Adjusting Your Default Settings through Coaching

Dr. Glenda Horner, the Coordinator for Staff Development in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas. We thank Dr Horner for permission to use this article.

"Even while we’re creating new neural pathways, the old ones are still there in our brains. Until the new ones become completely second nature, then stress or fear can make us fall back on the old ones." ~Alan Deutschman

Perhaps like me, you have discovered two fundamental truths about professional development. First, follow-up is critical to effective PD. And, second, without continuing encouragement, support, and follow-up, the average teacher has a remarkable capacity for returning to his/her “default settings” or age-old practices. With that in mind, let me propose another truth -- we already know a great deal about how to provide PD that supports teachers' implementation of research-based best practices.

After all, we know that when long-term support is provided for teachers, deepened levels of implementation are more likely to occur. However, the process of implementing PD is complex and difficult. We face several factors that either augment or thwart teachers' continued use of the practices. We potentially strike at the inner core of deeply embedded and learned skills, beliefs and ideas about education even creating doubts about purpose, competency, and self-identity. It inevitably involves unease, ambiguity and struggle as people grapple with the new concept.

Because PD ultimately seeks to bring about change in teacher practice, as school leaders, we need to consider job-embedded PD as a way to better ensure deepened levels of implementation. The thinking behind job-embedded PD is that a focus on teacher learning that is removed from the classroom is destined to miss the mark because it does not take into account the setting in which the teacher learning will unfold. Joyce & Showers (1980) use the term transfer. Their notable procedural PD model suggests the use of coaching (one form of job-embedded PD) to follow-up and support teachers’ efforts to transfer their learning into the classroom.

Coaching “provides ongoing consistent follow-up by way of demonstrations, observations, and conversations with teachers as they implement new strategies and knowledge” (Croft, etal, 2010). The coach in this model of job-embedded PD can come in the form of a teacher-leader, a veteran teacher, or an outside consultant.

As a district, several years ago, we embarked upon a PD journey that brought onboard a handful of professional consultants working in tandem with classroom teachers across the district. Carefully matched, these dynamic duos (teacher and coach) work alongside one another in the classroom setting.

Two teachers on one campus I recently visited shared their stories of how their coach helped them in the implementation process. One shared that her journey began when she observed a group of students who were consistently engaged in other off-task activities as she guided a lesson, yet they performed well academically in her class. Her coach guided her towards pre-assessment as a means for discovering up-front where students were in their learning so that she could better tailor her lessons to meet each learner where he was at, and in turn, increase student engagement. She noted that overall the group excelled. Another teacher shared that her shift to “tiered quizzes” began when her coach helped her understand the importance of assessing students at all levels of learning. Her “straight ahead,” “uphill,” and “mountainous” quizzes allow students to determine the level at which they are prepared to be assessed. Surprisingly, she discovered that the majority of students selected the most appropriate quiz. For those who needed to consider a more difficult quiz, she found that a simple, yet direct, conversation helped students more appropriately select the level of quiz.

The glaring reality is that many PD experiences continue to be short-term and disconnected from the reality of teachers' work. Skillfully implemented job-embedded PD can serve as a powerful catalyst for affecting student learning. Most studies show that coaching leads to improvements in instructional capacity. In contrast to his counterparts working in isolation, the teacher who is coached is allowed greater opportunity to more deeply apply his learning. And, yet, it is important to point out that coaching is not a panacea – a magic cure-all. (Wouldn’t that be nice if it was!) However, it can act as a bridge between learning and application, in turn lessening the gap between the two. These newly developed neural pathways lead the teacher learner to make adjustments in her default settings, thus lessening the chance that she will slip back into ineffective, age-old practices, and in turn, helping her better meet the needs of students.


  • Croft, A., etal. (2010). Job-embedded professional development: What it is, who is responsible, and how to get it done well. Issue brief. Retrieved March 25, 2012 from
  • Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (1980). Improving inservice training: The messages of research.Educational Leadership, 37(5).