Anyone who’s been in a classroom knows that students are at the heart of what we do — they are the focus of the district’s mission, they inspire and challenge us, and they are often engaging and funny (very, very funny). That said, if we want to ensure the best for students, we have to also focus on the adults in the classrooms. Educators influence school culture and systems, as well as design and lead the teaching and learning experiences for students. And, like students, teachers desire meaningful relationships with colleagues; they want spaces that cultivate learning and growth, where someone is actively listening to their ideas and questions. Knowing this, and knowing the current pressures on staff, leading many to leave the profession, schools and districts must co-create relationships that foster growth and effective change, that impact teachers as well as their students.
"A successful instructional coaching program is a powerful tool to promote sustainable and transformative growth for your educators."
Why is instructional coaching so important right now?
A recent Forbes article noted, “If the big challenge of 2021 was to get children back into the classroom, the challenge for 2022 is to keep teachers there.” With statistics showing a 66% rise in school-based departures and schools across the country scrambling to fill teacher and substitute shortages each week — all while working to bounce back from the pandemic — the need to support our teaching staff has never been greater.
For education leaders, much of what’s currently causing burnout for the teaching profession is outside of our direct control. But how we build teachers’ confidence and capacity, how we foster strong relationships among those on our campuses, and how we bring in moments of joy — these things are very much within our control, and they play a big part in whether teachers stay or leave.
There is wide agreement that rRobust instructional coaching is therefore good for teachers and for students.Coaching has proven to have a greater impact on student learning than most other school-based interventions. According to John Hattie’s seminal work, “Collective Teacher Efficacy” (the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students) is strongly correlated with student achievement. And, we have recently seen districts respond to the current challenges by using ESSER funds to hire instructional coaches to support their educators.
“If the big challenge of 2021 was to get children back into the classroom, the challenge for 2022 is to keep teachers there.”
Based on our research and experience working with instructional coaches across the country, successful coaches build relationships with those they coach, create learning that “sticks,” focus on the right bite-size changes, and measure and scale learning. Here are the key six characteristics of good instructional coaching:
Connection Before Content. The relationship with an instructional coach is pivotal for a teacher’s successful professional development. “Connection before content” is the idea that coach and teacher must invest the time to build an authentic and mutually respectful relationship, with shared goals and a solid commitment to working with each other. Instructional coaches must understand why and how to develop relationships with teachers built on trust, transparency, and common goals.
Bring Joy to Work. The best coaching relationships build on established trust and include joy. Successful coaching is more than just pedagogical expertise — it’s co-creating something powerful around learning that brings delight and happiness. More than any other human experience, joy connects people. As schools successfully implement new ideas, people get excited. “Success sparks joy. Joy fuels further success. Everyone is caught up in the moment,” writes Alex Lieu in his 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “Making Joy a Priority at Work.” Instructional coaches can empathize with both teachers and students to plan powerful moments that create engaging experiences.
Be Curious + Create Continual Learning. Teaching is a craft that requires skill, practice, and feedback loops. A great coach uses great questioning to guide adult learners and personalize support to meet their needs, helping to make the learning “stickier.” A favorite coaching question is, “When you tell this part of your story in the future, what do you want to say?” Humans are built to connect, and are created for story. Instructional coaching helps educators see a bigger picture (or story) and engage in meaningful conversation around student learning. By designing questions and activities that are personalized, frame reflection, and foster feedback, coaches can support, celebrate, and improve the learning environment.
Small Habits Lead to Big Change. When coaches work with teachers to improve their practice, they must focus on intentional, incremental shifts. Sustainable learning experiences are gained by creating opportunities for quick and focused options. Micro-learning is a chance to learn through job-embedded, bite-sized pieces of knowledge. This approach allows for the learning to develop into actionable steps over time. Ultimately, this will increase the implementation of new ideas. When applying new learning, the biggest obstacle is often habit. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, frames it like this: “Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day.” Healthy team habits flourish when systems and processes exist in a responsive and supportive environment that create psychological safety. Coaching is one of the best ways to develop effective habits and successful coaches can identify the right high-leverage actions for classroom change and understand how to support teachers to make adjustments.
Measure What Matters Most. For coaching to lead to sustainable and impactful change, we must measure the effects coaching has on student instruction and the teacher experience. Some of the metrics coaches can use to measure their impact include tracking evidence of effective teaching practice in action. For this to happen, coaches must be intentional about scheduling classroom observations, ensuring they’ll be in the right place at the right time to see the part of the lesson cycle they are focused on with their coaches. Successful coaches narrow their focus for observation to the highest-leverage practices, plan observations accordingly, and personalize how they measure and celebrate growth — creating practices that stick and a growth-oriented school culture. In addition to developing a plan for collecting key data, successful coaches use the data to improve their own practice and adjust how they support their team.
Share and Scale Learning. Educational challenges are so varied and broad that no one coach is going to have the first-hand experience needed to effectively address every instructional challenge they will encounter in their career. For this reason, building a practice that supports organizational learning is a key step in supporting successful coaching. These practices will enable people to learn from and with each other, in a loop of continuous improvement and feedback. The skills of great coaches can be used across multiple levels within a district. Successful coaches reflect on lessons learned and share best practices — with fellow coaches, teachers, and leaders of all levels. Reflection protocols and effective storytelling are two of the best ways to share and scale learning across your school building or organization.
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What are some challenges to supporting instructional coaches?
Given what we know about the importance of providing teachers with quality instructional coaching, what sometimes makes it difficult for schools and districts to support coaches?
Time: Without a dedicated course load, instructional coaches are often the first line of defense to cover classes when long-term staffing or substitute shortages leave a campus short-staffed. This gives coaches less time to hone their craft, observe classrooms, and thoughtfully support their team — which can unintentionally lead to rushed or ineffective coaching. If we can’t support instructional coaches with ample time, we should provide opportunities such as micro-learning that can quickly expand their knowledge and be applied effectively.
Roles & Relationships: Instructional coaches often inhabit a role where they don’t have positional authority. As such, teachers may prioritize feedback from their evaluator or administrator first. To overcome this barrier, successful coaches are able to build on the relationships they have with their team. For coaching to be effective, teachers also need to be open with their coaches about what’s working and what’s not — which takes vulnerability and a strong sense of psychological safety. Not every teacher will be in the right psychological or emotional place at the right time to capitalize on a coach's efforts. Helping coaches make “connections before content” with teachers allows more authentic and trust-filled relationships.
Too Much Change: Asking teachers to shift their practice at any time is not easy, but especially right now when teachers have been on the front line of navigating dramatic changes to teaching and learning from the pandemic. Giving critical feedback when people are already overwhelmed doesn’t feel good. That’s why coaches should focus on helping teachers build small habits that lead to big change. Check out our thoughts on that here.
If you are ready to kick off an instructional coaching program for your school or district, you can begin by:
Including stakeholders in designing the coaching model. An instructional coaching program will include more than just coaches and teachers, so be sure to involve other key staff and stakeholders from the beginning. This includes building a common vision and shared goals for the program as well as establishing roles and responsibilities.
Starting small. Beginning a coaching program with a pilot ensures you can test and track results, as well as get feedback from your key stakeholders. Plus the team that was involved in the pilot becomes poised to help scale the program district-wide.
Providing on-demand support. Tap into resources like Education Elements’ Learning Courses, which provide equitable, on-demand access to bite-sized professional learning with personalized feedback to build educators' capacity and transform school districts.
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