3 Steps for Defining the Role of the Instructional Coach

Whether you are beginning a coaching effort, or continuing to build on what’s been started, an important step is to clearly define the coaching role. Through our work in K-12 schools, we’ve learned that if we are intentional about defining the coach’s role, then teachers will not only understand why coaching matters, but they will also understand how it promotes their students’ achievement. The following steps are essential to providing clarity on the role of coaches.

#1: Understand How the Role of the Principal and Coach Overlap

We use a Venn diagram to frame this conversation because it is a familiar process that helps us define what duties are unique to the principal and coach, and what will be shared. As you review the Venn diagram below, you’ll notice that there are differences because the principal is the supervisor (and evaluator) of teachers and the coach is there to provide support to teachers. We also like to draw attention to not only what lives on each side of the Venn diagram, but to the middle as well. Here you’ll find opportunity for robust principal and coach partnerships. For example, when principals and coaches meet on a regular basis, they can support one another to enact their respective roles.

#2: Beware of the Quasi-Administrator

A common misstep is asking coaches to take on administrative duties. When coaches enter the arena of supervision; such as by being the point person for teachers to turn in minutes from PLCs, managing crises around student behavior, or engaging in supervisory walk throughs, then they are serving as a quasi-administrator. If these behaviors aren’t nipped in the bud quickly, then it will not only erode the principal’s authority, but it will erode the coaching program as well.

What matters most is ensuring that the coach is solidly defined as a partner, rather than supervisor, to teachers. One of the most profound ways to achieve this is for coaches to spend most of their time in coaching cycles. When this is the case, coaches will be too busy co-planning and co-teaching to take on administrative duties.

#3: Watch out for Walk-throughs

Establishing a clear separation of coaching and supervision means we must avoid asking coaches to take on the role of monitoring instructional practice. When a coach is dispatched to classrooms to assess how things are going, teachers will wonder why the coach is there and if what they are seeing is being shared with the school leader. Nothing will erode trust faster than this practice.

Rather than sending the coach on a spying mission, we recommend that principals and coaches develop a set of “look for(s)” that clearly describe the instructional practices that align with the curriculum or content area. For example, “What practices do we hope to see in our world language classrooms?”, or “What does effective small group reading instruction look like?” The “look for(s)” then become the criteria a principal can use when spending time in classrooms. They also become a tool for the principal to provide feedback to teachers after an observation. In this way, we protect coaches from taking on administrative duties and provide a clear vision for instruction.

In Closing

Getting the most out of a coaching effort means everyone in the school community understands what coaching is, and what it isn’t. One of my favorite questions to ask school leaders is, “If I walked through your school and asked teachers how they would describe the role of the coach, what would they say?”

Would I hear:

  • A coach is a partner
  • A coach helps me reach my goals for student learning
  • A coach supports me to teach to the standards

Or would I hear:

  • I have no idea what a coach does
  • A coach is there to tell me how to teach
  • A coach comes into my class to see how I’m doing and then leaves

These responses remind us that it’s simply not enough to hire a coach and assume that everyone understands why they are there. While it might feel like a tall order, the good news is these conversations don’t all have to take place on the first day of school, but rather, are most powerful when they take place on an ongoing basis. So tomorrow when you get to school, pull aside your coach or principal and check in. How clear are you when it comes to the role of the coach, and how can you get even clearer?

Written by

Diane Sweeney has been a national consultant since 1999. After teaching and coaching in the Denver Public Schools, Diane served as a program officer at the Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC) in Denver. She has become a respected voice in the field of coaching and professional development. Diane is the author of Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and PrincipalsStudent-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Leveland Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves.

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