“Reforms are not self-implementing,” say researchers from The Education Alliance at Brown University. “Nor do they penetrate predictably or frequently into the instructional core of the classroom.” Their report examined themes from prior studies on instructional coaching, and they concluded that having coaches on staff doesn’t always mean those coaches will serve as effective levers to impact classroom instruction.
So what does it take? What factors must be in place for instructional coaches to improve teacher practice and, as a result, student learning?
At BetterLesson, we’ve seen what works: time that is built in for job-embedded, ongoing coaching to occur; the talent of our world-class coaches; and training for our coaches to improve their own practice continuously.
Instructional coaching is not a self-implementing reform, but with time, talent, and training, it has the potential to become a self-propelling reform.
Teachers need protected time during their school days to connect with coaches one-on-one. We’ve found that connecting every other week strikes the right balance; weekly coaching meetings don’t always give teachers enough time to thoughtfully implement a new strategy or protocol, and monthly meetings are often too infrequent for coaches to provide timely, actionable feedback. This frequency can vary, however, depending on teachers’ needs. First-year teachers may benefit from more intensive, targeted support, while teacher leaders and innovators may only need to touch base every few weeks to fine-tune their practice.
Protecting this time for teachers to reflect on their practice with the support of their coaches is a critical component of developing a job-embedded coaching culture. Discussing what went well, how a lesson or strategy could have gone differently, and what should come next is the type of reflection that will directly impact student growth and achievement.
This hopefully won’t require administrators to add “coach scheduling” to their million-piece puzzle that is the master schedule. Coaches can be empowered to schedule standing time with teachers during prep periods, and administrators can ensure that this time isn’t siphoned away for administrative, non-coaching duties. When teachers, coaches, and administrators hold themselves and each other accountable for building this job-embedded professional learning structure, coaching will become part of the rhythm of the school day.
Even with ample time for coaching to occur, the quality of the interaction depends on the talent and skill of the coach. A great coach needs strong interpersonal and relationship-building skills, the ability to facilitate continuous adult learning, and a deep foundational knowledge of the content and pedagogies they’ll be supporting.
Candidates who apply to be BetterLesson coaches engage in four phases of our hiring process, including a performance task and a real-time coaching assessment. We observe how coaching candidates ask questions, listen to challenges, and demonstrate empathy when offering support, which allows us to get a sense of how they might build relationships with teachers.
We also look for coaches who exude a passion for their own learning. Coaches who “practice what they preach” are well loved by teachers, because they serve as non-evaluative peers -- ideally thought partners -- who are able to learn from and alongside the teachers they support.
Stellar teachers with a proven track record of improving educational outcomes for students are excellent candidates for coaches, but this “learner mindset,” as well as a history of building strong relationships with colleagues, is essential. These qualities will set new coaches up to take full advantage of any ongoing training that should be made available to them.
Like teachers, coaches need opportunities to share challenges and reflect on their progress with peers in similar roles. Administrators can support coaches to form their own professional learning communities to grapple with shared challenges and generate solutions and processes that can be used by others. Sometimes, a sounding board is all a skillful coach needs to work through sticking points.
For new coaches, one-on-one mentoring from an experienced coach, principal, or district leader will build the unique skills that differentiate facilitating adult learning from facilitating student learning. Mentors can help new coaches become comfortable with engaging in a range of coaching conversations and work through teacher relationships that have stalled or have been difficult to build.
At BetterLesson, our “Coach the Coach” program involves a mixture of one-on-one coaching sessions and sessions in which our coaches shadow conversations that district-based coaches facilitate with teachers. We support coaches to implement systems of frequent, low-stakes observations, give teachers actionable feedback on their practice, and support teachers to try strategies, share evidence, and reflect on their growth regularly.
Reaping the Benefits
Across multiple school and system-wide partnerships, we’ve seen tangible data that students of teachers we coached performed better on standardized assessments than students of teachers we did not coach. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, students of teachers we coached at one elementary school outpaced the growth of students at all 169 schools across the district. In these partnerships, there was time allotted for the coaching to occur, the talent of the coaches drove practice change in teachers, and training existed for the coaches to continue getting better, even while they were coaching. In this way, coaching served as the self-propelling reform teachers needed to bring about transformational growth in their students.