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Avoiding Pitfalls: 3 Mistakes in Instructional Coaching Programs

At first glance, setting up an instructional coaching program seems straightforward–pull some strong teachers out of the classroom and place them in a position to provide collegial support and professional development. Hire a leader to lead the team and sit back and smile. After all, research makes the undeniable correlation between coaching and improved quality of instruction. Instructional coaching is the most effective form of professional development. What could possibly go wrong?

One word: Plenty.

Many coaching programs, in districts large and small, struggle from the start. Leaders wrestle with measures of success, school administrators misuse and abuse the position, coaches question their decisions to ever leave the classroom, and teachers feel targeted instead of supported. As a result, the programs fail to yield real improvement in teaching and learning over extended periods of time and instead of seeing positive gains, school and district culture is negatively impacted. Without evidence of success, what started as a great idea is now in danger of being swiftly ended.

These struggles are commonly attributed to three simple mistakes easily made and (here’s the great news!) just as easily corrected. While this may be a dismal current reality in your building, there are straightforward solutions that can right the ship and turn any struggling program into a story of success, immediately.

Mistake #1: Coaching is centered around initiatives instead of reflective practice through those initiatives.

Description: Authentic, sustainable change is grounded in reflective practice. Father of education, John Dewey, stated that “How we think drives what we do” (1933). Our metacognitive habits drive our actions. Effective coaching centers the conversation on the thinking behind the doing. It seeks to shift and strengthen mental understanding of classroom problems and how to solve them, rather than focusing solely upon teacher action.

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Fix: Ask teachers to think as much as you ask them to do. Create a focus around teacher learning instead of teacher “doing.”

“I’m excited to hear your ‘aha’s’ about student learning as you begin to implement RTI practices this year.”

“Why don’t you reach out to your coach and share your thinking about our new formative assessment initiative. What are you learning about your students? What are you learning about your teaching practices?”

Mistake #2: Roles are not clearly defined.

Description: While principals and teachers have been around for decades, the coaching role is relatively new on the education scene. Without a clear definition of the boundaries between coach and administrators, you run the risk of misuse and abuse of the position. Coaches can often be seen as “extended administrators,” which compromises trust between coach and teacher.

Fix: Clearly define the role of coach in your district or building. Communicate the differences between administrator and coach.

“The coach role is a non-evaluative position. As administrator, I will never ask the coach to report to me what is happening in your classroom.”

“Here are the coach’s responsibilities… Here is what the coach will never do…”

“If I, as administrator, have a concern about something in your classroom, I will come directly to you. We will then discuss what resources you can access to support your professional learning and growth.”

Mistake #3: Expectations are not communicated clearly.

Description: According to research, two of the most common sources of conflict in organizations are 1) a lack of clear expectations and 2) poor communication. With an instructional coach in your building, the need to establish clear expectations around the position is critical to its success. There are various coaching models that range from leadership-driven (directive, formalized coaching cycles), to teacher-driven (consultative, inquiry-driven coaching cycles). Regardless of the model you’ve adopted in your district or building, the need is there to set expectations with teachers about use of the coaching position as a resource for professional learning and growth.

Fix: Communicate expectations about teachers working with instructional coaches throughout the year.

“The coach isn’t just here for new teachers, those that need help, or those who aren’t ‘good enough.’ This position is a resource that we all can access in our growth as professionals. As administrator, I expect everyone to utilize this resource on a regular basis.”

“My expectations as your leader is that you walk through one inquiry or coaching cycle each quarter with your coach. Invite them to be a part of your learning journey this year. I expect you to share your ‘aha’s’ and reflect with your coach on a frequent basis.”

With these three fixes in place, you’ll find you’ve given your coach the green light to proceed at breakneck speed–successfully supporting teacher growth and learning, which ultimately leads to student academic success.

Alisa SimeralAlisa Simeral

School turnaround specialist and veteran educator Alisa Simeral has guided school-based reform efforts as a teacher, dean, and instructional coach. Her emphasis is, and always has been, improving the adult-input factors that contribute to the betterment of the student-output results. Her most recent book is Creating a Culture of Reflective Practice: Capacity-Building for Schoolwide Success (ASCD 2017) co-authored with Pete Hall.