Who Goes First? Where to Begin with Coaching Cycles

As instructional coaches get their year started, many wonder which teachers should be first in line for coaching cycles. On the surface, this seems like a relatively easy question to answer. We’ve heard everything from, “We start with our new teachers.” To, “Teachers participate on an invitational basis.” And even, “Our coaches focus on teachers who are on an improvement plan.” Each one of these answers indicates a different set of beliefs and purposes around coaching, which in turn directly impacts how coaching will be perceived by teachers. For this reason, it is a question that has the potential to influence the implementation of coaching throughout a school or district.

Quadrants for Assessing Readiness
The following figure includes four quadrants that capture two aspects of teacher readiness for coaching cycles. The X axis is level of experience, or how long the teacher has been in the profession. The Y axis is how engaged and collaborative the teacher is. For example, does the teacher belong to a strong team that collaborates effectively? Is the teacher willing to ask for help from others? Or, is the teacher isolated because there aren’t other teachers in the same course area or grade level?

Experience Collaborative Quadrant

If I asked you to choose which of the quadrants you would focus on in your first few coaching cycles, which one would you choose? Would it be less experienced and more collaborative? Would it be more experienced and highly collaborative teachers? Or would you select a different group to start with?

How Our Decisions Influence Teachers’ Perceptions about Coaching
This is in fact a trick question because if we hope to build a culture for coaching, then all teachers have to see themselves as coachable. If we only coach new teachers, for example, then the more experienced may think that coaching doesn’t apply to them. If we focus on teachers who are on a plan for improvement, other teachers won’t want to be involved for fear of looking like they are on a short list of struggling teachers. And if we only focus on the superheroes, then our less collaborative teachers may think, “I can sit back and let those other teachers work with a coach.” None of these approaches lead to a culture of coaching. Instead, they create a culture where coaching exists in pockets of teachers rather than throughout the school community. 

What Do We Recommend?
To reach the goal of helping all teachers see themselves as a part of the coaching effort, then let’s work to engage all four quadrants as the school year begins. Perhaps this means that a coach’s first round of coaching cycles includes one teacher in each quadrant. Or if the school isn’t quite there yet, a coach may intentionally work to build relationships and work informally across the quadrants for the first month or so in the school year. Our blog post, Getting to 60% dives into strategies for building a schedule for coaching cycles.

In taking this approach, we must keep in mind the importance of providing choice and ownership to teachers. This means we can’t just tell them when they will participate in a coaching cycle. Instead, we actively engage them by sharing the benefits (or the ‘why’) for coaching and provide a variety of options for how they can get involved. This might include: full coaching cycles, mini coaching cycles, co-planning lessons, or co-planning units. Teachers can also be provided with choice regarding who they would like to include in their coaching cycle and when they would like to participate. Just like our students, adult learners need choice. 

In Closing
It never feels like we have enough coaches, and when a resource feels scarce it can be easy to forget that coaching is an in-depth process rather than a quick fix. If we target sub populations of teachers with coaching, we will undermine the precious resource that we do have. And if we just wait for the superheroes to participate, we may fail to engage a broad population of teachers. Let’s make this precious resource go further by taking intentional steps to build a culture for coaching throughout our whole school.