Instructional Coaching

Rethinking the Role of the Instructional Coach

When instructional coaches also teach in the classroom, they can build mutual trust and respect with teachers.

August 2, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Instructional coaches bring many valuable skills to a school community, but they don’t often have opportunities to teach. At the same time, teachers are stressed, schools are stretched, and everyone is looking for ways to improve instruction efficiently.

By rethinking the role of instructional coaches as practitioners who can include classroom instruction in their role descriptions, schools can provide high-quality instruction and ensure that coaches’ jobs remain informed by relevant, engaging practice. 

In our current educational system, coaches are often viewed as middle management. And this middle management spot is not always an effective place from which to lead or connect with classroom teachers. 

To earn the credibility and respect of the teachers with whom they work, coaches must fully understand the challenges teachers face, and that is very hard to do when not living those challenges day-to-day. 

As an instructional coach who is also in the classroom, I’ve found that holding both roles helps me build mutual respect and trust with teachers. When I am transparent about my own challenges, I can genuinely model what it means to be a reflective practitioner, requesting feedback and ideas from my colleagues. Sharing stories about a lesson that did not go as planned or a student behavior I’m having a hard time managing shows that we are all on the same team. No one is pretending to be perfect or to have all the answers, but by reaching out and engaging in collaboration, we all become more effective educators.

The Power of Lab Classrooms

Teachers consistently report that observing other teachers in action is among the most beneficial methods for improving their practice. While traditional instructional coaches can facilitate these observations, coaches who teach can provide daily opportunities for teacher observation. Not only does this maintain transparency; it builds professionalism, increases teacher capacity, and fosters “collective teacher efficacy,” or the belief that in working together, we have the ability to positively impact student learning—a belief that researcher John Hattie revealed has sizable, measurable benefits for student achievement

In action, this means that when I can say this to another teacher, “I’m dealing with that very issue as well; could you observe my classroom this week and then offer me some observations and feedback?” it communicates that their professional input is valued and that they play an important role as a professional colleague in our building. 

When teachers are empowered to give and receive ideas and feedback, we build a culture of professional learning and increase teachers’ confidence. Having a coach-facilitated “lab classroom” where this type of reciprocal mentoring takes place can level the playing field while routinizing observation for all.

How to Address Logistics

Creating room for instructional coaches to teach requires collaboration among coaches and administrators and the support of district leadership. It requires creative thinking and strategizing to move around full-time equivalents (FTEs) to create the best situation for a given school. FTEs measure employment in a way that makes employees comparable even when they work a different number of hours per week. 

Schools might find that they do not need any additional FTEs—rather, they can split them up among two or more current staff members who have instructional expertise and leadership potential. In this instance, coaches can then collaborate with each other—say, working 0.5 FTE as a classroom teacher and 0.5 FTE as a coach—further increasing their efficacy. 

In my role, I teach at least two sections of language arts each year. I might teach sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, depending on what grade level has the highest student population. In this way, instructional coach-teachers can mitigate large class sizes. I consider myself a classroom teacher first and foremost, but I also collaborate with another instructional coach in the building to develop and implement embedded professional development and provide instructional coaching throughout the building. This other teacher-coach has a position similar to mine—he teaches a few sections (of science, in his case) and is also an instructional coach.

The New Approach

This proposed role delineation is a far cry from the traditional “teacher mentor” model that persists in many schools, which typically assumes that wisdom and influence flows mainly from the more experienced teacher. But creating a truly collaborative culture, one that strives to improve instruction at every level, calls for a new approach that builds teacher capacity throughout an entire building. 

Thinking more fluidly about a school building’s schedule and FTEs to allow room for instructional coaches to teach establishes flexibility to designate teachers as coaches when needed, too. For instance, when two coaching hours opened up at my school, the administrators selected two newer teachers to share those coaching hours. These young educators proved to be highly effective instructional coaches for many reasons, including the fact that they were closer to the new-teacher experience, having just navigated that path of learning themselves, and therefore able to guide others entering the profession. 

If increasing teacher capacity is a priority in your school setting, creating or adapting instructional coach positions to include classroom teaching can be an effective approach to that goal, introducing a level of role fluidity that supports collaborative professional learning pedagogies and facilitates mutual inquiry among school staff.

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