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3 Misconceptions About Instructional Coaching

The Great Resignation may be the most impactful crisis that public education is facing right now – that’s saying a lot. The reality is that educators are overwhelmed with the responsibilities that are required to keep up with the continuously shifting context of education, yet they ALL still need continued support to be able to address the challenges of unfinished learning and opportunity gaps. 

These challenges have left education leaders stuck between a rock and a hard place in determining how to balance professional learning with lightening the load on teachers. At the moment, some districts are considering backing off of professional learning altogether because it’s often perceived and implemented as something “extra” for teachers, during a time when they really don’t need more stress or burden. 

However, tweaking just a few things in a district’s coaching model can wholly transform “burdensome” coaching into strategic, just-right support. We’ve seen that the districts that have prioritized strategic support throughout the pandemic have reported significantly better retention statistics. The way forward, therefore, is to redesign “instructional coaching” to become individualized, “smart” support.

Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.

Dr. Atul Gawande

The best way to create clarity about “coaching done well” is to start with the misconceptions. Let’s dive in!

Misconception #1: Instructional coaching requires an observation-feedback cycle.

Most instructional coaching cycles depend on observation. However, using observation as the basis of coaching is problematic at best, always time-consuming, and ultimately unnecessary. 

First, it causes undue stress for teachers who really need to feel respect, support, and appreciation. Logistically speaking, it’s a challenge to schedule an observation at a time when the coach will see the facet or strategy that the teacher needs or wants to improve upon and aligns with the coach’s schedule. 

Then, once scheduled, an observation only captures a single, highly variable point in time, subject to such factors as the students in attendance, the time of day, unintended interruptions, technology working, and many other factors. Schooling is unpredictable, and being able to accurately predict, schedule, and observe a digestible slice of instruction is tricky at best. It also takes so much time to conduct observations that most instructional coaches do not have the capacity to adequately coach everyone. 

Finally, this relic from a compliance evaluation system is too often a distraction, interruption, or an inauthentic view into the classroom. Observation appears to be neither efficient nor scalable, and it perpetuates a culture of top-down compliance that is driving teachers from the profession.

What if there were a more modern and efficient way to coach that honors the teacher as a professional?

TRUTH

In analyzing the tens of thousands of data points from seven years of coaching 7,000+ educators, we have determined that the observation/feedback loop is not even the most impactful of the types of coaching touches. In actuality, the data points to the fact that employing an evidence-based coaching conversation as the basis of coaching done well is the most effective and efficient lever in a coaching cycle. 

DARE

Eliminate the observations and utilize evidence-based coaching conversations instead.

Schedule seven coaching conversations throughout the school year based on a teacher’s goals and ask the teacher to bring evidence of growth to each session. A coaching model centered around evidence-based conversations is scalable, efficient, and logistically simple. Rather than being “observed,” the teacher is responsible for bringing evidence of practice and implementation to the coaching conversation, shifting the ownership of the growth process to the teacher. As a result of this coaching model, we have seen a huge impact on teacher growth, culture shifts, and double-digit gains in student achievement.

3 Misconceptions About Instructional Coaching

Misconception #2: Coaching is simply putting out fires.

Many educators describe coaching as responding to the immediate challenges of teachers and principals, helping them problem-solve or put out fires. There’s no doubt that having a responsive thought partner is absolutely crucial to the success of educators. However, responsiveness should not be confused with coaching done well. 

The misconception is that coaching should only be initiated by a specific need in the moment, creating an unsustainable system of addressing issues in isolation, rarely with any documentation. Therefore, guidance and growth is limited to those who reach out for assistance or already have a relationship with the person who is “coaching” — in other words, they are random instead of systematic.

TRUTH

Rather than jumping in with solutions only when things are going wrong, coaching done well is comprehensive, sustainable, and leads to long-term results for educators and students. On the other hand, simply putting out fires lacks long-term goal setting, impacts only a small percentage of people and isolated situations, is neither systematic nor scalable, and does not provide a way to collect and analyze growth data. 

