Research on instructional coaching shows that when defined, understood, and implemented as a principal-coach-teacher partnership, teacher coaching programs can be more effective. Engaged principals are key to a successful coaching program. Our research on the Dynamic Learning Project (DLP) coaching program shows that when principals support the coach-teacher relationship and collaboration, the coaches feel more confident about their coaching skills and, therefore, have a more significant impact on teachers’ practice.
Almost 90 percent of DLP coaches agreed that the principal role is essential for effective coaching. Coaches with more experience in the DLP agreed with this even more than those with less coaching experience.
Based on two years of research on the Dynamic Learning Project, here are five things school-based administrators can do to serve as productive partners in teacher coaching programs, along with tips for success that leaders can use to support coaching.
Throughout the past two decades, the number of instructional coaches in U.S. schools has doubled, and teacher coaching has increasingly attracted the interest of educational leaders as a customizable intervention that is well suited to meeting teachers’ individual needs. However, many teachers still do not seem comfortable openly welcoming coaches into their classrooms. Part of this is because they are not fully familiar with the role of coaches, perhaps because it has not been clearly explained to them. Some teachers remain resistant because of their fear of evaluation, while others feel it wastes students’ learning time.
For a coaching program to be effective, school administrators should be involved in building a clear understanding around the role of coaches and how working with a coach is aligned with district, school, and teaching goals. This common vision promotes teacher willingness to work with coaches and helps activate the coaches as leaders in change management. Our research indicates that when teachers volunteer to participate in a coaching program with a positive perception and a clear understanding of what it involves, they are more likely to be invested in the process and benefit from the program. We’ve also found that when teachers understand the alignment between coaching and instructional and curricular priorities, they feel more motivated to participate in the program.
“I think it’s important to have the principal share the ‘why’ behind coaching to help with buy-in,” one DLP coach said. “I also think that if the principal believes in it, it will show in how he/she talks about it throughout the school year with staff.”
Tips for success: School administrators and coaches can launch the coaching program together at the beginning of the year with a kickoff event that promotes awareness around the role of the coach. Over the course of the year, schoolwide meetings provide administrators with opportunities to continue to promote voluntary participation among teachers by sharing coaching success stories.
Another key to a successful partnership between the school administrator, coach, and teachers is a safe environment where teachers do not feel evaluated by their coach or see the coach as a member of the administration team who observes their classrooms for the purpose of evaluation. DLP teachers who reported non-judgemental coaching were more willing to participate and more likely to report progress in their practice. When teachers trusted that the collaboration with their coach was free from assessment, they worked with their coach in an open and transparent manner. This non-evaluative support provided a framework within which teachers felt free to experiment, take risks, and try new things. Interestingly, most DLP coaches agreed that respecting the confidentiality of the coach-teacher relationship was the most valuable form of support that principals provided.
“Teachers won’t work with instructional coaches if they think that person is just a spy to come back to administration. It’s not an effective, trusting relationship,” said a DLP principal.
Tips for success: School administrators and coaches should clearly message to teachers the types of information that the coach will and will not disclose to administration. This message should not only be communicated at the beginning of the year when the school administrator and coach introduce the role of the coach to the staff, but should be reiterated throughout the year. For example, when a coach begins working with a teacher, they could include a confidentiality agreement in their onboarding materials. Additionally, school administrators can explicitly refer to the boundaries of confidentiality when they promote coaching in informal conversations with individual teachers.
Moreover, coaches should not be given administrative roles that bias their coaching role. Caution should be taken when asking coaches to perform any administrative tasks that could be associated, even tangentially, with teacher evaluation. If coaches do need to perform tasks that are typically seen as administrative, take time to communicate the boundary of that role with teachers to prevent misunderstandings. Coaches should be positioned as thought partners who have valuable knowledge, skills, or a way of thinking that helps teachers innovate and grow.
