George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Instructional coaching works, or rather, it can work when conditions are right. Perhaps because some principals and district leaders have seen the impact that an effective coach can have, a handful of coaching positions still exist in this era of extreme budget cuts.

Recently, I bumped into a teacher friend who was considering applying for a coaching position at a school that I'm familiar with. Our conversation revealed that this teacher held a number of misconceptions about coaching as well as some idealistic notions. When I started coaching teachers seven years ago, I too held many of these misconceptions.

Here are the highlights of what I told this teacher friend hoping to help her make an informed decision about entering the field of coaching:

1. You've got to enjoy working with adults. Many coaches were strong teachers, passionate about their content and dedicated to teaching kids. This is definitely a pre-requisite to being an effective coach. However, coaches must also like (even love!) working with grownups. That's what you do all the time -- work with adults.

2. You've got to enjoy the particular challenges of working with adults. In some ways, grownups are much harder to teach than kids (and you will really miss the kids). You can't entice them with stickers, points, or free time like you could with your students and they don't respond well to consequences -- you can't threaten to take away recess, call home, or give them a low grade. Motivation has to be intrinsic all the time; this is a particular challenge.

3. You have to have an understanding of how adults learn, or be willing to do some reading in this area. Adults learn differently than children, but adult learning theories are not something most of us are ever exposed to. A new coach must acquire some understanding of these theories and approaches otherwise she risks making all kinds of blunders.

4. Coaching is not "easier than teaching." There's a notion floating around that coaching is a break from teaching, that if you're burnt out in the classroom, you become a coach (I heard this for years as a teacher). This is dangerous territory. While coaching does not require managing dozens of little people all day, it brings with it all kinds of additional challenges. On a logistical and somewhat superficial front, most coaches need to be available to meet with teachers before and after school; this can make for a long workday.

Some of the challenges you might tackle include distrust or push-back from teachers, not having clear roles and responsibilities, being assigned mountains of roles and responsibilities, being limited in the impact you can have on student learning, and being expected (by a principal or district leader) to transform teaching and learning at a school. Coaching is a relatively undefined practice that looks different in every situation; coaches need to be able to manage that lack of definition and actively create one for themselves.

5. Coaching can be incredibly rewarding. In spite of all the challenges, coaching a teacher or leader can be incredibly rewarding. If you're interested in the potential of impacting dozens or hundreds of children, then helping a teacher figure out how to reach more of her students is a high-leverage way to do so. Effective coaches can contribute to teacher-retention, building instructional capacity at a site, improving relationships between colleagues, and establishing ways for teachers to collaborate. Beyond those ways of impacting a site, helping a teacher or leader figure out how to manage his/her job better or how to enjoy it more can be very satisfying.

Working as an instruction/literacy coach is an exciting way to engage in improving our public schools, but there's more than what meets the eye. My teacher friend did exactly what I'd recommend anyone do who is considering becoming a coach: find one and ask a million questions.

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Cossondra George's picture

Thanks for the great reminders/hints about how differently teachers and students, adults and children, approach being "coached". It is an invaluable reminder to treat each situation/person uniquely.

John Middleton's picture

I'd love the chance to support my colleagues in a non-evaluative context. I'd prefer to do it at a school where I've never taught.

Tracey Alderman's picture

I can't believe I just found this! I'm debating this weekend whether to take a job as a literacy coach at a school in my district. I have never taught there and have heard a lot of mixed stuff about this school. Your post gives me much to think about but my biggest question is this: You say that coaching can work "when conditions are right." Could you please say more about this? What "conditions" would you look for or think about before taking a job somewhere as a coach? I really don't know what to do and am hoping you can help me! Thank you very much,
Tracey Alderman

Bernie McInerney's picture

This is a very good article on coaching in teaching. A colleague and I were interested in career coaching. Do you have any insights or references in this regard? Thanks

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

Tracey: What a great question! I think this will be my next post. Due out later this week or early next week. Thanks for the questions!

Manuel: Share your questions, if you'd like. And yes, I just about always miss the kids, even though I love what I do.

Sara Gray's picture
Sara Gray
Marketing & Product Development Manager at the National Equity Project

For those of you interested in learning more about educational coaching, please consider attending our upcoming Coaching for Equity Institute in Oakland, CA.

The Coaching for Equity Institute is a three-day, non-residential institute for new or experienced professional coaches, school principals, district administrators, nonprofit leaders and managers.

Participants will examine their coaching and facilitation styles with a focus on educational equity while practicing specific coaching skills with each other.

Participants gain:
* Tools and research to plan, implement, assess, and continuously improve coaching practices and programs
* Skills for leading change in challenging contexts, including social-emotional intelligence and building trust and relationships
* Practice in effective individual and group facilitation and intervention techniques, particularly around 'nondiscussables' or otherwise difficult discussions about inequity
* Insights into biases in institutional policies and practices

Recent Participants Include
* School, district, and university teams working on equity or achievement gap initiatives
* District leaders beginning to implement a coaching program
* Educational management organization staff
* Professional education and leadership coaches and consultants

If you have any questions about the Institute, please feel free to contact me at

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

I highly, highly recommend the National Equity Project's Institutes! Coaching for Equity is a fantastic training. If you're in the area, or could combine the institute with a summer vacation - don't hesitate!

Roger Dreger's picture

As a former Math Coach for 3 years at an elementary school, I can say this article was spot-on.

BTW, I don't think you can stress Point #2 enough!!!

Pete's picture

The points are all excellent, but I feel you missed an important element. As a coach, you are dealing one on one. You must find and work with the individual motivation of the teacher being coached. I work with as many as 5 new teachers per semester, and find this may be very different for each. When you are gone, what you impart must be internalized or it will not be retained. From my point of view as a college supervisor for student interns, some co-op teachers have it and some don't. When they don't, my job is harder, and student teachers often ask if they should be considering a different profession. Remember, you are helping them find their own style, not molding a copy of you.

Liz Droessler's picture
Liz Droessler
Sr. Administrator-Arts Ed

Peter - thank you for sharing resources. I'm working on my Ed.D. in Higher Ed. Adult Learning with a focus on creating professional development that supports Literacy Integration in the Middle School Arts Classrooms. Classroom Walk Throughs will be a part on the on-going support in our design. I appreciate the additional references!

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