How to Make the Most of Instructional Coaching as a School or District Leader

A strong instructional coach is like manna from heaven. Until I had one, I didn’t realize the impact such a person could have on my teachers, my building, and me. This not to say that working with instructional coaches is not without its challenges. It most certainly is filled with potential potholes. But if you—as an education leader—follow some of the steps below, you’re more likely to have happy, productive, and innovative teachers, which will lead to more children learning.

Get on the Same Page

This is not as easy as it sounds. District leadership and initiatives bind most instructional coaches, who also have to serve a school or schools with distinct needs based on culture, staff, and students. This can put coaches in the middle of two masters to serve. Discussing and deciding the most important curriculum, initiatives, or professional development will give your coach a clear plan to best implement central office priorities and meet your unique school’s needs. 

Trust Is a Must 

Leaders and coaches need to feel trusted. Coaches exist because leaders simply don’t have the time or bandwidth to be an expert in all instructional matters. Coaches serve staff and students, not necessarily the leader. This dichotomy can be deadly if building leaders don’t take the time to build strong, professional relationships with their coaches. In the end, both leader and coach are after the same goal—more children learning—so any and all time spent getting to know your coaches will have the added value of helping all your students. 

Tread Lightly 

Coaches see many things leaders do not—from staff members going above and beyond to help struggling students to teachers’ outright refusals to implement new curriculum. By default, this makes coaches quasi-administrative. Coaches must guide staff toward implementation or changes, but most have no supervisory power to correct poor performance or noncompliance. Often, coaches will share their struggles with their building leader, and this is where the leader needs to be careful. Leaders should not make a beeline to staff who are struggling or refusing. Leaders need to be patient to craft plans for teachers in need of help or inspiration. Addressing a staff member right after the coach has come from her room will only erode the trust the coach needs to improve all teachers. 

Provide Pathways 

After listening to a coach vent, the leader must be mindful of multiple relationships: coach to teacher, teacher to coach, teacher to leader, leader to teacher, coach to leader, and leader to coach. It takes great effort to manage and maintain all of these relationships at once. A helpful prompt I learned to share with coaches who were struggling with a teacher was this: 

Please go back to the teacher, share your concerns, and listen for his reply. Decide whether you can work with this teacher in the moment. If not, take time to reflect before trying again. Or you may say to the teacher, "I believe this is a matter we need to discuss in Anthony’s presence."

Having given the coach time to listen and reflect, the pathway through my office was rarely needed. If my name was invoked, both the coach and teacher knew the seriousness of this matter. In other words, both parties usually figured a way out so they wouldn’t have to do so with me.

If you are lucky enough to have instructional coaches to work with staff and students, taking the time to utilize their unique skillset will improve instruction and learning. The coaches are relying on and in need of leader support, even if they report to a central office administrator. Leaders need the expertise of coaches in classrooms every day to reaffirm, adjust, and tailor staff and student learning for better outcomes. This symbiotic relationship will then benefit all the lives your coaches touch.   

I dedicate this blog to my former literacy coach, Nancy Coppolino, who taught me a great deal about early literacy, teaching, learning, and life. She was an unwavering compass who refused to give her teachers and students anything less than her very best each and every day. She was a champion of the underdog, and ultimately became a colleague, friend, and confidant. She is dearly missed. 

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Don't miss Anthony Colannino at ILA 2019! Hear him speak about "Embolden: Being Bold in Your Beliefs" in the HMH booth.

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You can book a keynote with Anthony Colannino to bring his expertise about instructional excellence and growth mindset to your school or district. You can also view our full list of thought leaders who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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