One of the most basic ways to increase the effectiveness of any professional development (PD) activity is to maximize the time that teachers learn and practice. Therefore, it is critical that the coach’s role be protected to ensure that the majority of the coach’s time is spent directly with teachers. While coaches may be responsible for a variety of tasks both within and outside the classroom, coaches should not be weighed down by administrative or teaching tasks that are not related to their main coaching responsibilities. DLP coaches expressed concern about the quality of their support when they didn’t have full concentration on coaching. In addition, our data suggests job dissatisfaction when coaches feel their position is not fully recognized and they have to take care of the tasks that are not directly related to their role.
“The most significant support my principal can provide is removing barriers to my schedule that will impact my time and ability to coach teachers,” one DLP coach said.
Tips for success: Clear and consistent communication between coaches and administrators throughout the year will help them evaluate the coach’s schedule and workload, and better define their boundaries of work. Additionally, sharing information with the rest of the staff concerning the coach’s roles, responsibilities, and schedule will help them understand how to also respect the coach’s time.
Strong collaboration between the coach and school administrator throughout the school year is another key to an effective coaching partnership. Coaches need frequent, dedicated time with their school administrator to share successes and challenges and to seek constructive feedback and support. These meetings also help coaches gain a better sense of school culture and keep their practice aligned with school and district goals. DLP coaches reported one-on-one formal meetings with their principal have been the most valuable principal-coach interactions in helping them with their coaching roles.
“I know principals have a lot on their plates, but please be involved as much as possible in the program,” a DLP coach urged. “When you’re meeting with your coach, you’re meeting with your coach. Try your best to make sure that time is protected for the two of you. If principals are excited and really into it, I think it helps tremendously how the program will go for the rest of the year … and keeping that excitement going throughout the year is really important.”
Moreover, one of the primary roles of school administrators is to be instructional leaders, guiding and modeling PD for their staff. Regular meetings allow coaches to provide valuable information for administrators to identify instructional gaps and improvements necessary to achieve teaching and learning goals. These meetings can serve as a key lever to deliver on the promise of continuous professional growth for all teachers.
According to our data, when administrators remain involved in the implementation and the iteration of the coaching program in their school throughout the year, teachers feel less stressed about their classroom challenges, feel better about their coaches’ skills and knowledge, and show more improvement in their teaching practices.
“[Our DLP coach] helps me better reach the staff,” a DLP principal explained. “She coaches me and helps me with tools that will increase my efficiency and my ability to support staff members in the ways I need to.”
Tips for success: Before the school year begins, school administrators and coaches can carve out structured time for relationship building, collaborative goal-setting, and deciding how to adapt the coaching model they are using to work best in their specific school context. This allows them to begin the year with a shared understanding of their roles and upcoming action items. Throughout the school year, administrators and coaches maintain this momentum by consistently meeting to discuss bright spots, challenges, and coaching trends.
Although it is important that school administrators remain actively involved in coaching programs, this doesn’t mean that they are the sole drivers. School administrators need to give coaches the freedom to implement a coaching program with creativity and innovation. Our research suggests that when coaches are trusted to make decisions around coaching, they feel more confident in their skills, can more easily build and develop necessary rapport with teachers, and are better able to personalize the type of support that they provide. Furthermore, providing the coach with the autonomy to make decisions enhances trust and respect in the coach-administrator relationship, an essential component of the partnership approach.
“Without autonomy and authority, an instructional coach cannot do their job well,” said a DLP coach. “I was given autonomy to get my job done [and] the authority to make decisions in the best interest of the school and students as needed.”
Tips for success: Providing the coach with autonomy does not mean that they work in isolation. Indeed, regular meetings between the coach and the school administrator are an opportunity for the administrator to celebrate when a coach has taken ownership of a coaching decision and seen a positive impact as a result. It’s important that coaches feel appreciated for taking on the accountability that goes hand-in-hand with ownership of coaching decisions. Alternatively, when a coach has not had success with a coaching decision, the school administrator can help the coach reframe mistakes as learning opportunities.
When school administrators support the classroom coaching program, it is more likely to be effective in improving teacher practice. Building teacher buy-in, promoting awareness of the coach’s role, respecting the coach-teacher relationship, and giving the coach autonomy are all critical components of a successful coaching program.