Creating Conditions for Effective Instructional Coaching

on Nov 28, 2023

Over my years working with instructional coaches and principals in school districts across the country, I have learned that the role of the instructional coach changes from district to district and even from school to school.

I’ve observed coaches address practices from student engagement to classroom management and even curriculum implementation with varying degrees of success. When the role of the instructional coach is undefined–in my experience, the coach’s impact is at best unnoticed or at worst not happening.

One process that can help pave the way for improving impact is to map out a vision for instructional coaching with a focus on three key levers: student learning experience, instructional focus, and teacher efficacy.

Start with a vision for student learning experience

At the Center for Educational Leadership, my colleagues and I work with leaders to define a clear vision for student learning in their schools. Through our work, central office leaders and principals often work alongside their instructional leadership teams to identify the current state of student learning and to develop a clear vision of where they want to go. Additionally, many leaders engage students, especially students whose needs are furthest from being met, to better understand students’ classroom experiences.

I often hear from students that they want to have a sense of belonging, agency, and confidence. A clear vision for student experience creates a path for teachers to align the goals they have with the overarching school goal and the needs of specific student groups that are furthest from educational justice. As a result, coaches are able to facilitate identifying marginalized students and supporting teachers in providing a more equitable experience in the classroom. Coaches can conduct more focused observations and better reflect with teachers about the students’ experience in the classroom.

Establishing a clear instructional focus

Finding a clear instructional focus is key to leveraging the role of the instructional coach. I encourage leaders to choose a focus considering the following questions:

  • What is the data saying? (Include student data, teacher reflections, and learning walk data)
  • Is the focus broad enough to warrant a few months’ effort allowing time for a meaningful coaching cycle?
  • Is the focus broad enough for teachers to make decisions tied to school goals?
  • Is the focus specific enough to allow coaches and teachers to continue to gather data and see improvement?

When principals partner with their school leadership teams to identify focuses together, they create pathways for coaches to work with their teachers more effectively. This partnership also allows coaches to better observe teachers with a specific instructional focus, design reflective questions tied to the goal, and build the coaches’ own knowledge of instructional strategies that align with the goal.

Creating opportunities for teacher efficacy

Coaches should model and facilitate an inquiry stance to support teacher beliefs about instructional decisions and the impact that they have on specific students. An inquiry stance acknowledges that coaching needs to focus on the needs of specific students in the classroom, supports teachers’ reflection about impact, and allows for the belief that coaches are not always the experts.

With the current state of education, I understand the need to support teachers with differentiated goals including the unique needs of teachers new to the profession.

As districts grapple with how to best support teachers, leaders need to utilize all aspects of professional learning (e.g. PLC’s, content studies) and in doing so, create the conditions for coaches to make an impact aligned with the goals of the school system. Administrators need to leverage coaches to support teacher learning related to a set of focus students and tied to the instructional focus as well as to build teacher efficacy.

About the author

As project director, Jonathan manages district partnerships throughout the country. Some of the services that he provides include leading for instructional improvement, leading instructional leadership teams, supporting coaches, and designing equitable schools. Before joining CEL, Jonathan led large district partnerships and provided professional development in leading literacy instruction internationally at Teachers College, Columbia University. Jonathan brings experience as an administrator, instructional coach, and elementary and middle school teacher in Seattle and in New York City. He holds a Masters degree from Brown University and attended advanced coursework in Educational Leadership from the University of Washington.
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