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Professional Development Opinion

What Is the Role of Instructional Coaches?

The founder of an instructional-coaching group tells his side of the story
By Rick Hess — October 19, 2023 6 min read
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A few weeks back, I ran a guest letter by Skyrocket Education CEO Michael Sonbert on instructional coaching, titled “It’s Not Complicated. Instructional Coaches Should Give Clear Feedback.” Sonbert was responding to an article penned by Jim Knight, the founder of Instructional Coaching Group (ICG), in which Knight urged instructional coaches to focus on conversation rather than giving direction. Sonbert disagreed. Knight asked to respond. As one who sees great value in talking frankly about our disagreements (as with Straight Talk with Jal Mehta or A Search for Common Ground with Pedro Noguera), I thought it a terrific idea. Knight is the author of numerous books, like The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching and Focus on Teaching; a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning; and host of the podcast “Coaching Conversations with Jim Knight.” His venture ICG has helped train more than 100,000 instructional coaches over the past two decades. Here’s what Jim Knight had to say.

—Rick

Recently, Michael Sonbert wrote an opinion piece for this blog critiquing an article I published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership on feedback in instructional coaching. In the process, he castigated the approach to instructional coaching that I have studied for most of my professional career, arguing in essence that it is characterized by unfocused conversations that provide little instructional support to teachers.

Sonbert writes that “the [coaching] meetings that Knight describes … are just conversations. I know this because I’ve observed dozens of them. In these meetings the teacher and coach talk.” Also, “the approach, at worst, assumes teachers are fragile, overly sensitive, and unable to receive precise feedback.” This approach, he says, “is borderline negligent.”

I don’t blame Sonbert for criticizing an approach made up of vacuous, unfocused conversations that are guided by coaches “who behave like great teaching is an unsolvable mystery.” But that is not instructional coaching as I define it. Consequently, I feel compelled to clarify what effective instructional coaches actually do, based on my 25 years of studying coaching and the 10 books I’ve written about the topic. There are in fact some points on which Sonbert and I likely agree.

First, instructional coaches must be experts in high-impact instruction and data gathering. As I’ve described in many publications, instructional coaches need to know how to gather classroom data on levels and kinds of achievement and behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement. They should use their deep understanding of data gathering to help teachers identify goals and monitor progress. As coaching expert John Campbell has said, “If there’s no goal, it’s just a nice conversation.”

Instructional coaches also need to have a deep understanding of effective instruction, drawn from books such as those by John Hattie, Bryan Goodwin, Jon Saphier, or my own High-Impact Instruction. My colleagues and I also propose that coaches create instructional playbooks that contain one-pagers describing the evidence and components of the highest-impact teaching strategies for their school and checklists that describe the nuances of those practices. Coaches should use these one-pagers and checklists to precisely describe teaching strategies so that teachers can implement them. They should also provide opportunities for teachers to see strategies being used through modeling, visits to highly proficient teachers, and watching video of expert teachers. My colleagues and I have also written a book precisely describing the standards, rubrics, and methods for evaluating instructional coaching.

So, this is much more than “just conversations.” Instructional coaching involves highly focused and structured conversations that ensure teachers (a) get a clear picture of reality in their classrooms, (b) identify powerful, measurable student-focused goals, (c) identify and learn high-impact teaching strategies that they can implement to hit those goals, and (d) make adaptations to their teaching until it is so effective that the goals are hit. Effective instructional coaches zone in on ensuring that teaching practices and student learning achieve measurable, unmistakably positive improvements as quickly as possible.

I suspect Sonbert would agree that professional development involving checklists, modeling, strategic adaptations, and clear, objective outcomes for assessing success is more than “playing guessing games with teachers.” There are still, however, big differences between his directive approach to PD and instructional coaching as I describe it.

First, coaching should have measures of success more rigorous than the coaches’ mere opinion of what a teacher should be doing. For us, those measures are changes in student learning or engagement. Coaches collaborate with teachers to identify what students need and what strategies teachers can use to hit those goals, and then they keep adapting and refining the strategy until students meet their goals. The only true measure of effectiveness is the objective standard of significant positive change in students.

Second, teachers should be treated as full partners in their professional learning. There is a mountain of research that shows that people are rarely motivated by other people telling them what to do (see Dan Pink’s Drive or Heath and Heath’s Switch for popular summaries for this research). Teachers are much more motivated by an emotionally compelling goal that they set for their students (based on gathered evidence) than one that is handed to them by someone else. If a teacher lacks the expertise to set the goal, the coach should suggest possible goals until one is identified that will have an unmistakably positive impact on student learning and that the teacher is deeply committed to hitting.

Third, teaching strategies must be modified if teachers are going to teach in a way that ensures student-focused goals are hit. Usually, any strategy that is implemented must be tailored to local conditions simply because each classroom is so unique. Indeed, each student is unique. Failing to modify strategies will lead to failing to meet student needs. Simply put, teaching is an adaptive challenge, not a technical one, and as Ron Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University has written, “The most common failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.”

There are other aspects of effective coaching that Sonbert seems to overlook, or not to appreciate. When a coach tells teachers what to do, the coach is the person who owns the solution. When teachers set goals in partnership with coaches, the teacher is the one who owns the solution. When a coach solves problems for teachers, the coach keeps the teacher from solving their own problems and learning. A better model is for the coach to partner with teachers and involve them in their own learning—to treat them as professionals, who over time will become more and more skilled at the art and craft of teaching.

There is of course power in a simple story. “Just tell teachers what to do and you’ll get the schools you want.” That’s a popular story, but research and our experience say it is the wrong story. A better story is to involve teachers in their own learning. This happens when coaches partner with teachers in setting goals, clarifying strategies, and adapting practices until those goals are met. This doesn’t mean we ignore what research says about teaching and we sit around talking in wasteful conversations. Just the opposite. This means we share expertise about instruction in a way that builds and honors teacher professionalism. That’s our story.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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