3 Moves for Leading a Coaching Effort

Coaching is the ultimate form of personalized professional learning. There is no better way to help teachers refine their craft then to work with a coach. And better yet, what if coaching helps the students grow too? That’s what student-centered coaching is about, increasing student achievement and developing teacher capacity…all at the same time.

I recently spent time with a skilled group of literacy coaches in a medium-sized school district. I was impressed by their skill and commitment to implementing student-centered coaching. Yet a handful of coaches were struggling to get a foothold in their schools. They felt adrift and unsure about how to get traction.

After some honest discussion, I learned that the coaches who were struggling had something in common; they didn’t have a strong partnership with their school leader. There were a variety of reasons for this. One of the schools had four principals over the last six years. Another school was on corrective action and seemed to be in panic mode most of the time. A third school was high performing and the teachers didn’t see why they even needed a coach. Their students were doing just fine.

While each of these scenarios was quite different, the common thread was that the principal and coach hadn’t figured out how to work together. As a result, a few of the coaches were at risk of burning out, and one even cried during our meeting. I knew I had to help them learn to partner more productively, so I suggested the following moves for leading coaching.

Move #1 – Set Expectations for Participation in a Constructive and Affirmational Way

Participation in coaching is often viewed through a binary lens. It is either invitational, or it’s mandated. When coaching is invitational, the fear is that only a small group of teachers (who are probably reflective practitioners already) will engage in the coaching effort. It is fair to wonder how this approach will move a whole school forward when only pockets of teachers are participating.

When coaching is mandated, the concern is that participation will be more about compliance than authentic engagement. Teachers may show up because they have to, but nothing may come of the time that was spent. This may lead to an effort that is futile (and everyone knows it).

An alternative is to think about coaching as being ‘inclusive’. Since student-centered coaching is about working towards goals for student learning, the message becomes ‘Coaching is for everyone, because we all have students with needs’. Principals who view coaching in this way are able to set expectations that all teachers engage with authenticity and purpose.

Move #2 – Meet with the Coach on a Weekly Basis

Setting a meeting time is only the beginning. What comes next are conversations that dig into the complexities of teaching and learning. There are some simple ways for a principal and coach to make the most out of their weekly meetings. These include:

Plan how you will celebrate what is happening with coaching

Start every meeting by hearing a celebration from the coach. How are the students progressing? How are the teachers developing in their instructional practice? What are some new openings that the coach is getting with teachers? When a school leader knows these things, it is much easier to encourage the coaching effort by affirming the good work that teachers are doing.

Use data to anchor the conversation

While your school may have formal data such as MAPS, DIBELS, or ACT data, this typically becomes available about three times a year. The rest of the year we recommend using data such as:

  • Teacher surveys or other feedback
  • Formative assessment data
  • Data from the Results-Based Coaching Tool (for more information read, Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves by Sweeney and Harris)

Problem-solve challenges that the coach is having

The focus during these conversations takes a positive stance and avoids asking the coach to break trust by reporting out behind teachers’ backs. But even so, there are times when a coach needs help problem-solving teacher engagement, ideas for working with teams, or planning upcoming PD sessions. Having an open minded, problem-solving stance will help the coach feel supported while also respecting teachers. To do so, the principal and coach think openly, put ideas on the table, and share both of their perspectives. These conversations are formative and lead to quality ideas about how to approach these types of challenges.

Move #3 – Separate Coaching from Supervision

When we muddy the waters between coaching and supervision, we undermine both the coaching effort and the school culture. We must avoid asking coaches to ‘make teachers do things’ because it is not their role to supervise teachers. This can be tempting because principals may be at their wits end when it comes to certain teachers who are reluctant to join the school vision. But in fact, this is a blind alley that doesn’t lead anywhere. If a principal hasn’t been successful moving these teachers along, then how can they expect the coach to do so? The following comparison of supervision and coaching frames the differences between the role of the school leader and the role of the coach.

School leader sets the school vision.Teachers set student-centered goals for coaching (in relation to the school vision).
School leader sets expectations around instructional practice.Coach is a peer and cannot make teachers do certain things.
School leader evaluates teachers.Coach documents the work the work they are doing with teachers to help students meet identified goals.
School leader holds power over teachers’ jobs.Coach does not hold power over teachers’ jobs.
School leader intervenes when there are concerns about teaching and learning.Coach provides support to all teachers.



This fall the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. While each player plays a different role and receives their own personalized coaching, they work together with a resolute focus on the same thing: reaching their team goal. In schools, it’s no different. A principal and coach may have different roles, but they are on the same team. When they come together, they are more likely to reach their goal. When they come together, both the students and teachers benefit.


Diane is the author of Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals, Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level, and Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves.

4 thoughts on “3 Moves for Leading a Coaching Effort”

  1. Hi Jessica,
    I’m so glad this was helpful. You pose some really great questions here. When it comes to engaging teachers, I think that we have to be sure to let them have choice and ownership in the process. This is so important for adult learners. That said, your principal will probably have to continuously encourage teachers to engage, and using the expectation of participation in professional development is something the s/he can do. This is a great way to set a tone that this is expected. That said, it’s okay to take it slow and let the momentum build. If you don’t do cycles with everyone, that’s okay as long as they are participating in other forms of PD. Sometimes it’s a good idea to track participation across all forms of PD so that you and your principal can make sure teachers are engaging in something!

  2. Hey there! I see that you are coming to Gwinnett County this summer. I have requested to get a seat to hear you speak in July. I hope I get it! I think I am an amazing teacher, but still want to feel more confident as a Coach.

  3. I really needed these words! My principal and I are going to be making some decisions soon about my coaching role and how to utilize my time better next year. This was my first year and we used an “invitation” model for my learning curve and to become acclimated to the school and district. We need to move to a mandated model – but I am concerned that even phrasing it as “inclusive” will still be met by a lot of hostility. Because still in the end it will be required. How do we hold teacher accountable and yet not make it mandated? Should it be an expectation for the evaluation rubric (as part of “participation in professional development)? I think it would take me two years to get through the entire building in coaching cycles. Any thoughts?

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