School & District Management What the Research Says

How Principals Can Boost Effectiveness of Instructional Coaches

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 03, 2022 3 min read
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Instructional coaches work most effectively as “utility players” who link teachers, school leaders, and district administrators, but it’s easy for them to get stretched thin.

An instructional coach is a specialist—usually a veteran teacher—who helps other educators build content expertise as well as tailor their practice to meet specific student needs. In a study of veteran instructional coaches in Blue Springs, Mo., public schools, near Kansas City, researchers found principal trust and supports can make the difference between an effective coaching program and one that is diluted.

“The linchpin of instructional coaching is relationships built on trust. It makes sense, but it’s a lot easier said than done … and a key piece of that falls on the lap of the principal,” said Ryan Gettings, the principal of Blue Springs South High School, and a co-investigator of the study, which was presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting in San Diego last month. “For this to work, instructional coaches have to be a valuable part of the culture.”

Coaches are not substitutes

Districts are required to spend at least 20 percent of their American Rescue Plan allocation on addressing the impact of lost instructional time, and many districts have looked to hire instructional specialists to work with teachers as well as directly with students. However, broader staff shortages can make it easy for content specialists to get diverted from that mission if their roles in the schools and districts aren’t clearly laid out.

“It’s sort of like if you’ve got 100 broken cars in your backyard and you hire five mechanics, and those mechanics are spending all their time doing something else, you’re not getting your cars fixed, right?” said David Law, the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, who was not part of the Missouri research project. “All of our specialists for reading and math end up subbing. And so what keeps me up at night is over the next two years, are we going to have $45 million in federal funds that didn’t make the kind of difference I had hoped because those people were busy just keeping the doors open.”

That’s not uncommon. A prior study found coaches who answer to the district spend more time on average working directly with teachers on instructional practice, while those hired by individual schools spent more time on administrative work or teaching themselves. However, both coaches at the district and school levels also got bogged down with more administrative work the more their district focused on test accountability, even though separate research suggests improving teacher practice could do more to boost student learning in the long term.

To ensure instructional coaches are able to focus on improving teacher practice, Gettings suggested:

  • An instructional coach operating across multiple campuses must have regular and open communication with each building leader about curriculum, content, instructional strategy, assessment, and teacher professional development.
  • Principals should provide explicit times and places for coaches to meet with assistant principals and department chairmen to plan what to target in professional development and reflect on how teachers are responding.
  • Districts should provide joint training for both principals and coaches on how to share leadership responsibilities.

Gettings and his colleagues analyzed training and meeting documents and observed interactions between teachers and administrators and veteran instructional coaches in reading, math, science, and technology. They also interviewed teachers and staff on the quality of their coaching support. All of the coaches were veteran teachers with anywhere from 17 to more than 40 years of experience, and principals saw them as a “nonthreatening resource for teachers,” a liaison to support educators who may feel more reluctant to ask their principals for help.

As one principal told Gettings, “there is a much bigger impact when teachers are coached, led, and developed by a content specialist, not by an administrator.”

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