George Lucas Educational Foundation
Instructional Coaching

Praise Can Be a Powerful Tool for Instructional Coaches

Instructional coaches can facilitate effective instruction by giving teachers specific, actionable praise.

August 3, 2022
Two coworkers give each other a high five
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Instructional coaches often overlook praising teachers because they want to “get to the business.” But praise is an essential part of coaching conversations because it helps to anchor specific behaviors, build confidence, and foster trust. Praise builds on strength-based coaching as it reduces shame, builds trust, and invests the teacher in the coaching process.

Qualities of Effective Praise

It’s specific: Coaches should pull evidence from the classroom that is concrete and observable. Most likely this is coming from their low inference notes but can also include additional evidence, such as student outcomes and student quotes.

It’s aligned: The praise can be aligned to a previously mastered action step or could lay the foundation for the next action step.

It’s relevant: It describes the impact that the teacher move will have on students.

It’s authentic: Don’t make stuff up. People can tell.

There are different types of praise that can have a positive impact on a teacher and their confidence.

“Progress” praise: Cite specific ways that the teacher has made progress. This type of praise is especially helpful for teachers who lack confidence or do not see their progress.

“Don’t lose that” praise: Identify a specific teacher action that is essential to the teacher’s overall performance. This could be something that the teacher struggles to consistently maintain.

“Powerful move” praise: Identify a move that the teacher may or may not be aware of and highlight the impact of that move.

“Let’s build off that” praise: Lead the conversation to the identified action step.

Note that personal praise, which focuses on the teacher’s natural talents that come easily, rather than the effort they put in or the techniques they use, is something to avoid.

Facilitative vs. Directive Praise

To further explore the idea of praise in coaching, let’s set the scene: Instructional coach Jeremy Black just completed a 20-minute observation of Anita Jones’s fifth-grade class. In the lesson, students were comparing types of angles, using complete sentences to justify the differences between angles. Anita took a few student examples to share with the class. The group then analyzed what made the students’ justifications effective.

Regardless of the type of praise that you choose, a coach can demonstrate either a facilitative or directive posture. In the facilitative approach, leaders rely heavily on questioning to have teachers reflect on the moves they made and their impact on student learning. With directive praise, leaders use classroom evidence to celebrate specific moves they saw the teacher make.

Facilitative praise: Using a facilitative approach, here are some questions Jeremy might pose to Anita:

  • How did you decide to have students write their justifications?
  • What impact did the justifications have on the outcomes of the lesson?
  • Why did you decide to share student examples? Why was that an effective move?
  • How did you facilitate the discussion about student examples?

Ultimately, these questions allow Anita to think about two of her strengths: planning and executing justifications, and showing and facilitating discussion about student examples. Let’s observe how Jeremy might coach Anita to name these strengths for herself.

Jeremy: “What impact did the justifications have on the outcome of this lesson?”

Anita: “It was great! Seventeen out of 20 students had all key components of effective justification on their exit ticket!”

Jeremy: “Wow! Why do you think sharing student examples was such an effective move?”

Anita: “By writing out their justifications and then comparing them to the examples, students had lots of practice identifying and evaluating all components of effective justification. My directions were so clear to students that they knew exactly how to participate!”

Facilitative praise is a powerful move for teachers who are able to see their strengths.

Directive praise: When teachers are unable to name their own strengths, a coach should be ready to use directive praise effectively. Anita might be a new teacher without the confidence of a more experienced educator, or she might be a longtime veteran struggling with mental health issues or other personal challenges that make her feel less effective in the classroom.

Furthermore, the human brain’s natural tendency for negative attribution bias means that even the best teachers tend to overlook the positives to dwell on the negatives. Let’s examine two different examples of directive praise and determine what makes each of them effective (or less effective) at solidifying teacher actions and building confidence.

Example one: “Anita, great job on your angle lesson today. Twenty out of 20 kids were really engaged, and they did a lot of great thinking and analysis. Kids will really get a lot out of this unit if you keep up these types of lessons!”

Example two: “Anita, 17 out of 20 students had all key components of the effective justification on their exit tickets. This was because you facilitated an effective discussion about the student examples. I saw 15 out of 20 students compare their responses on their practice—they picked up their pencils at least once when you had the student examples up. With clearer and more explicit directions, your students knew exactly how to participate.”

In example one, there is no concrete connection to teacher actions for Anita to replicate. While there are numbers present, the word “engaged” can be considered subjective. How one person defines “engaged” may be different from another person. Example two is more effective praise because it spoke to the outcomes of the lesson, gave a specific teacher action, and gave a concrete resulting student action. All of the evidence is objective in nature (i.e., picking up pencils, resulting justifications on exit tickets). This praise keeps the focus on observable evidence rather than on the opinion of the coach.

Praise in a coaching conversation is not just about telling a teacher “Nice job!” It is about recognizing specific teacher skills that most impact the classroom. In Anita’s case, Jeremy needed to more specifically ground teacher moves in concrete evidence. Effective praise will spotlight high-leverage teacher actions so that teachers build confidence in repeating them consistently. In other words, praise is coaching.

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