Three Ways to Define the Role of an Instructional Coach

Written by Diane Sweeney, author of The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching, Leading Student-Centered Coaching, and Moves for Launching a New Year of Student-Centered Coaching

One of the most important things we can do to set coaches up for success is to clearly define their role. If we leave it up to teachers to make assumptions or lean on past experiences rather than on the current vision, coaching may be viewed as an evaluative process or seen as a tool for accountability. Shifting to a student-centered approach means that we have to debunk misconceptions and paint a clear picture of the purpose and process for coaching. While there are many ways to build a clear vision around the coaching role, here are a few steps that we recommend taking as a school or district.

#1: Define the Relationship Between the Principal and Coach Roles 
Michael Fullan (2009) teaches us that whole system change requires a combination of pressure and support. Making the most out of a coaching effort means that the principal sets a clear vision and high expectations for teaching and learning (pressure), and the coach serves as a thinking partner who helps teachers meet those expectations and reach their goals for student learning (support). 

It can be helpful to use a Venn diagram to get clear on what this might look like. As you review the example below, you’ll notice the distinct responsibilities of the principal and coach. These include the principal taking on the role of evaluator so the coach can partner with teachers through coaching cycles and professional learning. The overlap is also interesting to note since these are the areas where a principal and coach partnership can be formed. These might include actions such as; working together to design and implement professional learning, analyzing student data, and planning how to best leverage coaching.

Respectful and open dialogue between the principal and coach is essential if we hope to establish and maintain a well defined coaching role. Sometimes this brings up the question of confidentiality. Our belief is that when coaching is student-centered, confidentiality can become a barrier because it limits our ability to build collective efficacy and may give the impression that there’s something to hide or that the teacher needs to be fixed. Other coaching models that are teacher-centered (or are geared toward targeting struggling teachers), may assert that confidentiality is important because teachers may be vulnerable and exposed when working with a coach. Discerning the differences between coaching models is an important step for understanding whether confidentiality is necessary (or helpful).

#2: Articulate What Coaching Is and Isn’t
Previous experiences and beliefs about coaching can be hard to shed. Because of this, it’s important to consistently communicate what coaching is and isn’t throughout the school community. This is especially critical when shifting from a teacher-centered coaching model to a student-centered approach. It can be helpful to use the following figure or video to build clarity around both the purpose and practices for coaching. Keep in mind that crafting a clear vision will require more than one conversation. Reflecting on what a school or system envisions coaching is and isn’t can be a touch point throughout the school year.

#3: Watch out for Walk Throughs 
Framing coaching as support, rather than pressure, means we must avoid putting coaches in the position of taking on the role of monitoring instructional practice through walk throughs. If coaches are asked to get into classrooms to assess how things are going, teachers will wonder if what they are seeing is being shared with the school leader. Nothing will erode trust faster than this practice. 

Rather than sending coaches on a scouting mission, we recommend collaboratively developing a set of instructional look fors that clearly describe the teaching practices that align with the school vision. Imagine a school that is focusing on teacher and student clarity within their school improvement processes. Developing look fors means that the principal, coach, and teachers would come together to define the practices that would be used across classrooms as evidence of the clarity work. Examples would be; 1) the use of student friendly learning intentions and success criteria, 2) students actively self assessing using the success criteria, 3) student discourse around how they are growing as learners, and 4) students engaging and open ended learning tasks. The look fors would then be used by the principal when spending time in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers. They would also be used by coaches to embed the practices into their day-to-day coaching conversations about student learning. This is the cornerstone of defining a coaching role because it allows the coach to stay in their lane while supporting the broader vision around school improvement. 

In Closing
Getting the most out of a coaching effort means everyone in the school community understands both the purpose and practices for coaching.  One of our favorite questions to ask school leaders is, “If we walked through your school and asked teachers how they would describe the role of the coach, what would they say?” 

Would we hear:

  • A coach is a partner
  • A coach helps me reach my goals for student learning
  • A coach supports me to develop as a practitioner

Or would we 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 coaches and assume that everyone understands why they are there. Now is the time to assess how clear you have been when it comes to defining the role of the coach, and how to figure out how you can get even clearer.

Fullan, M. (2009). Motion Leadership: The skinny on becoming change savvy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 
Sweeney, D. and Mausbach, A. (2018) Leading Student-Centered Coaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.