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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

6 Obstacles Facing Instructional Coaches

By Peter DeWitt — January 12, 2020 7 min read
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For all intents and purposes, instructional coaching is an impactful position that enables coaches and teachers to work together on common goals that will have a positive impact on student learning. However, we know that getting to the point where teachers and coaches work together on a common goal is not always easy.


Teachers do not always feel the need to work with a coach because they see it as a slight on their own expertise, and coaches may have the understanding of instructional strategies and learning but may not understand how to best approach teachers. And sometimes, believe it or not, they are not even provided with the time to work with teachers on issues as important as student learning.

There are also countless other reasons why the relationship can be difficult, from those that are within the control of coaches and teachers to issues that are within the control of the building principal. Perhaps 2020 becomes the year to do a reboot when it comes to the coaching relationship in schools where the position is not used in positive and impactful ways.

Instructional coaching has so many of the same dynamics of leadership that working with coaches caused me to expand on the definition of instructional leadership, because to me, instructional coaches are, in fact, instructional leaders.

Many times instructional leadership is seen as a district or building leader position. In Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory, I was thinking of coaches (as well as teacher leaders, department chairs, building and district leaders) when I wrote, “Instructional leadership is when those in a leadership position focus their efforts on the implementation of practices that will positively impact student learning.” The book then goes on to use both research and practice to explain the specific elements of instructional leadership.

If we truly want to have impact in our leadership positions, which includes instructional coaches, we have to focus on implementation, relationships, and the obstacles that may prevent us from our true impact, and those critical issues that create obstacles need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, there are certain obstacles that get in the way of instructional coaches reaching their true full potential in the position. The good thing is that these obstacles are not impossible to overcome, but they do take serious thinking around how to solve them, and that takes leaders, coaches, and teachers to engage in dialogue to figure it all out.

As with any list, I’m sure that there are issues that can be added, so please feel free to use social media to give me feedback on those. Additionally, these are not listed in any order, but some did come to mind easier than others. The critical issues I believe instructional coaches are facing are:

Being used as assistant principals - This is a consistent issue. Sometimes it’s due to the fact that there is one principal who is overwhelmed, but others times it’s due to the misunderstanding by the building leader as to what role the instructional coach needs to take in a school. Using instructional coaches as assistant principals usually means they are doing paperwork and discipline, as opposed to using the expertise that got them the position in the first place. Clarifying the role of coaches is important, and it is best defined together as leaders, coaches, and teachers.

Leaders without leadership backgrounds - This is an issue that I have seen a great deal over the last few years, and it plagues teacher leaders, PLC leads, and department chairs as well. Many instructional coaches like to shy away from the idea that they are instructional leaders. The status makes them nervous. I believe that instructional coaches need to view themselves as instructional leaders, because they need to understand the research behind instructional strategies and student engagement. Coaches, as well as anyone in a leadership position, need to understand how to have challenging conversations with peers with dignity. Unfortunately, too many coaches avoid these types of conversations because they are viewed as uncomfortable. Additionally, coaches need to find a balance between that status of being an instructional leader with the nuances of understanding how to lower their status and raise the status of those around them. This means engaging in dialogue and understanding that the people they are working with every day have valuable things to say as well. This critical issue takes practice to overcome.

Judging others for not knowing what they know - This has been an enormous problem for some coaches, and they do not always know it. In just about every workshop I run, there are numerous instructional coaches present, and they are among some of the most engaged people I meet. However, they have a strong desire to be the best in their jobs, which means understanding research and knowing the names of experts in the field. This can sometimes be the very behavior that puts off their colleagues because the instructional coach name drops or unknowingly (or knowingly) talks down to their teacher colleagues. Meet people where they are, and this issue will likely go away. Try saying things like, “If you could paint a picture of student engagement, what would that look like?”

Implementations cycles that build efficacy - Sometimes instructional-coaching cycles can seem easy to carry out, but many times they are much more complicated. I have had instructional coaches comment that they did a three-step cycle with a teacher, then went back into that teacher’s classroom a few weeks later and found that teacher had reverted back to old habits. The reason this happens is that instructional-coaching cycles are not meant to be three easy steps and should be seen as a place to engage in dialogue, try out strategies, evaluate impact, and move forward. In the sample implementation cycle below, which is based on implementation science, it’s important to see the cycle as a place to build the efficacy (confidence) of the teachers going through the cycle with them.

Being seen as compliance officers - This is an issue I have written about before, which you can read about here. Instructional coaches are often seen as compliance officers when they enter into classrooms and question too often why teachers are not pacing as quickly as their colleagues or expect to see all teachers using the same instructional strategies. This can ruin the credibility of instructional coaches.

Their own credibility - Whether we are a teacher, building leader, district leader, or an instructional coach, in order for people to want to work with us, we have to be seen as a credible source. It is a topic that I focus on all the time. This means we have to reflect on our individual conversations with those teachers we love to work with and those we try to avoid. It also means we have to reflect on how often we get to work with our whole staff on learning strategies at faculty meetings and district professional development, because proximity to the whole staff matters as well. When coaches are seen as a credible source, they will have the opportunity to be much more impactful in their position.

In the End
Instructional coaching can be a powerful and impactful position when approached correctly. It is not about one person knowing more than the other person, as much as it is about diving into a deep learning partnership together and learning from one another. Students deserve to be provided with the best opportunities to learn, and the simple fact is, we can all learn from one another when it comes to student engagement. Our adult issues can often get in the way of those learning opportunities.

I understand that calling them critical issues may be seen as overly dramatic to some, but the reality is that these are critical issues that instructional coaches face, and they prevent those coaches from having a deep impact on student learning.

Watch Peter’s YouTube video below to be provided additional insight on the topic of instructional coaches.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram or through his YouTube station.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.