As recently as two years ago when COVID swept across the nation, most coaching organizations or districts still did not have a platform dedicated to scheduling and collecting data from coaching. Instructional coaching without a growth data tracking system negates the power and the possibility of using patterns to ensure effective coaching, recognize growth in educators, formatively assess progress and make adjustments to practice over time, and collect data to iterate processes for improvement. 

At e2L, we have been collecting coaching data for seven years. Utilizing eSuite, our coaching platform, to document and measure educator growth on a set of competencies aligned to each partner’s success criteria and to provide a dashboard that ties that educator growth to student data has been important to us since day one. We like to say that if we don’t have data on it, it didn’t happen. 

DARE

Quit following “programs” and utilize data from competency-based instructional coaching to provide “smart” options to teachers that are personalized, efficient, and effective.

To get beyond reactive “coaching” or providing ineffective, inconsistent professional development, it is important to develop and determine competencies that can be long-lasting and sustainable. Most districts have an evaluation system or teacher and leader profiles that contain competencies that can become the basis of proactive goal-setting and evidence-based coaching. Then, ask all vendors to align their programs and services to those competencies. 

Coaching is only effective at scale, over time, and when it is proactively focused on a predetermined set of standards for educator growth that contain incrementally leveled behaviors to apply in practice. Coaching based on competencies (like small group instruction, formative feedback, and differentiation/scaffolding) also allows for collecting data over time so that teachers receive exactly the right support on exactly the right competencies at exactly the right time. 

3 Misconceptions About Instructional Coaching

Misconception #3: Coaching is only for a select group.

One of the most detrimental misconceptions about instructional coaching is that it only applies to a specific subset of the organization. For example, in some models coaching is only for those who volunteer. While launching coaching with volunteers can be a good way to get it going, continuing to provide coaching only for those who ”sign up” sends a signal to the organization that it is optional instead of essential to professional growth. 

An even more damaging philosophy is the view that coaching is reserved for those who are struggling. While it is undeniable that teachers who find themselves struggling need coaching, every single member of your teaching and school staff benefits from personalized, ongoing professional development. It is an investment in your talent and, ultimately, in your students.

TRUTH

The context for education changes rapidly; even educators at the “top of their game” need strategic support to keep up right now. Organizations that make coaching optional exacerbate the fixed-mindset perspective by only prioritizing coaching for those who are “below standard” instead of for everyone. 

In fact, teachers are not the only ones who need coaching in an educational organization. When coaching is only provided for teachers, the organization sends the message that only teachers can improve their practice. If we want to ensure everyone is engaged and growing, administrators, supervisors, central office, and even operational employees would benefit from coaching.

DARE

Create a culture of coaching across the organization for all staff, including administration, new teachers, veteran teachers, and even the coaches themselves. 

The ongoing support has been highly valued by teachers and leaders over the last few years especially, but providing that support for everyone in the organization is the one thing that can increase retention, enhance performance and job satisfaction, and even provide emotional support during these stressful times.

If we want equity for learners, isn’t it important that we provide equitable support for educators and school staff? 

To authentically shift the perception of coaching away from a compliance, “gotcha” model to one that prioritizes personalized investment in all public education professionals requires coaching for every person at every level of the system.  

3 Misconceptions About Instructional Coaching

At engage2learn, we are excited about the potential of coaching done well to make our neighborhood public schools the first choice for every family and hope that you will join us in this journey! Implementing an exceptional, agile, and cutting-edge coaching system results in an engaging, future-proof learning experience for our youth and an educational ecosystem built on collective efficacy where professionals grow and enhance their practice over time so that everyone thrives.


If you are interested in learning more about how to redesign coaching, email me at shannon@engage2learn.org. If you are ready to coach at scale, start your partnership with engage2learn today!