6 Signs of an Effective Instructional Coach

While conducting classroom visits in an elementary school in Saipan, a young boy started quizzing me about who I was, where I was from, and if I liked his work. As I bent down to answer his barrage of questions, he said, “Why are you here?” I explained that I was helping his teachers, to which he replied, “Do you really think we are worth flying so far to help?” Without hesitation, I looked into his beautiful brown eyes and said, “Yes, you are quite special.” And I meant it.

He smiled from ear to ear and hurried back to his work. Though I am confident my instructional coaching positively impacts him, this young child may not be aware of the research behind my work. Research shows that highly effective teachers are able to help students reach greater levels of achievement. That fact has been proven through research time and time again and is one of the reasons I am so passionate about the power of effective instructional coaching.

Every child in every classroom in every school deserves to be taught by a highly effective teacher each year. And teachers need and deserve support as they strive to meet the learning needs of students. That’s why I strongly believe we must redefine instructional leadership in schools. Educators deserve to be part of a learning organization.

Instructional coaching is an avenue that can provide support to teachers and allow continuous embedded professional learning within a school. My years of experience have taught me that instructional coaching succeeds when instructional leaders have a firm understanding of both the leadership and content skills needed to be effective in their roles. It’s a skill set that a refined coach truly embraces and understands. 

Here are a few tips for instructional coaches starting their journey. Teachers and school and district leaders can also use this advice to assess their need for an instructional coach and determine the effectiveness of their current instructional coaches. 

1. Take time to listen to those you serve.

It’s important for instructional coaches to see the full picture of what is impacting instruction in classrooms and the results of that instruction. Conducting a listening tour will ensure the voices of all stakeholders are heard. 

2. Spend time in classrooms analyzing instruction. 

Visit classrooms and take time to analyze what is happening. Who’s doing the majority of the work and thinking? At what level is that work and thinking?

3. Understand the importance of casting a vision for instructional improvement.

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, leadership coach John C. Maxwell writes: “The truth is that nearly anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course. … They see the whole trip in their minds before they leave the dock. They have a vision for their destination.” Effective instructional coaches understand the importance of helping a school and individual educators set a vision for their instruction in the future. 

4. Start with a strength.

Too frequently, coaches will find their largest gap and want to start coaching there. However, effective instructional leaders are able to identify positive aspects of teaching and learning and use that as a starting point for coaching. Starting with a strength creates the conditions necessary to change people’s minds about change. When we emphasize what others are doing well already, people are motivated and more likely to believe they are capable of doing things better or doing other things well, too.

5. Motivation is critical.

Successful coaches understand the power of human motivation. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel H. Pink explains that people excel when intrinsically motivated. Effective coaches know the importance of taking time to understand what motivates educators to improve and what motivates students to exceed learning expectations. 

6. Set up organizational structures.

Creating an environment where a school becomes a true learning organization doesn’t happen by accident. Organizational structures show respect for all those involved and allow trust to be formed. Instructional leaders must take the time to set up structures around the vision, goals, roles, and responsibilities, and the entire process for instructional coaching.

Effective instructional coaching is a critical component of improving instruction in a school. As schools redefine coaching, my experience tells me they will see a greater impact on both adult and student learning.

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Sherry St. Clair is the author of the book Coaching Redefined: A Guide to Leading Meaningful Instructional Growth (June 2019).

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