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Teachers in Triad Teams: Three is not a crowd

By July 6, 2017August 23rd, 2017No Comments

000062504840_Small-student work samplesSMIntense focus on accountability and teacher effectiveness in recent years has expanded the thinking around instructional coaching. While instructional coaching occurs at nearly every school, the purpose of coaching and the formats used vary widely among schools. It’s not surprising that such variety exists given that, while research suggests coaching supports the success of improvement initiatives (Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein, 2006; Stein & D’Amico, 2002), little evidence exists that explains how it happens.

What we do know, from researchers like Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002), is that the most effective professional learning for teachers includes a combination of different types of learning opportunities: introduction of research and theory; demonstration of new practices; opportunities to apply new knowledge through deliberate practice; and instructional coaching that includes ongoing, descriptive feedback. Of these, Joyce and Showers found coaching was the one learning opportunity that had to be present for teachers to translate new knowledge and skills into their practice.

To support and improve the practices of all teachers in a continuous, systemic way, teachers must not only be coached but also become coaches—in other words, coaching happens from the inside out within an organization. An inside-out approach to instructional coaching is grounded in the belief that teacher-led teams are best prepared to respond to the instructional needs of students, and that using this approach better supports and motivates teachers in strengthening their instructional practice. With or without guidance from an instructional coach, teachers work collaboratively to identify and address problems of practice. This inside-out approach leverages existing “bright spots” within a school, using them as stepping stones for all teachers—from novice to experienced—to reach higher levels of performance.

Peer-to-peer coaching allows all teachers to investigate more closely issues that matter to them, resulting in deeper content knowledge, more proficient skill sets, and the transferring of knowledge and skills into practice. The inside-out approach is based on the idea that peer-to-peer coaching positively changes the trajectory for systematic, lasting improvements in teacher practice and student learning. The research on peer-coaching configurations strengthens the case for the use of triad teams to expand teacher discourse and learning (Hopkins, Munro, & Craig, 2011).

In Leadership for Powerful Learning (2015), authors David Hopkins and Wayne Craig describe the power of teachers working in triads. The opportunity for individual teachers to engage in collegial work with two other peers broadens the experiences of the team members, expands their professional conversations, and allows for multiple perspectives about topics and solutions. Teachers work in assigned or self-selected groups of three, taking turns participating in three distinct roles: coach, coachee, and observer. The critical role of “observer” adds an outside perspective that might be lost if teachers worked only in pairs, allowing teachers an opportunity to effectively provide descriptive feedback and ask skillful questions that encourage more reflective processing. This format requires active, rather than passive, involvement and gives all participants experience in giving and receiving feedback, and observing others’ teaching practices.

Benefits of working in triads:

  • The primary function of triad, peer coaching is to learn through observing and help colleagues by providing information about how students respond—not to give expert advice.
  • While working in triad, peer-coaching teams, teachers learn from each other as they plan instruction, develop materials, observe each other working with students, and reflect on how their own behavior influences student learning.
  • Peer-coaching triads commit to collecting and using data—to determine how to monitor implementation of new teaching/learning strategies, and how they will then determine the impact of the strategies on students and student learning.

Peer-to-peer coaching configurations need not be confined to grade-level or specific content-area teams; teacher teams are equally effective when built on common goals or needs. Once teams are in place, participants are responsible for building expertise among team members and reinforcing the elements of the inside-out approach.

Any number of actions can help improve working conditions and provide better support for teachers—from creating a respectful, trusting culture and establishing mentoring programs, to decreasing workload and helping with classroom management. But an inside-out approach to instructional coaching offers something no other action can: ongoing opportunities for all staff to receive the professional guidance they need and contribute to the growth of others.

6a010536aec25c970b01bb08beb276970dConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of McREL’s Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former middle and high school science teacher and central office administrator, she now trains, coaches, and consults with K–12 educators and district leaders on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.


McREL can help your school or district create effective teacher teams that use peer observations and feedback to address specific instructional goals and spark innovative practices to improve overall instructional practice and support better classroom learning and management. Read more about our instructional coaching services and watch Dr. Bj Stone’s webinar on Powerful Instructional Coaching.


Hopkins, D. & Craig, W. (2015). Leadership for powerful learning. Denver, CO: McREL International.

Hopkins, D., Munro, J., & Craig, W. (2011). Powerful learning: a strategy for systemic educational improvement. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: ACER Press.

Hubbard, L., Mehan, H., & Stein, M. K. (2006). Reform as learning: School reform, organizational culture, and community politics in San Diego. New York: Routledge.

Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Stein, M. K., & D’Amico, L. (2002). Inquiry at the crossroads of policy and learning: A study of a district-wide literacy initiative. Teachers College Record, 104, 1313–1344.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.

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