations following formal observations conducted for the purpose of teacher evaluation, coaching conversations, by invitation of the teacher to the administrator, and informal professional conversations that follow a principal’s unannounced observations. This conceptual framework reinforces the false barriers between formal and informal supervision and the practice of coaching-based supervision.   

I can’t find a whit of research that supports these notions. It is all opinion that flies in the face of practical experience.

The presence of the supervision/coaching dichotomy K-12 is particularly ironic. Every teacher is both a supervisor and a coach of his/her pupils. Every teacher has the responsibility of both nurturing and supporting the growth of his/her students, and of evaluating their progress. In secondary settings, teachers make judgements, assign grades and write recommendation letters that directly shape their charges’ futures. Every good athletic coach both provides feedback and direction to their team members, and decides who is going to make the team, and who is going to play.

I have interviewed senior leaders in medicine, law and the military and in these professional domains it is understood that supervisors’ first responsibility is to support the growth of their subordinates from a coaching stance. Effective supervisors grow and support their people through coaching relationships, at the same time that they ensure that their charges meet standards by providing supervisorial direction and feedback and ensure accountability through summative evaluation. In classrooms and in healthy organizations it happens every day.