Education Opinion

Why Your Coaching Program Is Failing

By Elena Aguilar — August 28, 2019 5 min read
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In the education realm, there’s little that makes me as sad as walking through the halls of a school where a coaching program is failing. I can sense the failure in the drained and dejected faces of coaches, in the reserved and cautious comments of teachers, in the frustration of administration. It doesn’t have to be this way, I want to shout. Coaching can be a key lever for transforming school culture, for providing teachers with the support and nurturing they deserve, for retaining effective teachers, and for creating equitable schools where every child thrives.

And also: This is my final blog for EdWeek Teacher. But more on that after I tell you why coaching programs fail and what you can do about it.

Here are five reasons why coaching programs fail:

  • “Coaching” isn’t defined: No one knows, or is in agreement, about what it is and what coaches are supposed to do. Furthermore, success isn’t defined: People have different criteria for what makes coaching effective. The coach thinks it’s effective when a teacher likes her and is happy to see her; the principal thinks it’s successful when a teacher changes every aspect of her practice within a few weeks; and the teacher thinks its effective when the coach is supportive and brings her resources.
  • Coaches haven’t been trained: Coaches are often catapulted into the role, having been “good teachers” but without any professional development in how to work with adult learners.
  • Coaches aren’t coaching: Coaches are assigned to do dozens of random tasks that have nothing to do with adult learning. Subbing for absent teachers and coordinating testing schedules is not coaching.
  • Teachers are forced to receive coaching: Coaching is something that’s “done to” teachers who are struggling or not performing well, and therefore, it’s seen as a punitive measure, a last resort before something very bad.
  • Coaches think they’re better than everyone else. They think they know more about everything, that they’re here to save the day, and they wander the school halls casting judgment on teachers and administrators.

Here’s the thing. As snarky as some of my statements sound, no one (not coaches, teachers, or administrators) wants to be unskilled, vague, or resistant. When I first started coaching, I was the coach who thought she was better than everyone else. I had no training as a coach. I put up a lot of bulletin boards. I was assigned to work with teachers who didn’t want coaching. And my principal had no idea what a coach should do; he just wanted all the problems in his school to go away.

Sadly, after consulting with schools for over a decade, I’ve found that this situation is all too common. My analysis is simply that there’s a lack of understanding about what coaching is and what it takes to make it successful, and also: Everyone is doing too much.

Here are five things that need to happen for coaching to be effective:

  1. Define Coaching: For coaching to be successful, every teacher, administrator, and coach in a school, district, or organization needs to know what is meant by coaching—what it is, what it isn’t, how coaching works, and what its goals are. Unless there’s shared understanding, coaching is hamstrung.
  2. Articulate a Coaching Model: An effective coaching program is guided by a vision, core values, a theory of action, and more. These components of a coaching framework are ideally developed in collaboration with leaders and/or coaches in a school or organization. I spend a lot of time these days supporting districts on developing a coaching framework because it’s foundational to the success of a coaching program.
  3. Train Coaches: Coaches need professional development. A good teacher does not necessarily make a good coach. Coaches are experts in adult learning—coaches need training in how to work with adults and a lot of practice using these skills.
  4. Focus on Foundational Skills: When providing training for coaches, focus on foundational skills including listening, more listening, and more listening, and building trust, and on the dispositions of a transformational coach. Make sure that this training is delivered by people who are experts at working with adult learners.
  5. Attend to the larger issues of culture and climate at the school: Coaching can’t be successful in a toxic environment. Coaches aren’t miracle workers, and if the climate at the school is not conducive to being a learning organization, if everyone is angry and afraid and shut up in their rooms, then coaches will struggle. Leaders must reckon with and address the broader school culture—which can be really hard, which is also why school leaders need coaches!

So Long, and See You Elsewhere

I started writing this blog in 2012 (and have written 151 entries!) and it’s been a meaningful place to connect with others around school transformation and adult learning. Since then, I’ve written four books, launched my own business, and have shared what I know about coaching around the world. It’s been a wonderful whirlwind! I’m now leaving EdWeek, due to decisions that have been made about the content that EdWeek will host, but I’m excited to build up the content on my own blog in the coming months. There’s already a ton of good material there. All of the blogs I’ve written here will be archived on this site, although I also have them on my website.

One last pitch for us to stay connected: Sign up for my newsletter! You’ll be the first to find out about new offerings (online courses, workshops, retreats) and you’ll get resources that I don’t share anywhere else. In fact, when you sign up for the newsletter, you’ll receive a tool to reflect on and evaluate coaching conversations. This rubric can be used to guide your own learning as a coach, or to support the learning of others. And speaking of resources, I have a ton of downloadable resources that you can access here.

I love coaching—learning about it, sharing what I’ve learned, coaching others—and being coached (yes, I have my own coach)—and I hope we can continue this conversation. We—adults—deserve to have safe and meaningful spaces where we can share ideas, practice, and learn. Onward!

Coaches in Washington, DC, practice using coaching strategies with each other. Photo by Maria Baranova and used with permission.

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers 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.