What is an Instructional Coach?

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young woman writing on a dry-erase board speaking to a group of adults.

The practice of using instructional coaches is a relatively recent practice, but it is one that is becoming widely used across the nation. As it is increasing in popularity, school leaders and teachers want to know how they can use instructional coaching to positively impact teaching and learning. So, what is an instructional coach and how does instructional coaching work and impact teaching?

What is an Instructional Coach?

Although instructional coaching is common in school districts, the role of an instructional coach can vary from place to place. In some districts, coaches are found in every school. In other districts, they are shared between schools and serve many different teachers. While the role of an instructional coach may vary, the definition is relatively similar across the board.

Instructional coaches are educational leaders that train teachers and provide resources, feedback, modeling, and professional development to help schools meet instructional goals and school improvement goals. They should have a significant amount of teaching experience and knowledge. Coaching is an avenue that can provide teachers with the support they need by embedding professional development into the coaching process. In essence, instructional coaching is just what it sounds like, coaching teachers in the area of teaching.

How does Instructional Coaching Work?

There are several different methods of instructional coaching. Like teaching, coaches have to differentiate for the various needs of their teachers, just as teachers differentiate for their students. There is no set approach to coaching, however, many districts find it beneficial to use a structured coaching cycle.

This cycle typically consists of setting goals, planning, conducting observations, and reflection. The steps of this cycle are shared by the instructional coach and the teacher and are usually focused on an area of weakness that needs to be strengthened. EL Education describes instructional coaching as an ongoing cycle of setting goals, learning, observation, data collection, and reflection. The following may occur during each individual part of the cycle.

  • Goal Setting: In the goal setting stage of the coaching cycle, the teacher and instructional coach work together to create focused goals that are related to teacher practice and student need.
  • Learning: During the learning stage of the cycle, the coach works with the teacher to create quality plans, to provide the teacher with resources, to model lessons, and to co-teach.
  • Observation: The observation portion of the cycle involves the instructional coach observing the instruction of the teacher and taking notes in order to provide the teacher with adequate feedback.
  • Data Collection/Reflection: After observing the teacher, the coach should meet with the teacher to review any relevant data such as changes in common assessment scores after the learning/instructional portion of the cycle. The coach should also provide the teacher with feedback from observations and provide suggestions based on notes taken during the observation.

The cycle of instructional coaching can look different depending on the individual needs of teachers. It also repeats itself as teachers discover new needs during the reflection portion of the cycle.

How Effective is Instructional Coaching?

To date, the area of coaching in education hasn’t been widely studied. Before implementing instructional coaching, districts want to know how coaching can impact teachers, principals and students.

In 2004, a study on coaching was conducted by the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform. This study reports many findings that validate the need for coaching in schools. The report reveals that coaching encourages collaboration and reflection. Additionally, the study found that coaching expands teacher capacity by embedding professional learning and promoting positive cultural change. The Annenberg report also found that instructional coaching programs that used data to drive the coaching process helped create a better understanding of using data within a school, allowing teachers to learn how to focus on strategic areas of need made evident by data.

Utilizing instructional coaches means personalizing professional development for teachers. Coaches can use the cycle above or similar cycles to meet individual teacher needs, ultimately resulting in positive impacts on student learning. Evaluations of instructional coaching programs show that coaching can result in meaningful changes in teaching practices in all areas, resulting in positive effects on student achievement.

Professional development is an important part of school improvement. School leaders use data to decide what professional development is needed in order to improve teaching and increase student learning. Sadly, funding and time are often not available to provide teachers with the professional development they need. In those cases, instructional coaching can be a way to meet the professional needs of teachers without planning extensive professional development training sessions.

graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?

We can help you find a graduate program.

Our accessible staff is dedicated to providing a smooth and supportive admissions process for busy teachers.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing emails, and newsletters from us. See privacy policy.