Education Opinion

Why Instructional Coaching Matters in Independent Schools

By Elena Aguilar — April 03, 2018 6 min read
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Guest post by Lori Cohen

In the independent school world, “independent” is the name of the game—and it can be simultaneously freeing and limiting as an educator. Each independent school site, no matter the region, has its own culture and values, its codes (both written and unspoken), and its ways of assessing, supporting, and providing growth opportunities for its teachers. While independent schools can feel quite different from their public, charter, and parochial counterparts, the glue that holds all schools together is this noble charge we call teaching. And the most meaningful support we can provide all teachers is through instructional coaching.

Instructional coaching is designed to serve all schools regardless of their distinctions. And typically, coaching serves as the essential element in supporting growth while allowing schools to serve their specific populations and cultures. While there are numerous benefits for instructional coaching across the range of schools in our nation, the following are four core reasons why instructional coaching matters in independent schools and four ways instructional coaching can support independent school teachers and leaders:


In independent schools, there’s no gatekeeper for teacher preparation. Some schools require a teaching credential for their employees; some schools provide in-house preparation and professional development; and some schools don’t have any baseline for preparation beyond academic degrees and time in the classroom, in whatever form that takes. People come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, which means that what counts as “experience” differs significantly from school to school.


Independent schools each have a specific school culture that shapes its values, approaches to effective teaching, and teacher support and growth. Teaching can be a highly isolating profession, and independent schools may add an increased barrier for teachers who may not be clear about how to navigate a school’s culture and values, much less examine their own values in relationship to the places they work. Additionally, in tuition-driven environments, the stakes can feel high for teachers to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students alongside the “business” goals of their institutions.


While independent schools continue to serve predominantly white and wealthy populations compared to their public school counterparts, just as with public schools, independent school teachers are grappling with how to meet the needs of diverse learners from a range of backgrounds, values, and experiences. Consequently, students of color, students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, students with learning differences, and those from non-dominant backgrounds may need additional supports to learn in independent school environments. In addition, teachers who make the transition from public to independent schools, or teachers who don’t fulfill dominant demographics within their institutions can also struggle to navigate the unwritten codes and hidden curricula of independent institutions.


Students need teachers who are just as interested in their own growth as they are in their students’, and ongoing feedback is the foundation for effective teaching. Teachers ask their students to demonstrate their learning through a range of classroom tasks, both small and large, and ongoing teacher feedback propels students in their growth process. Simultaneously, the close relationships teachers develop with students in independent schools allow teachers to personalize and tailor students’ learning plans in ways that most meet their needs. Consequently, students are able to learn at their best because they feel seen and valued throughout their schooling. Teachers would benefit from that same time and care, and coaching provides these supports for teachers to thrive.


1. PREPARING TEACHERS: Instructional coaches provide teachers the support and preparation they need so that regardless of experience, coaching can meet teachers where they are and help with their gaps in experience and training; in turn, teachers be can responsive to students in meaningful ways that promote learning and growth.

2. NAVIGATING SCHOOL CULTURE: Instructional coaches can be the guides who ask the sorts of questions that allow for independent school teachers to determine how they might meet the missions of their institutions and navigate the complex cultures, relationships, and business-oriented values within their school sites.

3. PROMOTING EQUITY: Instructional coaching isn’t just about what happens in the classroom in independent schools. It’s also about navigating the larger school community as well. With coaching, everyone has the possibility to shift the paradigms in their institutions towards a more just and equitable world--something that requires time, reflection, emotional resilience, and ongoing conversation on the part of all stakeholders within a school.

4. SUPPORTING LIFELONG LEARNING: There is a wealth of research that indicates that the best professional development is active, collaborative, personalized, ongoing, and specific to a teacher’s content and skill needs--all of which can be found in instructional coaching. A coach can be a peer, a support, and a non-evaluative guide in support of a teacher’s goals. Teachers across all school sites deserve this kind of professional development.


Many independent schools have set up coaching programs, such as Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Virginia, my school site, The Bay School of San Francisco, and many of my peer schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each of our schools can speak to the myriad benefits of coaching and the impact on student learning. And given the range of schools represented at The Art of Coaching Conference in Asilomar this past February, I have a lot of hope for what’s possible at all schools. As long as I work in the field of education, I will be a committed advocate for instructional coaching as the most powerful form of professional development—across all school environments and in service of all our students.


Brown, E. (2016, March 19). “The overwhelming whiteness in U.S. private schools, in six maps and charts.” The Washington Post.

Cetroni, L., Waylett, A., Miller B. (2013, Fall). “Instructional Coaching.” Independent School Magazine. NAIS.

Coleman, E., Warden, N., and Murphy, M. (2017, Fall). “ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Developing Talent Through Instructional Coaching.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M.E., Gardner, M., Esponiza, D. (2017, June). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute.

Finkelstein, S. (2018, January-February). “The Best Leaders are Great Teachers.” Harvard Business Review.

Lori Cohen is an experienced school leader, instructional coach, classroom teacher, and education consultant who has worked in public and independent schools for two decades; she cares deeply about educating for equity and believes coaching serves as the best form of professional development for teachers and leaders.

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