The importance of instructional coaching, now and in the future

Schools have reached a critical period of need. Faced with the demand to provide accelerated learning, differentiation, and social-emotional learning supports after years of pandemic learning, teachers (and school leaders) need more support than ever.

Numerous schools have experienced unprecedented turnover, resulting in a much higher percentage of new teachers to support than in the past. Although many midcareer and veteran teachers have persevered through this period of their careers, they are seeking professional invigoration and more agency regarding their professional learning and teaching practice. Supporting these teacher leaders in ways that help them continue to grow, while also being respected for the important contributions they make, is essential.

With so much variation in needs, traditional approaches to professional learning and support yield limited results. One of the best methods for supporting these various needs is through sustained, personalized, and collaborative partnerships between teachers and instructional coaches. My colleague Lindsay Prendergast and I recently had the opportunity to interview school leaders from across the United States to learn about why instructional coaching is especially important in this moment—and what they hope to see for the future of coaching. Here’s what we learned.

What do we mean by instructional coaching?

Instructional coaches support students’ learning by partnering with their teachers.

As I mentioned in “How to make coaching cycles the center of instructional coaching work,” instructional coaching often follows a cycle—a process in which a teacher and instructional coach work collaboratively to set an instructional goal or a student learning goal, use an action plan to meet that goal, monitor progress toward the goal, and then reflect on how well the plan supported the goal. The action plan could feature coteaching, modeling, observation, coplanning, or other actions. The teacher and instructional coach then reflect on evidence to assess the coaching cycle’s impact: student work, assessment data, video, student surveys, and/or an observation tool.

The relevance of instructional coaching today

Every school leader we spoke with discussed how instructional coaching has supported teachers’ work in their schools and districts. Here are a few reasons they said coaching is so important:

  • The needs in schools quickly shift, and coaches, whether internal or external, are needed to support teachers in a rapidly changing educational landscape. Many leaders cited recent examples of rapid change, such as the shift to remote learning during COVID-19, adopting and implementing new standards or curriculum, and addressing post-pandemic needs, like social-emotional learning and prioritizing content.
  • Coaches are one of the few roles exclusively dedicated to supporting professional growth (or at least this is the aspiration, as we know coaches have filled many roles in the last few years). Coaches can support the long-term stability of a school by limiting churn and supporting retention. They can provide ongoing and intensive support to new teachers, but they also play a significant role in supporting the growth of expert teachers who want to deepen and refine their practice or experiment with innovative approaches.
  • Structured instructional coaching makes a difference in what students learn and how teachers work.Designating a specific process for reflection is one of the main benefits cited. Educators know the importance of reflecting on their practice to make change, but this reflection often does not happen without a structure like instructional coaching to support it.
  • Coplanning and coteaching are valuable for implementing new teaching strategies or refining existing strategies. School leaders commented that these types of coaching interactions build relational trust and foster a team approach for reaching students’ learning goals.
  • Discussions about data (or evidence of learning) are richer. Coaches can help teachers approach data from an inquisitive stance. A coach can help probe teachers’ thinking in a safe environment (if done well) and unleash new insights into how teachers think about and utilize this information in their work.

What school leaders want in the future

While the school leaders we spoke to affirmed that they believed instructional coaching was valuable for supporting teachers and impacting student learning in their schools, they also noted changes they would like to see in the future. Many believe that instructional coaching has the potential to improve in these ways:

  • Well-trained coaches are vital. Many coaches are former classroom teachers who worked well with colleagues and provided excellent instruction for students. While great teachers can become great coaches, each role demands distinct skill sets. Instructional coaches need high-quality professional learning to do well. Well-trained coaches navigate the relational aspects of school communities and work well in the in-between space of their role compared to teachers, administrators, and other school roles.
  • More flexibility in instructional coaching services is ideal. The needs of schools often dictate shifts in the focus and the intensity of coaching. Some examples of shifting needs might be schools experiencing increased enrollment in multilingual students, noticing a greater need for social-emotional learning, or implementing a new learning management system. Each of these examples dictates a change in instructional coaching needs. Many leaders wonder how they can reevaluate and reallocate coaching services by making decisions about how often coaches of different specialties are needed from year to year.
  • There need to be transparent ways to see the impact of instructional coaching. While not all school leaders need a uniform way to see the impact of coaching (such as teacher evaluations or test scores), everyone we talked with did want to see clearer evidence of instructional coaching’s impact on teachers and students.

Thinking ahead

Instructional coaching is one factor many school leaders agree is essential for supporting teachers’ work and students’ learning. However, the current implementation of coaching in many places can still be improved to meet ever-changing needs. Here are some questions for instructional coaches, school leaders, and districts to consider:

  • Is the primary focus of instructional coaches’ work coaching, or are they being asked to prioritize other duties?
  • How does your current allocation of instructional coaching services meet the needs of your school, and what changes could be made?
  • Have instructional coaches received training in key areas, such as facilitating coaching cycles, building trust, and leading data discussions?
  • How do you measure the impact of instructional coaching to clearly communicate its progress?

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