Skyrocket Founder, Michael Sonbert Responds to ICG's Jim Knight Re: Coaching Feedback

Jul 25, 2023
Michael Sonbert, Skyrocket CEO


It's Not Complicated, Jim. Coaches Should Give Feedback.

By Michael Sonbert

CEO / Founder, Skyrocket Education

In a piece entitled, “Should Coaches Give Feedback? It’s Complicated,” from the ASCD website,  Jim Knight, founding senior partner at the Instructional Coaching Group and highly respected voice in instructional circles, argues that “top-down” coaching (as he refers to it) for teachers from coaches is often ineffective. 

Knight says, “The coach shouldn’t tell the teacher what data means, but ask questions and listen, trying to think with the teacher.” 

He goes on. 

“Top-down feedback, I began to realize, was very helpful when there was a clear right and wrong way to do a task, such as when my dad taught me exactly how to skate backwards or take a wrist shot. But it wasn't helpful (or appreciated) when I tried it to discuss the complex environment of teachers' classrooms.”

I respect the contribution Jim Knight has made to instructional coaching and to teaching in general, but he’s wildly off here. Knight’s assertion supposes a false binary, whereby coaching is either “top-down” or what’s being described above: which is more of an exploratory exercise for teachers and coaches. 

But there’s a third option that Knight is missing. 

Schools need to have an agreed-upon vision for instructional excellence. Once that vision is clear (and by the way, teachers can absolutely contribute to that vision), coaches don’t need to play guessing games with teachers, but can instead compare what’s happening in the teacher’s classroom against the exemplar, and then tell (yes, tell) the teacher, with compassion and kindness, precisely what needs to get better and what the teacher should do to get there. 

The coach should then model the skill the teacher needs to improve upon and have them practice that skill multiple times, giving feedback throughout, until they begin to build automaticity. 

Knight’s approach assumes that getting a teacher to a place of being highly effective is like trying to answer a confusing, ambiguous riddle. But it’s not. I’ve worked in hundreds of schools in the past fifteen years, and the trends in classrooms across the US and what to do about them, are staggeringly similar and surprisingly straightforward. 

Which doesn’t mean executing on them is easy. As an example, getting into great physical shape is straightforward: eat well, exercise, and burn more calories than you consume. But executing on it, for most people, is pretty difficult. 

What’s the point of using all the rubrics and frameworks that schools “use” if when we enter a teacher’s classroom, we act as if we have no idea what success looks like? What’s the point of all the trainings and conversations about instruction if when we observe teachers, we behave like great teaching is an unsolvable mystery? 

A basketball coach, even at the professional level, wouldn’t ever ask the team to look at the score at halftime and have them analyze why they’re losing by twenty points. Instead, the coach would have meticulous notes on the places where the team can do better and then share those things with the team. Because the path to success is so clear the coach can give feedback on how effectively the team is rebounding, playing defense, moving the ball, and of course, shooting. 

It’s the same thing in schools. More nuanced, yes. And with far more variables (a basketball game is five against five whereas a classroom might be one teacher and thirty-plus students). Still, despite so many school leaders and teachers thinking their challenges are unique to them, they’re not. 

The meetings that Knight describes, instead of radically building teacher skill, are just conversations. I know this because I’ve observed dozens of them. In these meetings, the teacher and the coach talk. And while some learning may occur, and they may even agree on some next steps, without actual skill-based coaching, very little changes. Which is why so many school leaders across the country are having the same conversations with teachers in May that they were having in September. 

If we adopt Knight’s approach, we are wasting valuable time: the coach’s time, the teacher’s time, but most importantly, the students’ time. Maybe Knight is trying to solve a different problem than my team and I are trying to solve. But in the schools where we coach, things are extremely urgent. Students don’t have weeks or months for adults to figure things out. They need excellent teaching right away. In some cases, their lives literally depend on it. And in a profession dominated by terms like equity and fairness, isn’t it more equitable and far more fair, to make change for students as quickly as possible? 

Knight’s approach, and others like it, at best assume that teachers have the ability and bandwidth to analyze their own classrooms and decide upon the next steps that would change student outcomes. I haven’t seen evidence that this is the case for the overwhelming majority of teachers. The approach, at worst, assumes that teachers are fragile, overly sensitive, and unable to receive straight feedback. Again, not random feedback grounded in what the coach thinks or is feeling in the moment, but precise feedback aligned to the school’s instructional vision. 

Moreover, these approaches also let coaches off the hook for being experts who can analyze classrooms, collect the most pertinent data, and model agreed-upon best practices for teachers and coach them to improve. Why do schools have coaches if they don’t coach but instead pass the buck to overworked, undersupported teachers to essentially coach themselves?

The rationale I’ve received from people who use Knight’s model and others like it is that they’re great for building relationships with teachers. I haven’t seen evidence that this is the case. So many of the teachers I’ve spoken to, on the subject of this kind of coaching, express frustration about long, meandering meetings and feeling like they’re trying to guess the answers to the coach’s questions when the coach could simply tell them instead. 

Imagine you were lucky enough to receive tennis lessons from Serena Williams. It would be exhausting to spend a good chunk of time playing Q and A about proper form, foot positioning, and ball placement. But it would be invigorating to be taught by an expert. It’d be thrilling to know that in a very short time, you’d be better because of her coaching. 

This is where great relationships come from. When a teacher knows that the coach’s feedback is spot-on and that if they do what the coach says, they will be better for students (and therefore themselves) as a result. Strong relationships and trust come from providing value for someone (quickly), not spending a teacher’s entire prep pretending that questions about good teaching are unanswerable. 

There are places for an approach like Knight’s. But they’re few and far between. When teachers are expert planners and have incredible classroom culture, collaboration about deep student engagement makes sense. When teachers can’t get students to sit down, are teaching without measurable objectives, and not assessing student outcomes, the approach just doesn’t make sense. 

To the question about whether or not coaches should give feedback, it’s not complicated like Knight asserts. They should. To do anything less is borderline negligent.




Original article: Knight, Jim. “Should Coaches Give Feedback? It’s Complicated.” . ASCD Blog. ASCD, May 1, 2023. Knight can be reached at [email protected].

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