5 grounding tenets for successful instructional coaching relationships

As the landscape of education has dramatically shifted post-pandemic, the needs of coaching and professional learning have also shifted. There is much research to support the need for instructional coaching, but how do coaches harness their level of influence to truly make an impact on teacher and student learning?

NWEA recently wrote some coaching tenets to better understand these changing needs and better serve schools. The tenets grew out of our collaborative research, experiences, and interviews with current educators in the field. We believe that when a coach is formally trained to embody and translate the NWEA instructional coaching tenets into practice, they set the stage for a deep and meaningful professional learning experience.

Read on for brief descriptions of the tenets and reflection questions for coaches or professional learning leaders that can help them articulate how their beliefs about coaching translate into everyday practice.

Tenet 1: Prioritize agency

Coaches must empower teachers to make professional learning a priority by providing the support needed to reach their goals. As Learning Forward notes, “The work to advance agency and to balance teachers’ needs with system goals is not easy. The challenges cannot be solved by instituting a one-size- fits-all program or marking through an ‘agency’ checklist.”

When coaching is delivered in a rigid or scripted manner, teachers are no longer valued as equals and must simply comply with the process. While coaches should model and maintain rigorous expectations for their coaching commitments, this does not mean that coaches should impose an agenda upon teachers. Instead, they should do as Christian van Nieuwerburgh suggests: “Coaches enable their coachees to be autonomous and make informed decisions that improve their performance and impact. Autonomy is at the heart of what coaches do.”

When teachers are given the space to unpack problems of practice and design their own methods of addressing those problems in a supportive and structured environment, the instructional coaching process becomes memorable and lasting.

Reflection questions

  • How do I honor and value the skills, knowledge, and talent of those I coach?
  • How do I truly enable others to grow and achieve their potential?

Tenet 2: Offer partnership

Coaches and teachers must work together toward a common goal: student learning. While the coach may offer suggestions for implementing strategies, it is crucial that the coach remain open and curious about the teaching environment in order to learn from those being coached.

As Jim Knight of The Instructional Coaching Group states, “When coaches position themselves as experts giving advice, they often overestimate the value of their advice, and turn off the people they coach by trying to solve their problems for them.” In practice, coaches should take a side-by-side approach to collaboratively work toward a goal or set of goals that is mutually agreed upon.

Reflection questions

  • Do I recognize that working together is essential to creating anything significant?
  • What does it look like to take joint responsibility in the work with those I coach?

Tenet 3: Center on equity

Teaching is extremely personal, and coaches must be able to enter their work with an asset-based mindset that all students and teachers should have the resources they need to flourish. This looks like finding ways to identify and eliminate barriers to access and opportunities that put others at a disadvantage, such as helping a teacher unpack perceptions and assumptions about the learners in their classroom or supporting a teacher to intentionally design small groups based on all student needs.

Coaches must also engage in reflection and self-awareness by assuming competence in those they coach, highlighting strengths, and appreciating diverse viewpoints.

Reflection questions

  • How can I develop better connections to—and concern for—those I coach?
  • How do I demonstrate the worth and dignity of those I coach?

Tenet 4: Honor experience

Coaches need to provide learning opportunities that are relevant, practical, and experience-based so that theory translates into action. As Carol Dweck states, “The answer isn’t taking away challenge, it’s giving more tools to deal with challenge.”

While the traditional whole group professional development model is still common in schools and districts, instructional coaching offers a personalized alternative that enables teachers to try out new ideas and concepts. A coach can help a teacher reflect on specific behaviors that contributed to success or a need for recalibration when implementing a new strategy. A coach can also help a teacher build toward greater levels of mastery.

This work should be centered on each teacher’s students and their professional practice so it has the greatest relevance and impact.

Reflection question

  • How do I foster authentic and supportive experiences to encourage teachers to experiment, explore, and take risks?
  • Do I encourage those I coach to practice the skills they are learning so they can achieve mastery?

Tenet 5: Foster relationships

When coaches anchor their work with teachers in a respect that is fostered by actively listening to each other, they will develop a reciprocal, trusting relationship where the outcomes truly matter to both the coach and the teacher. True professional learning is not an isolated experience, and if coaches are to serve as trusted advisors, they must make time to learn about those they coach, listen to their stories, and share a bit about themselves as well.

To build real trust, coaches also need to constantly reevaluate that their work with a teacher is truly mutual. As noted in the book Crucial Conversations, “If our goal is to get our way or manipulate others, it will quickly become apparent, safety will be destroyed.” Coaches first seek to understand, and they practice using listening and language skills that communicate their concern for the teacher as a whole.

Reflection questions

  • How do my interactions exhibit respect and personal regard through listening, questioning, and providing feedback?
  • Do I use language that demonstrates a belief in the contributions of those I coach?

A team effort

By investing in the development of a resilient and responsive teaching force, we can create environments where all students can thrive. Highly effective coaches empower educators by supporting their agency, work alongside teachers as partners, intentionally enter spaces with an equity-centered mindset, engage in practical and relevant learning experiences, and foster relational trust.

This work is easier said than done, and coaches will also need to seek out opportunities to learn and practice a variety of coaching skills when working with adult learners. Leaders can provide coaches with ongoing encouragement and professional learning opportunities to effectively embody these tenets in their work every day, and to honor teachers as the innovative, creative, and caring professionals they are.

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