4 key conditions for making the most of instructional coaching cycles

Instructional coaches are often tasked with numerous roles and responsibilities, so many that sometimes schools forget the most important word in their title: coach.

In most cases, the act of coaching takes place in a framework called a coaching cycle. Continuing evidence reveals that coaching cycles can support teachers in moving beyond the knowing–doing gap so they can implement more of their professional learning in the classroom. The skills acquired in the process of coaching improve learning and engagement. However, there are so many cycle models, one may wonder, what makes an effective coaching cycle?

For coaching cycles to positively impact learning experiences and growth, four key conditions should be met.

1. Teachers and coaches are partners in selecting the focus of coaching

For coaching cycles to be meaningful and motivating, coaches can prioritize teachers’ agency throughout the process. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s work on self-determination shows that when people have a sense of control in their actions, they are highly motivated. Conversely, people who feel that they have no control are much less likely to be motivated.

Continuing evidence reveals that coaching cycles can support teachers in moving beyond the knowing–doing gap.

If we mistakenly view coaching as telling other people how they must or must not teach, or if we see it merely as an opportunity to criticize their work, we will not help teachers grow. Jim Knight states this point eloquently: “People are rarely motivated by others’ goals, and a one-size-fits-all model of change rarely provides helpful solutions for the individual complexities of each unique classroom.”

Instructional coaches can support teacher agency at the outset of the coaching cycle by collaborating with teachers on deciding the focus of coaching. For some schools and districts, teachers might have a great deal of autonomy in the coaching focuses they set. In these cases, coaches might provide a coaching menu for teachers to determine (or narrow) the coaching focus.

In other cases, coaches may be tasked to support teachers with a specific goal, such as implementing a new curriculum, utilizing information from interim assessments, or using a specific technology. Even in these situations, instructional coaches can support a teacher’s agency. For example, if a district requires instructional coaching to support curriculum implementation, a coach can ask a teacher to share which components of a new curriculum are most puzzling or most interesting to them. These discussions can lead the teacher to a personalized focus that is meaningful for their practice and supportive of the school’s or district’s overarching goals.

2. Pre-assessment guides goal setting

Once the focus is set, the instructional coach and teacher should work together to identify and collect data related to the focus. This could take different forms.

Learner responses and other assessment information are great starting points, if they are available. If not, the coach and the teacher might create a pre-assessment to gather more information related to the focus area, such as mathematical or writing skills. If the teacher is interested in improving the classroom environment, routines, or engagement, a classroom observation or a video could be a helpful way to assess learning needs. Learner surveys can also be an excellent source of information. If the teacher’s goal is related to planning, they can look at previous lesson plans.

If there is not a specific set of evidence related to the focus or if it would be too difficult or time-consuming to obtain it, the coach could have the teacher complete a self-assessment or a personal reflection to reveal potential learning needs.

This early assessment helps the teacher and instructional coach understand the current reality for the teacher and learners. Having this clearer picture helps determine a learning goal for the cycle, which then helps the instructional coach and teacher better determine what actions should be taken and how they will assess the impact of those actions.

While determining the goal, the teacher and instructional coach should decide what evidence they need to collect throughout the rest of the coaching cycle that will demonstrate progress from the current reality toward the goal.

3. Teachers and coaches learn from experience

Once the instructional coach and teacher have determined a focus, assessed learning needs, and set a goal, it is time to act. This might seem self-evident, but teachers and coaches can get lost in a cycle of brainstorming and discussing without ever acting.

Effective coaching honors experience. The instructional coach and the teacher should implement new actions based on the information they have. They can experiment with strategies or tools, and they can adjust based on new evidence.

While some coaching models have a more fixed approach to implementation, such as only having the coach observe the teacher or always having the coach model a strategy first, many instructional coaches and teachers prefer to select their actions in alignment with the goal and the types of evidence they want to collect in mind. Let’s explore a goal from a fictitious teacher, Mr. Stover, and his coach, Ms. Craig, to illustrate this.

