If instructional coaching is the right choice, why isn’t it working?

Getting professional development right matters.  We know pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers and the impact is most striking for disadvantaged children and young people.  And, at a school level, variation within a school needs to be removed to ensure effective practice becomes consistently the everyday experience for all pupils and teachers. 

Instructional coaching is claimed to be one of the most highly effective forms of CPD to we currently have in education and the evidence base is good. It combines granular goals, targeted feedback and rehearsal. This means that it contains many of the mechanisms identified as being central to effective professional development (EEF, 2021), supporting it to have an impact on classroom teaching and pupil attainment (Gregory et al. 2017).  

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better” (Dylan Williams).  Instructional coaching improves both instructional practice and student achievement more so than other professional development and school-based interventions.

Instructional coaching can be for all career stages because it is responsive and can be successfully structured to systematically match teachers and leaders with the form of coaching that best suits their needs be it directive, less directive or dialogical. The primary difference is the domain-specific knowledge they have, and the way that that knowledge is organised into mental models. What is pivotal is the resourcing to avoid cognitive overload of novices and demotivation of experts who can face more complex learning problems before cognitive overload is reached.

In very many settings it is working well but there are exceptions and it is worth trouble shooting.  Why? 

Potential Challenges

I have observed well-intentioned instructional coaching programmes struggle to gain traction almost immediately upon implementation. And it would be wrong to rely on instructional coaching as a silver bullet to solve all problems related to teaching.  Challenges include:

Time constraints

For instructional coaching to really work, understanding how much time is needed to move practice is critical. Are there enough cycles to be impactful for every teacher? Or is it being determined by cover implications and inclusivity?  Can there really be a fixed entitlement?

Confusing instructional coaching with a competence support plan 

It is really important that instructional coaching is disaggregated from support plans for staff  identified for support. Clarity of purpose and engagement is key.

Matching coaches and teachers

Pairing teachers with the “right” coach is critically important. While it might be easy to pair a few new teachers with the right coach, scaling coaching programs across multiple role/experience levels and content areas can be challenging. For coaching to be most effective, it must not only focus on more general teaching strategies, but also teaching and assessment in curriculum areas. Thus, pairing teachers with a coach who knows the content is important. It is not as simple as training up your best teachers.

Career stage

Some schools question whether it is appropriate for the most experienced teachers.  The misnomer with ‘appropriateness’ across all career stages arises from mistaking the amount of time a teacher has spent in the classroom with their expertise.  Teachers and leaders may have been qualified longer but not necessarily be more knowledgeable or skilled as a result.   Equally, roles and responsibilities change overtime requiring new domain specific knowledge to be learned to become experts.  Even within a role, expertise is unlikely to be uniform across domains  (Lovell, 2021).  Instructional coaching is highly appropriate for all to push their boundaries, set goals and targets for development, apply learning in practice, give and receive feedback – being able to review and clearly articulate the shift and change since starting, to understand what they have achieved and the difference this has made to them as teachers (Deans for Impact, 2016).  

Scaling while maintaining quality

It’s one thing to have a few great coaches support a handful of teachers. It’s a completely different endeavour to scale a coaching program across a school. Scaling any initiative in schools requires thoughtful and deliberate planning and structures that not only ensure consistency but provide for feedback on the quality of coaching.

Solutions that work

While there is no one way to ensure the perfect instructional coaching process, there are some key actions I recommend leaders take to set coaching up to be more successful. When schools pay attention to the following, they are likely to see coaching that results in better teaching practice.

Develop a tiered system of coaching

Inverse proportion to success is not a new model but giving it a name is helpful.  Each time the model is used it based on the assessment of one element of teaching only –teachers’ coaching needs will vary because their teaching knowledge may differ across different elements of teaching.  This is a dynamic model:

Those in the highest need level require the greatest amount of support and time.  But this is not always possible due to the capacity of the school.

Broaden the definition of coaching

When we think about instructional coaching, we likely envision a single coach observing a teacher and providing feedback. Perhaps we’ve been short-sighted. What if instead we broadened our definition of coaching to include several engagement points for teachers? After all, coaching is really about targeted and supported reflection of practice. To help alleviate some of the logistical pain points mentioned previously, we could include multiple interrelated activities as part of a system of coaching, such as:

  • Self-reflection.
  • Peer-to-peer observation and feedback.
  • Individual coaching sessions between a teacher and instructional coach.
  • Performance coaching conversations addressing teaching, lesson study, etc.

Making this shift is easier said than done, but it’s much more feasible to engage teachers in frequent reflection and coaching if the school isn’t relying on a single coach to carry the entire system. The activities must be coordinated, and a coach can be the one managing the process, but we need to think beyond the traditional coaching structure.

Involve more people in the coaching process—as coaches

You don’t have to have the word “coach” in your title to be an instructional coach. In fact, almost everyone in the building can play a role in the coaching process—and there’s a lot to be said for engaging staff and we should all see ourselves as coaches. Grade-level or content-area peer can all provide insights and feedback on instruction. But to do this effectively training and as previously mentioned, the key is creating the right structures and processes for this to happen.

Leverage tech to help

Technology can be crucial to supporting a more effective coaching structure, using online coaching allows both teachers and coaches to not only watch and discuss instructional practice together, but to do it at a mutually convenient time. Engaging in reflection such as this would be impossible without technology.  Schools are also using applications such as Padlet and platforms such as Seesaw to share practice and create learning conversations

Invest and manage your coaches

Coaches need to be supported to invest in their own continuous learning beyond the short-term including the regular videoing of their coaching sessions and then sharing the footage with other coaches for feedback and providing opportunities for them to reflect on their own practice. We must coach the coaches—and manage their performance. If they’re not effective, none of this work will matter. To provide ongoing feedback, we must find ways to collect formative data to improve coaching practices. 

Four ways we can help you

1. Performance coaching 

Our coaching service provides school leaders with a safe, confidential space where they can 

find positive solutions, develop strategies, realise strengths and determine the next steps.  The approach we use is called Performance Coaching.  We work with individuals or in group coaching sessions. In person or on a virtual platform; both work well. Leadership coaching is one of the most effective development tools available. It makes leadership more successful and sustainable.  We believe passionately that coaching is a must for great leaders. 

2. Training the coaches

Instructional coaching demands a new set of skills. Classroom teaching alone doesn’t fully prepare coaches for this. We believe schools need a structured programme to help new coaches learn the job, and existing coaches improve. We will work with you to create a curriculum for the different phases of a coaching conversation, including setting up the coaching conversation and building trust, identifying learning problems, teaching goals, and action steps, developing and using effective models, planning and rehearsing the action step and following up.

3. Evaluating impact

We will support you to put in place a robust evaluation framework at the start of the planning phase which will enable a rigorous, dispassionate impact evaluation of coaching implementation.  This will allow you to understand whether professional development strategies are working. Evaluation is a really important part of any school improvement activity and professional development is no exception.  What benefits are solely due to the coaching programme, and to what extent? What tangible benefits have accrued to the school because of the coaching programme? 

4. Completing an organisational health and readiness check:

We will working with senior leaders to look at readiness for a coaching culture asking questions such as What resources are already in place? What else is required? What needs to be changed? What has been achieved so far? Who needs to be involved? Are the results, achievements and benefits likely to be durable?