Professional Learning

How to Be an Effective Math Coach: Five Key Strategies

7 Min Read
How to Be an Effective Math Coach: Five Key Strategies

Take a trip back in time with me; it’s 1990, Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” is number one in America, the concept of the World Wide Web was being born, the Hubble Space Telescope is launched into space, and I am in third grade. As a third-grade student, I absolutely loved going to school. During my day, I authored countless stories, transported myself into ancient histories, explored the animal kingdom, and thoroughly enjoyed all but one subject—math.

Math was a struggle for me once I started third grade. Suddenly, a subject I once had enjoyed had been tarnished by timed multiplication tables assessments and competitive games of “Around the World” flash cards. No matter how quickly I was able to come up with the answers, I was eventually beat by a fellow classmate who was just a bit quicker than me. I felt defeated, which led to me feeling that I wasn’t any good at math.

I know I am not alone in that feeling as a young math student. It was not until many years later, when I became a teacher, that I found my passion for math again. As a teacher, I was determined to empower my students to feel confident in math. I wanted them to engage in mentally stimulating activities and ensure they had what they needed to succeed. With the support of a math instructional coach, I was able to transform my teaching to ensure my students left my math classroom with a passion for math.

In their 2018 study, “Taking Teacher Coaching to Scale: Can Personalized Training Become Standard Practice?,” researchers Matthew A. Kraft and David Blazar analyzed 60 studies on teacher coaching. They found that instructional coaching improves instructional practice and student achievement more than traditional professional development. In addition, teachers who engage in one-on-one instructional coaching saw the quality of their instruction improve as much, or even more than, the difference in effectiveness between a new teacher and an experienced veteran with five to ten years of experience.

How Does a Math Teacher Coach Support Teachers?

A math teacher coach, or math instructional coach, works with teachers to help them improve their math instructional practices and processes within their classroom, all to help improve student math learning and outcomes. A math instructional coach serves as a mentor, model, and resource to help teachers implement high-leverage teaching techniques into their teaching. Math instructional coaches work in partnership with the teacher to help them set and meet goals related to students’ classroom progress. During the coaching cycle, a math coach may observe the teacher in the classroom, model instructional techniques during lessons, help teachers collect and understand data, and provide feedback.

Five Key Strategies for Being an Effective Math Instructional Coach

Math instruction coaching works best when the coach is prepared and supportive. Try the strategies below to help you work with teachers to transform their classrooms.

Strategy 1: Build the Relationship

Relationships are the embers to spark any change. Without a relationship, you have limited credibility or ability to connect with someone. As you start coaching teachers, getting to know them and letting them get to know you is essential. First, you need to establish a safe space where the teacher can feel open to sharing in a judgment-free way. Coaching is not about “fixing” teachers but improving student outcomes and building teacher capacity and leadership abilities.

Communicating the goal of the coaching experience will help teachers understand that this is a learning partnership. Teachers should drive the process, identifying what they would like to work on and always aiming to improve student outcomes. As you work with teachers, your role is to act as a thought partner and trusted confidant and seek to understand their needs to support them in their goals.

Strategy 2: Know the Content

If teachers are to help students learn mathematics, they must have a firm understanding of the essential concepts in the subject. However, according to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, only 3% of elementary teachers have a degree in mathematics, compared to 45% of middle school teachers and 79% of high school teachers. This discrepancy means that many of our elementary school teachers may need to build more foundational skills and confidence in math content to be effective math teachers. As we consider how best to support these teachers as math coaches, we must have a firm grasp of how mathematical content progresses across grade levels.

Strategy 3: Have a Plan

Coaching without a plan is like hiking without a map—you’re likely to get lost quickly. A coaching cycle is your map for structuring your coaching time with teachers. Every coaching cycle begins with the analysis of student data to establish goals. Knowing where students need support provides a targeted entry point for coaches. Probe teachers to think about where they want to refine instructional practices to help students succeed.

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Once the coaching focus is identified, work with the teacher to break down the goal into accessible action steps. Here’s a free template to use when breaking down goals. As teachers move through the coaching cycle, they will work with the coach to identify and learn new instructional skills to try in the classroom. As they test the strategies, they will reflect on their impact on student learning and refine them based on the results.

Strategy 4: Focus on High Leverage Teaching Strategies

The teaching and learning of mathematics is a progressive process. First, students need to explore, understand, and then apply concepts and skills as they build toward deeper understanding. Therefore, it is best to use high-leverage teaching strategies to make the most of your learning experiences and lessons. In 2014, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All, outlining eight effective mathematical teaching practices:

  1. Establish mathematics goals to focus learning.
  2. Implement tasks that promote reasoning and problem-solving.
  3. Use and connect mathematical representations.
  4. Facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse.
  5. Pose purposeful questions.
  6. Build procedural fluency from conceptual understanding.
  7. Support productive struggle in learning mathematics.
  8. Elicit and use evidence of student thinking.

Encouraging teachers to understand the eight mathematical teaching practices and reflecting on how they implement them in their classrooms is a great way to encourage the use of high-leverage teaching practices.

Strategy 5: Embrace a Growth Mindset

Author Idowu Koyenikan said, “The mind is just like a muscle—the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.” We don’t often think of our mind as a muscle that can flex, grow, and change, but it absolutely can. Your mindset is what ultimately can determine your success or failure. Mindsets can be fixed, mixed, or growth. As you work with teachers, help them embrace a growth mindset. Share a bit about yourself and your math story as you work with teachers. Your math story is the story that drove you to want to support math instruction or become a better math teacher. Model for your coachee how your math story helped you develop a math growth mindset. Ask them to share the same.

Listening to your coachee’s math story is an excellent opportunity to learn about their mindset on teaching math and where others might need to have more of a growth mindset. A growth mindset is not just for the teacher; it can also be instilled in and taught to their students. When teachers and students embrace a growth mindset, there can be fantastic learning in the classroom.


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