After watching a video of his classroom and analyzing his lesson plans, Mr. Stover realizes that his lessons lack closure; they usually end with the bell ringing while learners are still mid-activity. His students often do not have opportunities to process and consolidate their learning. Ms. Craig and Mr. Stover wonder if there is a connection between that lack of closure and the students’ ability to demonstrate their learning on formative and summative assessments. They craft a goal to intentionally plan and use effective summarizing prompts in lessons.

During the implementation phase of the cycle, they first explore several types of summarizing prompts to determine which ones best align with the learning goals. Next, they co-plan a lesson, thinking through which summarizing prompt to use and how much content to include, as well as how Mr. Stover will pace the lesson to ensure he can use the summarizing prompt before the class ends. Then, Mr. Stover teaches additional lessons and collects learner responses to the summarizing prompts. Mr. Stover and Ms. Craig check in and adjust along the way based on his experiences and learner responses. These mutually decided coaching actions align to and support this specific goal throughout the process.

Instructional coaches can support teacher agency at the outset of the coaching cycle by collaborating with teachers on deciding the focus of coaching.

Depending on a teacher’s goal, an instructional coach may choose from a range of actions. For coaches working in person, there may be opportunities to model strategies, co-teach, observe learners, or lead instructional rounds or other public teaching activities to support teachers’ goals. For virtual coaches, coaching actions might include collaborating on lessons and assessments, providing feedback on videos, or analyzing work samples or survey responses with the teacher. Whatever actions are taken in the coaching cycle, they need to be aligned with helping teachers achieve their goals and collecting evidence to help them determine how close they are to achieving those goals.

4. Teachers and coaches discuss what they learned and the next steps

During the last step of the coaching cycle, teachers and instructional coaches analyze the evidence of learning. They review their initial goal and use their analysis to determine progress toward meeting it. They work shoulder-to-shoulder (physically or metaphorically, for remote coaching), exploring the evidence as a “third point.” The three points are the teacher, the instructional coach, and the evidence.

Focusing on the third point allows analysis that is collaborative, objective, and psychologically safe. The coach and teacher can explore the evidence of learning as colleagues engaged in inquiry as equals. During this process, both can use “I notice” and “I wonder” statements to keep the conversation focused on exploring the evidence and thinking through next steps, rather than forming judgments.

Let us revisit Mr. Stover and Ms. Craig. After analyzing the new lesson plans, they both notice that each lesson includes summarizing prompts. In addition, Mr. Stover shares that he has used summarizing prompts in each of his previous five lessons, and he has learner responses from each of them. They celebrate together, determining that Mr. Stover has evidence that demonstrates his goal to intentionally plan summarizing prompts.

Whenever they analyze the learner responses, they notice that many learners are not providing responses that show the kind of thinking for which Mr. Stover was hoping. This reflection calls into question the goal of using effective summarizing prompts.

Mr. Stover and Ms. Craig wonder whether the prompts are well aligned to the learning goals or if learners need more explicit models for how to respond to the summarizing prompts. After looking through all the responses, they decide the prompts are well aligned, but learners may not know how to write responses that fully convey their thinking.

Now Mr. Stover and Ms. Craig can determine the next steps. They set a new goal to help learners write better summarizing responses. They develop a model response and success criteria to help learners have a clear picture of what makes an effective response. They then co-teach a mini lesson on writing summary responses and give learners multiple opportunities to practice. They plan to revisit the responses in a few weeks to see how close they are to reaching the next goal.

Reflecting on what matters most

As you can see, a coaching cycle is an iterative process that can lead to adjustments as well as new goals. At the close of a coaching cycle, coaches and teachers celebrate and reflect on the progress. They determine what worked well and what next steps still lie ahead. The teacher can also provide feedback to the coach via a survey so the coach has information to guide future coaching.

After exploring the four conditions of impactful coaching cycles, here are some questions to consider based on your role:

  • If you are a teacher: How can you advocate for these four key facets of impactful instructional coaching cycles? What can you personally do to make coaching cycles more effective and meaningful?
  • If you are an instructional coach: What can you do to ensure these conditions in your coaching cycles? How can you share these conditions with your leaders to help you better serve teachers and learners?
  • If you are a school leader: How closely does this vision of coaching reflect what you see as the role of instructional coaches? What systemic changes could improve coaching cycles for teachers? How could investing in professional learning benefit you, instructional coaches, or teachers?

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