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September 25, 2023

How School Leaders Can Support Instructional Coaches

“You’ve crossed over to the Dark Side.” 

“You’re an Assistant Principal. You make the big bucks now.”

“You’re going to visit my class?! That makes me nervous.”

“Sorry… the kids were acting weird because you were observing.
But I don’t need help. I’ll figure it out.”

“No, no.  I’m fine. I don’t need your assistance.”

Every day teachers, athletic coaches, support personnel, classroom aides, custodians, cafeteria workers, clerical staff, and administrators all come to campus with one goal in mind—to help students learn and achieve success. Yet, we contend with varying degrees of interpersonal boundaries, division, anxiety, and even strife, with the single most persistent division being between administrators and teachers. In short, it’s complicated.

As far as workplaces go, schools each have their own unique dynamic: the sound of bells, hundreds (or thousands) of students, numerous employees with various roles, specialized offices, and the classrooms as private, and public spaces. Additionally, each school has its own culture and climate that determines the context of a given employee’s experience. 

But the proverbial elephant in the room often is consistent: the tension between teachers and administrators. 

Enter the instructional coach—that approachable and warm staff member who is an out-of-classroom teacher. She does not carry a roster, yet she is not an administrator. She can relate to the pressures that teachers face daily, and more importantly, teachers can relate to her since she is still a teacher (albeit not in the traditional sense) whose role is nonevaluative.  She is an intermediary with the sole role of helping teachers incrementally over time by building relational trust, without the pressure of evaluation. If teachers are lucky enough to have an instructional coach on their campus, she will build bridges with them to observe instruction and build capacity in student engagement, classroom management, classroom routines, and whatever else an individual teacher may need. In a perfect world, the instructional coach works to become acquainted with teachers to help them determine their needs; she does not report back to administrators. Conversely, administrators do not and should not direct the instructional coach. Even the faintest insinuation that the instructional coach is in cahoots with the administration can potentially derail any progress that she might make with teachers. 

As a former instructional coach and a current administrator, I have a foothold in both worlds. I know that I can best support the instructional coach by maintaining professional boundaries and granting her autonomy. For example, I do not ask the instructional coach to give me progress updates about the coaching cycles of individual teachers, nor do I ask the instructional coach to provide me with a schedule of classroom visits or observations. As an administrator, I am aware of how I am perceived by teachers. Despite my best intentions, the stress of evaluation and the perception of my power as an administrator causes teachers to be more likely to accept support from the instructional coach than from me, and I respect that boundary by leaving the instructional coach to her work. 

My advice to fellow administrators is to respect the relationship between your instructional coach and teachers. Since the whole coaching process is predicated upon trust and the development of relationships, simply put, do not inquire about the progress of individual teachers. By respecting these interpersonal boundaries, you as a school leader will establish the parameters for healthy communication norms between the coach and the teacher. Schoolwide, though all teachers could benefit from working with the instructional coach. However, if an administrator feels that an individual teacher should work with the instructional coach to grow as an educator, this should be a transparent recommendation to the teacher, as opposed to a directive to the instructional coach behind closed doors.

Instructional coaches need coaching too. Administrators can empower their instructional coaches by giving them opportunities to attend professional development in the field. Using funds in this strategic way will keep the coach motivated, supported, and inspired. This includes training and support in the coaching process itself to fine-tune the dynamic. Does the administrator wish to implement inquiry-based cognitive coaching in the style of Elena Aguilar? Or relationship-driven coaching, in the style of Jim Knight? Or perhaps student-centered coaching via Diane Sweeney? While similar, these models have their own unique characteristics, which can impact the climate (how people feel) and culture (how people act) of your campus.

When it’s time to train teachers at the school site, administrators should trust and empower the instructional coach to plan and lead professional development at the school site. An administrator can collaborate with an instructional coach to plan the content and the delivery in the case of a new pedagogical initiative or curricular shift. However, the administrator should take cues from the instructional coach. Furthermore, during the facilitation itself, the administrator should not be present. The instructional coach is more likely to have a clearer understanding of the needs of teachers on campus, as well as their threshold for change. Teachers are much more likely to receive instructional support from coaches due to the non-evaluative nature of their role. Lastly, teachers will be more free to express potential frustration and/ or misgivings and accept support in the absence of their administrator. For example, during professional development sessions, I provide snacks, greet teachers, remind them to sign in and out, and promptly leave the room.   

The instructional coach has a special role on campus which should be fostered and protected. Teachers should perceive the instructional coach as independent from administrators, trustworthy, and encouraging. Optimally, if administrators support instructional coaches by empowering them to create their own coaching schedules and relationships, they can be a transformative agent of change on campus, even if that change is incremental. 

Teachers can greatly benefit from the trusting support of a skilled instructional coach who can transcend the traditional barrier between administrators and teachers that exists on most campuses. An instructional coach can impact teacher growth around adopting a class management strategy, a new school-wide initiative, a district mandate, or a newly adopted curriculum, rendering these potentially anxiety-inducing changes into more palatable, and even practical, approaches, while supporting teachers individually during implementation. Even the most interpersonally adept and approachable administrator still holds evaluative power.

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