Instructional Coaching: Education Buzzwords or Effective PD?

As a former classroom teacher, I can vividly remember my first interaction with an instructional coach. It was during my third year of teaching and the county assigned one coach to work with more than twenty teachers to help increase student engagement. The coach observed our classrooms once a semester and then led a one-hour group debriefing session. Needless to say, this particular instructional coach appeared over-extended, and it led to a somewhat negative perception of the whole process.

Five years later, I met and worked closely with a mathematics instructional coach in my graduate program. This coach worked with elementary teachers in a specific building and was one of the most dedicated educators I have ever encountered.

After two extremely different experiences, I started to ponder the effectiveness of the coaching practice, and it seems as if I am not alone in my inquiry.

As instructional coaching becomes more popular with 83 percent of participants from the Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Supporting Coaching in Education (2020) survey reporting that they engaged in some type of coaching activity in their school or district, many have started to see the practice as a silver bullet in education. Yet, as Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching points out “coaching can be perceived as a mysterious process.” Thus, it raises the question: is coaching just another education buzzword or is it a legitimate form of professional development?

Before debating how much value coaching adds to the educational system, it is best to begin the conversation by simply defining what coaching means. Even at this threshold stage there is no consensus. In theory, educational leaders first installed coaches to bridge formal professional development and classroom implementation (Boatright & Gallucci, 2008).

But due to the varied roles and responsibilities of the job, defining a coaches’ work has proven difficult for researchers (Boatright & Gallucci, 2008). Instead, it is often easier to provide descriptions of what “coaches do.” This approach is most evident in Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) defining an instructional coach as “an educational leader who works in a school or district to support teachers in reaching their goals.”

Perhaps because there is no clear definition of a coach, perspectives vary from state to state, district to district, or even school to school on exactly what qualifications a person must have to be a coach. However, some of the more common qualifications include data-informed decision-making, knowledge of high impact instructional practices, and staying up to date on the latest research (MacCrindle & Duginske, 2018).

Furthermore, being an instructional coach requires one to be comfortable working with adults. While an instructional coach may interact with students, their focus is supporting the teachers and administrators in the school setting. This requires not only a passion for working with adults, but also a strong understanding of how adults learn and the ability to navigate the challenges that come with working with adult learners, such as lack of time and mindset. With many teachers and administrators already stretched for time, the idea of spending precious minutes with a coach may seem unappealing. Additionally, many adult learners have a fixed mindset where they believe they have everything figured out and embarking on something new can seem daunting (Stevens, 2021). Therefore, it is important that instructional coaches serve as thought partners, building relationships based on trust and mutual respect and providing reflective, inquiry-oriented feedback rather than making judgments (PLACE, 2021).

Malleability and adaptability are also essential for a good instructional coach, since their role varies from day to day. Coaches often facilitate professional development for teachers and administrators; observe classroom lessons; collect data from student work; co-teach lessons; provide resources to educators and families; and meet with teams to help plan instructional practices. The number of coaches per school building and their specialty can also impact the role of an instructional coach. For example, some coaches may specialize in content areas such as literacy, mathematics, or technology while other coaches may support all content areas but within specific grade-bands (PLACE, 2021). Overall, no instructional coaching job will look the exact same.

Coaches can also play an important part in “disrupting and dismantling inequities related to school data, curriculum, instructional practices, policies, and processes” (PLACE, 2021). As an educator, it is essential to reflect on one’s identity, intersectionality, culture, race, and privilege while also exploring your explicit and implicit biases and how this affects your students. Coaches can support teachers through this emotional undertaking by working alongside them and guiding the process. Additionally, coaches address inequities by approaching curricula, resources, assessments, policies, pedagogical practices, and processes through an equity lens and helping teachers, school leaders, and school board members do the same (Aguilar, 2013).

Unfortunately, adding another layer of ambiguity to the coaching practice is the ongoing confusion between mentoring and coaching. Yet, there are three main differences between a mentor and a coach. First, mentors often volunteer, or school leaders nominate them to serve in their position. Contrastingly, schools hire coaches to fill a specific role within the system based on their expertise (NAASP, 2019). Second, coaching is more formal and structured than mentoring. Coaches typically schedule meetings on a regular basis and focus on developing certain skills through activities and interventions. Alternatively, mentoring does not need to be a formal process and meetings can take place when the educator needs advice, guidance, or support. Third, coaching is more centered around short-term goals and challenges, such as implementing new standards, utilizing an assessment tool, or revising curriculum maps. On the other hand, mentoring is more about ongoing relationships devoted to long term goals, including continuously advocating for learners, building positive relationships with families, and advancing community partnerships (Ali, Wahi, & Yamat, 2018).

While there are several differences between coaching and mentoring, it is also important to note their significant similarities. At their core, “both coaches and mentors need to be good listeners, ask powerful questions, and encourage teachers to pursue their ambitions and aspirations” (Ali, Wahi, & Yamat, 2018). Additionally, mentors and coaches often use the same practices, values, skills, and competencies, like conversations, questioning, active listening, reflection, and appropriately challenging teachers (Ali, Wahi, & Yamat, 2018).

Overall, instructional coaching, like most educational initiatives, can be an effective practice if the right conditions are in place. However, in many schools and districts across the country, the environmental conditions are just not there. First, many instructional coaches receive very little professional development. This is problematic because without PD, coaches will not be able to refine their skills or deepen their knowledge (Aguilar, 2013). Aside from the lack of PD, oftentimes coaches operate under a system without clear expectations, adequate feedback, or opportunities for reflection (Moody, 2019). Second, time constraints hinder the relationships that instructional coaches can build with teachers and administrators (Moody, 2019). Educators may not always trust or value the work and feedback of instructional coaches when their relationships are underdeveloped. Additionally, as many instructional coaches must provide services to multiple schools within a district, they become overworked. Just like with teaching, this can negatively affect achievement rates and cause burnout. Finally, administrators often do not adequately support their instructional coaches. Often, coaches take on additional duties such as subbing in classrooms and serving as an evaluator. These extra duties take away from coaches supporting teachers and can further damage the relationships between coaches and educators if they feel as if their work is evaluative in nature.

In all, “instructional coaching is important because it builds teacher capacity and efficacy” (PLACE, 2021). Coaches can promote active reflection on current practices; teach educators how to apply new concepts to their unique work environments; foster professionalism among colleagues; and simultaneously push all students to their potential and cultivate their desire to learn (Boatright & Gallucci, 2008). Yet, for coaches to become a transformative presence in schools and support educators in all the ways mentioned above, schools and districts must provide coaches with the proper working conditions and an environment conducive to real change.