By Lindsay Clare Matsumura

IFL co-director

Coaching is a powerful approach to increasing student learning, but only when certain conditions are met. Here we describe lessons learned from research about the essential “ingredients” and implementation of effective coaching programs.

Coaching focuses on a clear model of ambitious, dialogic instruction.

Research shows that coaching programs are most effective when the instructional model and curricula content teachers are to be coached around are focused and well specified. Limited resources coupled with a desire to meet most teachers’ instructional needs in a school can result in coaches being expected to work with teachers in all areas of the curricula, and even across subject-matter content. Expecting that coaches will be true experts in all curricula domains at every grade level in a building is unrealistic. When coaches try to be everything to all teachers, no measurable improvement in student learning is often the result. Focusing coaching resources on achieving clear and specific goals (e.g., improving reading comprehension or writing instruction in specific grades, or developing an understanding of the relationship between addition and subtraction or multiplication and repeated addition) maximizes the chance that coaching will be successful.

Coaches have opportunities to grow their knowledge and skills.

A critical feature of all successful coaching programs is that they engage coaches in intensive study of the instructional model and content teachers will be coached around. Minimal opportunities to develop the skills needed to work effectively with teachers is the most commonly given reason for why large-scale coaching reform initiatives fail to achieve their goals. Like teachers, coaches need sustained and intensive professional development to build their knowledge and skills. This training should include a focus on the theory underlying an instructional model for teaching subject-matter content, the pedagogical strategies for best teaching that content to students, and how to develop these understandings in other teachers. This learning is critical to coaches being able to lead professional learning groups; plan for instruction with teachers; model student-centered, dialogic practice in teachers’ classroom; and reflect with teachers on their practice

Coaches and teachers have a shared knowledge base and language for talking about instruction.

Successful coaching programs also provide opportunities for teachers to learn the content that will be the focus of coaching. Effective coaching programs provide this opportunity to teachers in various ways, including formal coursework, online or face-to-face workshops, and coach-led study groups to learn about an instructional model. The specific venue studying the instructional model does not seem to be important. What is important is that teachers and coaches have a shared knowledge base that serves as a foundation for lesson planning and rich coach-teacher conversations.

Coaching builds the habits of a reflective practitioner.

Finally, coaching “works” when it supports teachers to develop the habits of a reflective practitioner. The focus of coaching then is on supporting teachers to see how their pedagogical decisions (e.g., how they respond to a student in a discussion or a task they assign) impact the direction of students’ thinking as expressed in conversation or in written work. Some things a coach does to support these habits are to encourage teachers to explain their reasoning with evidence, orient teachers to consider student thinking (e.g., in English language arts, “What specifically did the student say/write that made you think they understood the author’s message?” or in mathematics, “What specifically did the student say/write that let you know they understood the underlying mathematical idea of the task?”), and have teachers consider how a lesson might have transpired if they had responded differently to a student in a lesson. Rather than serving as “advice givers,” the goal of coaching is to teach teachers the habit of continually self-evaluating their specific instructional moves so that they can make better “in-the-moment” instructional decisions. Through engaging in this process, teachers begin to develop a repertoire of responses for responding in a similar situation (e.g., what they might say when students do not respond immediately to a question, or provide a “wrong” answer).

Leadership Is Critical to Effective Coaching.

Without a principal’s active and ongoing support, even the most skilled coaches struggle to engage teachers in the hard work of instructional improvement. Principal leadership then is a key determining factor in whether or not a coaching program is successful. Research shows that principals support their teachers’ engagement in coaching in five key ways:

Treat the coach as a valued professional. Principals communicate their support of their coach by regularly letting him or her know that they value the coach’s work with teachers. Principals devote time to consult with the coach about his or her goals for teacher learning and how these will be met, and consult with the coach about important school-wide matters.

Regularly endorse the coach as a source of content expertise. Some ways that principals signal to teachers that their coach is a content expert are by referring content-related questions to the coach, including the coach in school-wide leadership activities, letting teachers know that they are expected to work with the coach to advance their practice, and arranging for the coach to lead professional development sessions for the whole faculty.

Participate with teachers. Principals can support a coaching program by attending coach-led team meetings with teachers, observing the coach model lessons in teachers’ lessons, and attending professional development with coaches to deepen their understanding of an instructional model promoted by a coach. All of this supports the coach and principal to work in partnership to plan for their teachers’ professional learning. When a principal commits his or her time to coaching, it sends a powerful signal to teachers that coaching is worth their time as well.Endorse ambitious, dialogic instruction throughout the year. In order to meet test-based accountability targets, principals can sometimes feel under pressure to encourage teachers to align their instruction to the content and format of the state standardized assessment. Coaching works best, however, when principals signal to teachers that ambitious, dialogic forms of instruction promoted by their coach are important to implement all year long. Principals can do this by explicitly letting teachers know that they should not teach to the test. This can take a “leap of faith” for some principals and teachers. Research bears out, however, that high-quality teaching in a content area increases student learning and standardized test scores.

Formalize a shared understanding of the coaching role. Research shows that there is often a lack of clarity in the roles and responsibility of a coach in schools. In many schools, coaches spend most of their time performing administrative tasks such as coordinating assessments, as opposed to working with teachers. Coaching only works, then, when there is a clear job description and shared understanding that the large majority of a coach’s time needs to be spent working directly with teachers. This is critical to ensure that teachers receive the amount of coaching they need to significantly improve their instruction and student achievement.

In sum, principals need to show their faith in coaches, but that faith is misplaced if coaches are not expert practitioners. Coaches need opportunities to develop their professional knowledge and skills in the same way that teachers do. Moreover, coaches and principals need to be co-accountable to ensure that coaches are spending their time with teachers and are not being pulled in too many directions. Coaches cannot be all things to all people, but when they are skilled, are supported by their principal, and focus their time on teacher learning, coaching is a powerful strategy for improving student learning.