A Coach’s Model for Success

How I See My Instructional Coach Role Aligned to the Vince Lombardi Leadership Framework

When you initially hear the word coach, you likely imagine a person guiding an athletics team. According to the Center for Educational Leadership, coach “refers to the observer on the sidelines who provides explicit instruction, ongoing, detailed feedback regarding performance, and ‘in-the-moment’ support to guide a player’s development.” In the field of education, particularly at the classroom level, the role of the coach has been adopted to provide a non-evaluative, reflective, and collaborative opportunity between two or more colleagues (Hasbrouck & Denton, 2005; Robbins, 2015). Both in the classroom and on the field, the coach’s role is valuable for providing immediate and corrective feedback and ongoing opportunities for growth.

Vince Lombardi had a philosophy of leadership that he felt was necessary to succeed in any vocation (i.e., your calling). If you are not familiar with Vince Lombardi, he was a professional football coach who successfully led his team to league and Super Bowl championships by establishing a clear vision, expecting hard work and ongoing practice, building relationships, and providing guidance. Lombardi had an attitude of winning, and he communicated this attitude through his motivation, confidence, and inspiration. His philosophy includes four categories:

a graphic showing Lombardi Leadership Framework

Self-knowledge includes being aware of your principles and values, purpose, and vision. Character refers to mental toughness—the persistence and will to accept the challenge of excelling. Integrity highlights the importance of trust and relationships. Leadership stresses guidance, focus, and acting in concert with what is expected.

My name is Cynthia Denmark. I am an instructional coach in the La Vega Independent School District, and though it might seem strange, I draw inspiration from Vince Lombardi’s model for success. Lombardi was a football coach, though. How could his job possibly relate to that of an instructional coach? The connection I see is being a positive role model—a leader. When I first became a literacy coach in early 2000 at La Vega Elementary during the Texas Reading First Initiative, I realized that our campus was on a path of mediocrity. After numerous classroom observations and conversations with leaders and teachers during that initial year, I knew we had the necessary ingredients to excel. We needed self-knowledge: clarity of our purpose and vision, collaborative and trusting relationships, and ongoing guidance.

I take time each day to read and reflect on one of Lombardi’s quotes: “Mental toughness is the ability to hold onto your goals in the face of the pressure and stress of current reality. Mental toughness is the glue that holds a team together when the heat is on and helps that team persevere just a little bit longer.” He acknowledged that one of the most important elements in the character makeup of a person who is successful is that of mental toughness. I concur and understand the importance of character. When I began my tenure as an instructional coach, I knew that I needed to develop character in myself if I was going to model and develop it in others. What are we trying to accomplish? How do I keep teachers and leaders focused on what we set out to accomplish? What will I do if we seem to lose sight of our goal(s)? In what way(s) can I support teachers in maintaining a focus on what we can control? What data can I collect and use to demonstrate accomplishments along the journey?

Woven throughout the categories of self-knowledge and character is integrity. If I wanted to be successful as an instructional coach in supporting teacher and leader development, I knew I had to determine how I would establish relationships and maintain a bond of trust. I learned from Lombardi’s work that leaders’ integrity gives others a good idea of who and what the leaders are. This means talking the talk and walking the walk. For example, if teachers and leaders that I am supporting collaboratively decide that we will focus attention on developing academic vocabulary, then my support must revolve around academic vocabulary and not random, disconnected topics. If we determine that student engagement is an area to target, then professional development that I provide should focus on how students are actively engaged in academic tasks or how teachers promote student collaboration throughout daily lessons.

When delivering professional development, I find it most beneficial to deliver in a job-embedded and differentiated setting (i.e., in the classroom with a teacher who requested assistance) and not the one-size-fits-all approach. By providing in-classroom professional development, which can also be referred to as “on the spot” learning, I have the opportunity to

  • model a strategy for a teacher,
  • deliver a strategy with a teacher, or
  • provide support for a teacher when I see something taught or explained incorrectly.

