If you are familiar with the expression, “It takes a village,” then you are more aware of what it takes for systemic Project Based Learning to take hold than you might think. It isn’t something that a single person can do; it is instead dependent on the coordinated efforts of many stakeholders: administrators, teachers, and even community members. Yet even if everyone works perfectly in sync, it still may not be enough. What if administrators aren’t able to provide feedback through observation? What if teachers need a thought partner as they shift to a more learner-centered classroom model? And who has time to find outside learning experiences or experts who are often instrumental to a project’s success? 

These are just some of the reasons why many PBL schools embrace an instructional coaching model. Although they have different titles and often wear many different hats, the importance of the support they offer cannot be overstated. As a former instructional coach and somebody who routinely supports coaches across the country, I have seen how they can be the difference between a PBL initiative sinking or swimming. 

Yet while their role is pivotal, they rarely get a chance to receive support themselves. With that in mind, I have taken three snapshots of instructional coaches’ impact from across the country. Each illustrates the greatness an instructional coaching model can produce. And if you happen to be an instructional coach yourself, you may find new ideas for facing challenges. 

Three Snapshots of Impact 

Snapshot 1: It's Not Just One More Thing (Barnstable Intermediate, MA)

Barnstable Intermediate on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod peninsula sits adjacent to what was once the private playground of the Kennedys and other New England elites. But as the community has become more diverse over the last decade, educators at the school have felt the need to shift as well to honor and accelerate the learning of the district’s new demographics. As cohort participants of the Massachusetts Leaders Network (MLN), instructional coaches Dawn and Karen have worked tirelessly to advance Project Based Learning and continue the momentum that began through this statewide initiative. 

Their most recent challenge involved illustrating to their teachers how PBL isn’t just one more “thing" but rather the vehicle for another district-wide initiative to fulfill their existing goal of increased classroom rigor while fulfilling state standards. This challenge was identified by both of them as a key factor in maintaining teacher buy-in for the continued use of PBL, and so the approach they took combined the strategic use of resources they received from previous training with consultancy hours through PBLWorks. Dawn and Karen used evidence-based success skill rubrics to help provide teachers with a shared definition of what rigor could look like in the service of academic skill development. They followed this up with their own coaching conversations on top of the remote sessions project teams undertook with their PBLWorks coach. 

Coaching moves: Teachers sometimes hesitate to commit to PBL because they feel like it is just “one more thing,” the latest in a long line of initiatives. Demonstrating how PBL can be a vehicle for existing learning goals or initiatives becomes a methodology that affirms their current practice and allows them to rearrange or even lighten the load already on their plate. 

Snapshot 2: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Model (Lehigh Valley, PA) 

The Lehigh Valley was once home to Pennsylvania’s world-famous steel industry, and today, the applied sciences are still the focus of the work going on just to the north at the Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit #21. It is from here that regional districts receive additional support from coaches like Monica Pangaio, a science educator focused on using PBL in service of the adoption of Pennsylvania’s STEELS science standards. Monica's most recent endeavor focuses on helping teachers build classroom cultures that support PBL by keeping students engaged and motivated. Monica used surveys and other data gathering tools alongside ongoing coaching conversations to identify voice and choice as the best way to address her teachers’ needs. She was able to utilize resources from the PBLWorks website, like the co-created norms strategy guide, to give her teachers actionable strategies they could apply in their classrooms. Sharing these resources helped teachers keep students focused on science instead of their smartphones. 

Coaching moves: Teachers who are used to direct control in their classroom sometimes hesitate to provide students control over what they traditionally manage. A great first step in supporting educators like this is providing them with multiple strategies they can choose from, thereby allowing a slow ramp-up to a more learner-centered classroom. Instructional coaches often consider how to cultivate teacher and student voice, choice, agency, and interdependence within their schools. Many of the strategy guides on the PBLWorks website provide actionable strategies that can be implemented the next day. 

Snapshot 3: Open to Evolving (PS 307 Daniel Hale Williams, Brooklyn, NY)
The iconic skyline of New York City is a view that instructional coach Cristie Praeger is accustomed to. She sees it almost every day on her way to PS 307 Daniel Hale Williams Elementary. The school was a member of the first-ever School Leaders Network formed in New York, and Cristie, now in her second year as their instructional coach, works daily to keep the momentum up in her corner of Brooklyn. As part of the action planning that occurred during the SLN, the school opted for a gradual rollout by first focusing on science, then social studies, with the eventual goal of making it the de facto instructional approach at the school. 

Her primary challenge was helping teachers see how PBL fit within a self-contained classroom. So, she made sure to have regular conversations with grade level teams to illustrate how projects can fit within the course of the day in a self-contained classroom. But soon, she identified another challenge: Many of her teachers were asked for help finding authentic learning opportunities that exist outside of the school in the form of guest speakers, learning excursions, and authentic audiences for student products. After being made aware of this need, she dubbed herself  “coordinator for extracurricular learning experiences” and now works to find, schedule, and organize these for her staff so they can focus on what goes on in the classroom. 

Coaching moves: Seasoned instructional coaches know that the job they were hired to perform is bound to change as the needs of the school evolve. Revisiting and revising their responsibilities periodically helps coaches retain their status as a relevant and reliable resource for teachers. Make a point to set up reflective opportunities with leaders and teachers to see how they might need support. 

Acknowledging Their Impact and Recognizing Their Need for Support Too
These snapshots underscore the indispensable nature of instructional coaches in sustaining PBL initiatives. They serve as guides, thought partners, and coordinators, ensuring that teachers have the necessary support to navigate the challenges of implementing and maintaining effective PBL. In recognizing the pivotal role of instructional coaches, it's also crucial to acknowledge that they too need support in their roles. Ensuring adequate support for instructional coaches is vital for schoolwide success. Educators can only be inspired to embrace PBL with confidence if they know they have the necessary support system in place. This assurance facilitates their journey towards successful and impactful teaching practices. For students to experience PBL success, the educators who support them must feel like they have what they need to succeed.

Upcoming Webinar - PBL Power-Up Series  
Join us for our upcoming webinar, Unlock the Power of PBL: Tips for Instructional Coaches, tailored for instructional coaches eager to make a difference. Take advantage of this opportunity to kickstart or deepen your journey into PBL coaching and become an essential catalyst for positive change in your context.

James Fester, Lead National Faculty - North
James is Lead National Faculty at PBLWorks. He delivers professional development services to teachers and leaders across the country.