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What to do with instructional coaches? Let them coach!

By July 6, 2021October 29th, 2021No Comments

As schools make plans to return to in-person instruction in the fall, many are having crucial conversations about how to best use their staff resources to support students. One of these conversations centers on how to use instructional coaches in the upcoming year. As many coaches are considered “teachers on special assignment” and occupy a teacher’s salary, school leaders have begun to ask if there are better uses for their coaches.

Each school has unique needs, yet most schools in this situation arrive at a similar list of possibilities:

  • Make the coach an interventionist who delivers Tier 2 instruction or social-emotional learning support for students.
  • Have the coach (ideally with appropriate licensure) teach English as a second language or special education.
  • Turn the coach into a curriculum specialist who supports instruction in a specific content area—for example, pulling groups of students for literacy instruction, thereby reducing the size of literacy groups across a grade level.
  • Give the coach their own classroom again, thus reducing class sizes across the grade level.
  • And, one of the most popular options following the COVID-19 pandemic: Let the coach teach the classes that will remain online once school resumes.

Coaching is an investment that benefits the quality of teaching throughout an entire school or district. While the impulse to provide additional supports directly to students comes from a good place, the experience of other professions shows how beneficial coaching can be.

Sport coaches are hired by athletes for various reasons. Some are there to motivate a player while others ensure that they are practicing using the correct form. But the most essential coaches are hired to observe a player’s craft, note changes that can be made, and offer specific ideas and strategies based on their vast experience and background. For professional athletes, this feedback loop drives their success, and a coach is an indispensable part of their practice.

When physician and author Atul Gawande felt that he’d hit a personal plateau in his medical career, he invited a retired surgeon to be his coach. Although his first procedure with a coach went almost perfectly, Gawande left his first coaching conversation with a list of more than 20 behaviors to consider changing to improve his practice—simple things like lowering his elbow or draping a patient differently. Gawande claims that a coach is “the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”

In schools, instructional coaches help teachers at all stages of experience. Novice and struggling teachers often view a well-functioning classroom as a kind of magic because they don’t understand the nuances of how classrooms work. They can’t yet discern how a master teacher uses strategies like scanning a room or lowering their voice to engage students. According to Elaina Aguilar and Thomas Guskey, instructional coaching offers these teachers a form of professional development that is ongoing, job-embedded, and personalized.

Skilled and experienced teachers also benefit from coaching by gaining an opportunity to reflect on their practice and become even more effective. Coaches offer support as teachers transfer knowledge acquired from professional learning sessions to their instructional practice. Much like other forms of coaching, instructional coaching involves modeling, observation, reflection, and feedback, and helps teachers put new skills into practice correctly, confidently, and consistently.

If a coach is moved back to the classroom (either virtual or in-person), the most obvious benefit would be that one grade would have smaller classes for one year, and one group of students would be taught by a master teacher. However, new and struggling teachers would no longer get the support they need. According to the work of Bill Sanders, students placed in the classrooms of low-performing teachers three years in a row will score 52 percentile points lower on achievement tests than peers who had higher-performing teachers. When these teachers have an opportunity to work with a coach and improve their teaching practices, there’s potential to change outcomes for students. In this scenario, the benefit doesn’t seem to outweigh the cost of reassigning an instructional coach.

Besides, evidence shows that smaller class sizes don’t often lead to increases student learning. In the book Visible Learning, John Hattie states that smaller class sizes usually fail to impact student learning because teachers don’t change the way they plan or instruct.

What if this coach became an interventionist or special education teacher, targeting their work and instruction to support the most highly impacted students across all grades at the school? This arrangement has potential to benefit every teacher in every grade as well as the students who need support the most. However, if a new instructional initiative were introduced at the school, the consequence would be that teachers would no longer have the support of a coach as they learn to implement the new practices or program. Lack of support during implementation can result in the initiative being ignored or implemented incorrectly. Instead, if coaches used a feedback cycle to help teachers implement the initiative correctly, instruction in many classrooms would improve and student learning would increase. Again, the benefit of reassigning a coach doesn’t seem to outweigh the cost.

In the end, reassigning instructional coaches meets an immediate need at the cost of deferring longer-term development. Instead, schools should consider refining the structure of their coaching program using these suggestions I’ve adapted from the works of John Hattie; Jim Knight; Julia A. Marsh and Caitlin C. Farrell; and Michael S. Moody:

  • Choosing specific groups of teachers for coaches to focus on, such as a particular grade level or content area.
  • Implementing a system of coaching where both individual teachers and grade level/content area teams work with a coach to build collective teacher efficacy.
  • Creating a culture of coaching where every teacher works regularly with a coach—a culture where teachers are open to growth, have the autonomy to choose what and how to improve, and participate in professional collaboration regularly; and where there is a belief that everyone should always be learning.
  • Creating systems to measure coaching success—systems where both quantitative data, like student growth scores, and qualitative data, like teacher feedback, are collected.
  • And here’s a suggestion that McREL consultants often offer to our partners: developing opportunities for teachers to improve practice together by conducting peer observations with a coach.

Coaches help athletes, doctors, teachers, and many other professionals reflect on and improve their practice. Although it may be easy to see the benefits of moving coaches to different positions, this doesn’t always mean that these outweigh the costs. Instead, schools should consider leaving this indispensable resource in place and ensuring it’s used as wisely as possible.

Meagan W. Taylor is a managing consultant at McREL International, where she supports educator effectiveness and early learning for the REL Pacific program. Previously she was an elementary school teacher and an educational consultant in professional development and instructional coaching.

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.