One disclaimer, however, is that time is needed to implement these “on the spot” techniques. Teachers need to know that I am a support system and colleague, so it is important for me to establish trust, develop positive relationships, and create a non-threatening environment.

For me, an understanding and consistent practice and development of self-knowledge, character, and integrity allows me to lead others. Vince Lombardi’s approach to leadership taught me the importance of practice, practice, practice to accomplish a goal. As a football coach, his players ran the same play over and over. This meant introducing a play by explaining and demonstrating, practicing, providing feedback, and repeating with continuous feedback. Players had to internalize the play so that they would react instinctively during a game. This same approach is true in my role as an instructional coach. I must practice before introducing something new to the teachers and leaders I support. I model a strategy, provide opportunities for practice, observe the implementation of the practice, provide feedback, and repeat. I want teachers to internalize the practice and use it successfully during instruction.

What I have learned is that this process is not only my approach and the strategy used by Lombardi, but it also aligns closely with research on delivering successful professional development: theory, demonstration, practice, and feedback. Joyce and Showers (1982) concluded that a teacher needs to practice using a new model approximately 10-15 times with small groups of students or peers before fully implementing it with all students in a classroom (p. 6). These same authors published additional research in 2002 to strengthen their argument about the need for ongoing coaching. For example, if the majority of a professional development session is devoted to lecture, discussion, and reading, few educators will transfer the newly learned model or skill to classroom practice. When demonstration and practice or feedback are added, there is about a 5% transfer. However, with peer coaching, the percentage of participants who successfully implement the newly learned skill or model increases to about 95% (p. 78). This process requires me to be clear in my delivery by practicing; however, it also requires a great deal of planning for an effective delivery.

Described thus far is mostly my experience throughout the Texas Reading First Initiative. However, La Vega also received funding to participate in the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy grant (i.e., Texas Literacy Initiative) in 2012. Thus, for the past 12 years, I have had the honor of delivering professional development and actively supporting teachers in implementing research-based literacy practices on a daily basis--my calling and passion. I have learned a great deal about my role over the years, and I am committed to being an instructional coach, defined by Hasbrouck and Michel (2016) as a leader who establishes “a cooperative, ideally collaborative, relationship with colleagues mutually engaged in efforts to support teacher development to enhance student learning.”

I have been fortunate to have had the backing and supporting of district- and campus-level administrators, reading technical assistance specialists, state literacy liaisons, and others to change our school culture into one of high expectations, which was critical in our journey to excellence. As Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

About the Authors

Cynthia Denmark has been a Literacy Coach at LaVega Elementary going on 13 years. During that time she has been a part of Reading First and the Texas State Literacy Initiative. Her teaching experience before that was as a 3rd grade teacher and reading interventionist. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas and holds a Master Reading Teacher certification.

Olga Martinez Hickman is a senior field trainer analyst for IPSI. Her work promotes school improvement and success in the area of language and literacy. She has numerous years of experience that include supporting statewide initiatives across Texas, implementing research-based practices in leadership, literacy, and second-language acquisition for diverse learners. She earned her PhD at The University of Texas at Arlington with a focus on communities of color, which supports her aim to ensure that all students receive a fair and equitable, high-quality education.

Daryl Michel, PhD, is the Director of Academic Foundations at The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Public School Initiatives (IPSI). Dr. Michel has national experience in providing support to educators and school and district leaders in areas such as instructional leadership, research-based instructional practices, and instructional coaching. Currently, he leads or provides leadership for projects including the Texas Literacy Initiative, Literacy Achievement Academies, and Write for Texas. He also leads multiple teams at IPSI in developing online course tools and resources, providing face-to-face and online professional development and technical assistance, and supporting schools and districts in literacy education and using data to guide instruction. Dr. Michel received his Ph.D. from Texas State University with an emphasis in Education: School Improvement. His research interests including learning communities, instructional coaching, leading effective meetings, and teacher and leader development.