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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

The instructional coaching role continuum

Instructional coaches serve a vital role in schools today. Serving as the depositories of knowledge, in both content and instructional techniques, they play a key part in aligning the focus and execution of teaching across a building. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, however. How they interact with teachers should be as varied as the the teachers they serve.


Being able to truly coach a teacher is the ideal set up for both instructional coaches and teachers. In this scenario, these Tier 1 (low needs, high performance) teachers are already self-sustaining. They plan, they teach the curriculum, they reflect, and they grow all on their own. Sometimes these teachers can be seen as so proficient that they almost scare off their instructional coaches, who think, "What could I possibly offer this teacher? She should doing my job!"

With these teachers, coaches can leverage all of their facilitative powers to serve as think partners. Rather than being directive, coming in to fix something, coaches work with these teachers on what the teacher wants to do. The teacher is driving and the coach is in the passenger seat, along for the ride and contributing to its beauty through commentary and collaboration. No matter how good a teacher is, she can always improve. These teachers would benefit from deep study of complex instructional techniques or an examination of larger educational issues, such as culturally-responsive teaching or the benefits of various student engagement techniques.


These Tier 2 teachers (medium needs, medium performance), which make up the bulk of educators in classrooms today, would benefit from a balanced approach to coaching. While they have some strong points, they also have some obvious areas of improvement that warrant immediate attention. These teachers might have great classroom management but struggle to lesson plan, or they might use the curriculum beautifully but their execution is poor. The want-to is there, it's just the delivery that is lacking.

In these situations, coaches would do well to serve as collaborators with their teachers. While the teacher is still driving and the coach is still in the driver's seat, it's a student driver car that has a brake pedal for the passenger to use in case of emergency. Coaches are a mix of directive and facilitative with these teachers, guiding and helping to focus attention while looking to release control as soon as possible. These teachers would benefit from modeling and co-teaching, using a gradual release model that decreases coach involvement as proficiency increases.


In certain situations, coaches must put on their consultant badges and come into the classroom as the content and instructional expert. Oftentimes these Tier 3 teachers (high needs, low performance) struggle in a variety of areas that have made instruction come to a virtual standstill. The causes for these problems are many and usually include a mix of low teaching skill, low content knowledge, and/or low openness to feedback. While the situation might be bleak, nothing (and no one) is beyond recovery.

Instructional coaches working in these classrooms are directive, taking charge and working to both stop the (educational) bleeding and start the long process of self-sustainability. The coach is driving while the teacher is in the passenger seat, learning from a strong teaching example. These teachers are often the most difficult to work with because they've typically already tried and failed so many times that they can't see themselves improving.

For these teachers, coaches must be both an expert and filled with empathy. At one time or another, these teachers wanted to do well. They entered the profession wanting to make a difference but lost that belief in their ability to succeed through a series of unfortunate events. While trying to increase productivity and high-quality instruction for the students in the classroom, coaches are also building emotional bridges. They break down their instructional moves into bite-sized, manageable chunks and hold the teacher accountable for their execution. Slowly but surely, with some missteps and a strong relationship, coaches can help these teachers recover both their will and skill to teach.

Coaches, if you feel as if you're getting nowhere with your teacher, step back and examine your coaching role. Does it match the needs of the environment? Sometimes success is just a step or two away on the coaching role continuum.

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