Education Opinion

Calibrating Coaches: 4 Reasons to Foster Great Instructional Coaching

By Matthew Lynch — November 13, 2015 5 min read
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By Michael Moody and Jason Stricker

Instructional coaching has gained a lot of attention in recent years - and for good reason. The unique balance of support and pressure coaches can provide teachers has the potential to spur growth and impact student achievement unlike any other form of professional development.

Too often, however, we see coaching efforts within schools fall flat and fail to yield real improvement in teachers’ practices.

While every initiative faces its own challenges and unpredictable obstacles, we know that in order to be effective, coaching must be aligned to a clear vision for teaching and learning with shared expectations. As Harvard professor and researcher Richard Elmore put it, “Many educators are not sure what to look for when they open a door [to a classroom] and what to do with what they see. One of the greatest barriers to school improvement is the lack of an agreed-upon definition of high-quality instruction.”

But our experience has shown that when it comes to the success or failure of instructional coaching efforts, it isn’t just about knowing what great instruction looks like - it’s also about knowing what great coaching looks like.

Seeing the need for great coaching

In most schools, high expectations have been set for coaching initiatives, yet implementation has not been systematic or strategic. Just as with teaching, not all coaching strategies are effective in every context, nor is there a definite skill set that makes a coach qualified for the role. Most coaches are selected based on their experience and success as a teacher, however great teachers are not automatically great coaches. It takes intentional training that only some ever receive. As a result, the content and quality of coaching interactions can vary drastically - even within the same building.

As explained in Inspired Instructional Coaching, though coaches are often at the forefront of improvement initiatives, their effectiveness is ultimately dependent upon the structures and standards put in place by school leaders - and the extent to which their alignment to expectations is supported and monitored.

Our experience partnering with districts and schools to increase coaches’ impact has pointed to a clear need to operationalize systems and calibrate around a shared vision for great coaching.

Here are four big reasons why:

1. Consistent messaging to teachers.

According to research from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, inaccurate, misaligned, and/or inconsistent feedback can actually have negative consequences on teachers’ practices. Considering that in any given school, teachers may receive feedback from principals, coaches, peers, and external observers, mixed messaging and inconsistent levels of support are unfortunately very common. But in a system that is calibrated around a single vision, feedback is coherent and complementary, regardless of who provides it. Training and norming coaches around not only instructional priorities and specific strategies, but also setting high standards for actionable feedback and productive relationships, can help to ensure that all teachers have access to consistent and equally high quality support.

2. Trajectory of continuous growth.

When thoughtful and intentional coaching systems are in place with consistent messaging over time, a trajectory of growth is reinforced for both teachers and coaches. Coaches can provide scaffolded support for teachers to systematically work towards goals, and coaches can engage in more meaningful collaboration with one another to improve their own practices. What’s more, as coaching processes become more engrained and teachers can count on coaches for consistently high quality support, the potential of each session to positively impact performance increases.

3. Connected and aligned systems.

According to a report from the National Center for Educational Achievement, a non-negotiable characteristic of high performing schools is that all processes - instructional, administrative, or otherwise - work together. When structures are thoughtfully designed and implemented with fidelity, instructional coaching can work to support any initiative and build momentum towards the school’s larger goals for teaching and learning.

4. Focused priorities.

Without a doubt, the ability to prioritize and focus on specific initiatives is a hallmark of effective school leaders. Given that many educators around the country are suffering from what’s been termed “initiative fatigue,” it is imperative that we start to adopt a mindset of less is more. By ensuring that coaching works with existing efforts and towards a narrow set of shared goals for teaching and learning, school leaders can strengthen existing initiatives instead of creating new ones.

Seeing it in action

The benefits of aligning systems to a central vision of great coaching are clear - but how to make it happen in a school is not always so simple.

Leaders must be deliberate and direct in defining expectations for instructional coaching and execute with unwavering focus. It’s also essential that they generate buy-in from the entire school community to ensure shared dedication to the work, as well as accountability for its success.

Fortunately, the process for calibrating coaches does not differ much from that of norming observers. Initial training should orient coaches to the vision, and ongoing norming exercises must be conducted to ensure sustained alignment.

And while there are clear benefits to using classroom video for coaching sessions, the technology can be used by coaches to calibrate their feedback, reflect on their practices, and collaborate with peers. According to research from the Best Foot Forward Project, video can help routinize coaching and act as a springboard for increased inter-rater reliability.

It’s well understood that in order to improve teaching and learning, there must be a shared understanding of high quality instruction - and a strategic approach to following through with it. The same is true for coaching. Before the benefits of instructional coaching can be truly realized, educators must know what great coaching really looks like.

Dr. Michael Moody

Dr. Michael Moody is a co-founder and CEO of Insight Education Group. Dedicating his career to ensuring every student gets a great education, Michael has extensive experience throughout the field. His work as a classroom teacher, school and district administrator, and consultant have provided him with the foundation necessary to understand first‐hand the needs of students, teachers and educational leaders. You can follow him on Twitter at @drmichaelmoody.

Jason Stricker

Jason Stricker is a co‐founder and the president of Insight Education Group. With extensive experience in education as a teacher, staff developer, and consultant for UCLA’s education reform program, Jason brings to his work a deep understanding of organizational change and its impact on stakeholders at all levels. You can follow him on Twitter at @stricktlyjason.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 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.