How to make coaching cycles the center of instructional coaching work

Coaching research, evidence-based data, and teacher surveys show that coaching cycles are the key coaching action that improves student learning. However, if you’re an instructional coach, you know all too well that we are often tasked with so many other responsibilities. These run the gamut from developing and leading traditional professional development sessions to collaborating with school teams, facilitating and organizing school-wide assessments, organizing learning walks and other forms of public teaching, and analyzing student achievement data.

Each of these activities can contribute to positive change in schools. The constant work that supporting these large-scale activities requires, though, oftentimes means that the one-on-one coaching cycle—the primary vehicle of instructional coaching—can all but disappear.

I’d like to make the case for why prioritizing coaching cycles over some other efforts will make a significant impact on student learning in your schools. In this post, I will explain how you can advocate for prioritizing coaching cycles to school leaders. I will also discuss a flexible structure for coaching cycles that makes them possible, despite the widely varying instructional coaching assignments and workloads each instructional coach may carry.

What is a coaching cycle?

There are many different models of coaching cycles used in education, but most can be boiled down to this simple definition: A coaching cycle is the process in which a teacher and instructional coach work collaboratively to set an instructional or student learning goal, make a plan for supporting the goal, monitor progress toward the goal, and then reflect on how well the plan supported the goal. Each cycle usually includes three phases:

  1. A goal-setting and planning pre-conference
  2. Coaching actions for implementing and monitoring the plan
  3. A reflection post-conference to assess impact

Coaching actions in the middle phase can vary based upon the goal. They can include co-teaching, modeling, observation, co-planning, and the potential for other actions. The reflection post-conference is usually rooted in evidence to assess impact: student work, assessment data, video, student surveys, and/or an observation tool.

Why do coaching cycles matter?

Coaching cycles are an effective antidote to the knowing-doing gap. When teachers engage in traditional professional learning, many of them still struggle with implementing new learning in their classrooms, despite their best intentions.

Simply holding workshops, sharing information, or engaging in role plays is not enough to transfer skills, but coaching is highly efficacious in transferring skills to the classroom, where teachers can impact students most. In 2002, Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers presented research that showed that almost no learning based in theory and discussion, demonstration by a trainer, or role playing with feedback transferred to classroom practice. However, coaching in the classroom resulted in 95% of learning transferring to classroom practice.

Instructional coaching is effective! The process of coaching is contextualized, and personalized professional learning is co-designed specifically to support the needs of teachers and their students. Teachers need ongoing collaboration and support while they implement what they have learned from professional development, and this is why following up professional learning with in-person coaching is recommended.

What is the evidence?

Many studies continue to support the efficacy of instructional coaching for supporting, improving, and elevating classroom instruction. Here are just a few samples:

  • Linda Shidler’s research shows that well-defined coaching cycles, especially when aligned to school-wide goals, yield increased achievement on different measures of assessment compared to looser, more ambiguous instructional coaching activities. The “type and quality of the interactions,” she explains, matter more than the amount of time one is engaged in coaching.
  • A study from Rebecca Frazier found that students in classrooms where teachers received coaching in the form of cycles outperformed students in non-coached teachers’ classrooms on MAP® Growth™.
  • Teachers have remarked that engaging in coaching cycles has improved student engagement in their classrooms. They have also said that they implemented more new literacy strategies with the support of coaches, according to a study by Kelly Feighan and Elizabeth Heeren.
  • In Diane Sweeney’s research on the student-centered coaching cycle model, student proficiency on learning targets improved from an average of 5% in the coaching pre-conference to an average of 73% in the coaching post-conference.
  • My own coaching feedback surveys with teachers revealed that teachers who engage in individual coaching cycles are more likely to say that coaching improved learning for their students and that they could sustain using new teaching practices in the classroom in the long term.

What should I do now?

If you’re an instructional coach, here are three ways you can prioritize coaching cycles:

  1. Consider creating a coaching menu. The menu can focus on supporting a few school-wide goals. Use it to engage individual teachers in individual coaching cycles. I used a simple Google form that allowed teachers to share their goals for students and coaching actions they believed would help us collaborate well. If you want to learn more about creating your own coaching menu, check out “The Digital Coaching Menu: Four Reasons Why You Need One,” a post I wrote on the topic.
  2. Audit your time. Record all your activities for a week and make a chart to see where you are spending your time. Strive to dedicate at least 50% of your time to coaching cycle work. Ask your supervisor for help if you need it.
  3. Advocate for time to coach. Share this post with your administrator, direct supervisor, or team. Discuss how support for students and teachers in your school would be strengthened if your work were firmly centered in coaching cycles.

Coaching cycles are the bridge over the knowing-doing gap for many teachers. Instructional coaches are in a unique position to impact student learning based on their capacity to offer contextualized, ongoing professional learning for those they serve. Bringing coaching cycles to the focus of coaching work will have lasting benefits for students, educators, and the communities we serve.

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article