Expect Coaching Cycles

Written by: Diane Sweeney, Leanna Harris, and Julie Steele

Coaching cycles are an essential practice for Student-Centered Coaching. They move us away from drive-by (or one shot) coaching where we help one person, one time, with one thing, and towards deeper coaching practice. When schools or districts are working to implement Student-Centered Coaching, it is critical that they ensure that coaches make a measurable impact on teaching and learning through coaching cycles. This takes clear expectations and deliberate effort.

What Gets In The Way of Coaching Cycles?

According to Killion, Bryan, and Clifton, coaches who take on the broadest array of duties will be in fewer coaching cycles and, thus, will make less of an impact on student and teacher learning. In reality, we are often tempted to assign a laundry list of duties to coaches. Or, sometimes it’s the coaches who seek out busy work because they feel better when they have something to do. This can include things like  organizing assessment data, creating schedules for interventions, managing materials, or focusing on other duties that don’t align with the role of the coach. This is especially common when a school has an undefined coaching model, because nobody’s really sure what the coach should be doing in the first place. 

To counteract this pitfall, we advocate for coaches to spend most of their time in cycles, or approximately 60% of their coaching role. This leaves 40% for informal coaching, supporting classroom management, collaborating with the principal, attending PLCs, etc. We know that getting to a 60/40 ratio doesn’t happen overnight. It is often influenced by factors such as the relationships that are in place, the understanding of teachers regarding the ‘why’ and ‘how’ for coaching, and the tasks that are top of mind for teachers. With so many competing demands on a coach’s time, it’s vital for leaders to guide coaches to focus on what matters…their deep coaching work.

Set Clear Expectations for the Implementation of Coaching Cycles

To ensure that coaching reaches the desired impact, we recommend for district leaders, principals, and coaches to come together to set what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras refer to as a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) for the implementation of coaching cycles. Setting both a vision and clear expectations for coaching cycles creates clarity and allows the district leaders and principals to work with the coach to problem solve barriers that might be getting in the way of deep coaching work. At the same time, we must approach this  process with grace and flexibility. We know that teachers in some schools will jump right into coaching cycles while others may be more hesitant. It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that each school culture is unique, and coaches will need different levels of support to reach the expectation.

Be Clear About What Is and Isn’t a Coaching Cycle

When setting expectations for the implementation of coaching cycles, it’s also important to maintain precision about what we mean when we say ‘coaching cycle’. This is especially true in today’s context where teachers and coaches may have experienced different approaches to coaching. When implementing Student-Centered Coaching, the following characteristics are necessary for the work to be considered a coaching cycle. 

  • Focuses on a goal for student learning that is driven by the standards. The language for the goal begins with, “The students will…”
  • Includes a pre and post assessment to measure student growth.
  • Lasts approximately four to six weeks and is typically tied to a unit of study.
  • Includes at least one weekly planning session to analyze student work and co-plan instruction.
  • Includes one to three times per week for coaching in the classroom.
  • Is measured using the Results-Based Coaching Tool.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

The following considerations are also helpful to keep in mind when it comes to getting clear around expectations for coaching cycles. 

  • Coaches need time to build relationships before kicking off coaching cycles. We outline strategies for this in our book and online course titled, Moves for Launching a New Year of Student-Centered Coaching
  • Both new and returning coaches need to actively partner with the principal to launch coaching at the beginning of each school year. We suggest clear messaging that includes both the ‘why’ and ‘how’ for coaching.
  • Mini coaching cycles can be a great addition to coaching cycles, but it’s important to acknowledge that they don’t make the same level of impact as full coaching cycles. 
  • We recommend setting a target date of no later than October 1st for the first round of coaching cycles to begin. For more on how to schedule coaching cycles using rounds, read this blog titled, Getting to 60%. 
  • Teachers need to be provided with voice and choice for when they engage in cycles, what they focus on, and if other teachers are included. 
  • Getting momentum with coaching cycles requires advocacy by the principal and testimonials from teachers. 

When engaging in cycles, coaches should be expected to collect evidence of impact using the Results-Based Coaching Tool. When this data is gathered, it tells the story of the impact of coaching across a system, much like the data that was collected during this impact study of Student-Centered Coaching.

What If Teachers Don’t See the Value in Coaching Cycles?

When a culture for coaching hasn’t been built or trust is lacking, then teachers may not see the value in coaching cycles. In schools where this is the case, we recommend for the principal and coach to take the following steps:

  • Clearly define the coaching role. Be careful to separate coaching from supervision and evaluation.
  • Work to define your ‘why’ for coaching. This should include a clear vision for how coaching will impact both teacher and student learning.
  • Craft a coherent message about what coaching is and isn’t. Have conversations with teachers to help them understand how coaching will support them to reach their goals for student learning.
  • Celebrate the teachers who choose to participate in coaching. Be sure to start by sharing how it impacted their students’ learning to reinforce the purpose for Student-Centered Coaching.
  • Allow the coach the opportunity to practice a coaching cycle with a willing teacher. 
  • Maintain intentional patience. Sometimes it takes some effort to build trust and get momentum for coaching cycles. 

A Final Thought

The poet Bill Copeland once wrote, “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.” We’ve seen this time and time again…if we fail to set expectations for the implementation of cycles, then coaches get stuck providing informal and less impactful coaching for the whole school year. 

We know that working towards a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)  for coaching cycles takes time. The reality is that in every school, there are a few teachers who are willing to jump in with very little coaxing. We just have to find out who they are and build from there. We should be honest with ourselves that if we don’t nudge coaches toward utilizing coaching cycles, then they may never happen. This will diminish the overall impact of coaching on student and teacher learning. So let’s give them both an ambitious goal for coaching cycles, and also give them support they need to get there. 

Collins, J.  and Jerry Porras (2002). Built to Last. Harper Business, New York, NY.
Killion, J. Bryan, C. & H. Clifton (2020). Coaching Matters, 2nd ed. Learning Forward, Oxford, OH.