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Instructional Coaching Is an Ideal Form of PD – Except When It Isn’t

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
Article: “Instructional Coaching as High-Quality Professional Development” by Laura Desimone and Katie Pak in Theory Into Practice, Winter 2017 (Vol. 56, #1, p. 3-12), available for purchase at; Pak can be reached at
In this article in Theory Into Practice, Laura Desimone and Katie Pak (University of Pennsylvania) say that for professional development to truly improve teaching and learning, five elements need to be in place: content focus, active learning, sustained duration, collective participation, and alignment. Desimone and Pak believe that when instructional coaches are in synch with these, they can make a very positive contribution in schools – but that’s not always the case. Here’s their analysis:
• Content focus – At its best, PD improves teachers’ knowledge and understanding of their literacy, math, or other subject matter and how students learn it best. “Coaching allows both coach and teacher to engage deeply in the subject-matter content of the lesson, whether the focus is on developing assignments, classroom pedagogical approaches, student understanding, or diagnostic assessments,” say Desimone and Pak. “Coaches help teachers navigate the tricky world of aligning the design of their lessons and performance tasks with academic standards, while also helping them base their instructional decisions on student diagnostic information.”
What can go wrong? Instructional coaches may spend too much time helping teachers with classroom management, overseeing assessments, collecting data, evaluating teachers, meeting with administrators, and doing administrative paperwork and non-instructional tasks. It’s also a problem when coaches are not highly proficient in their subject area.
• Active learning – PD has the most impact when it gets teachers observing each other, receiving feedback on their own teaching, analyzing their students’ work, and making presentations (versus passively sitting through lectures). “Specifically,” say Desimone and Pak, “recent research suggests that PD is more successful when teachers have more frequent opportunities to practice what they have learned and receive feedback on it. This feedback is most effective when it is explicit and uses multiple sources of data (e.g., observations, samples of student work).” Teacher learning and improvement are most likely to happen with face-to-face give-and-take with the coach based on a classroom visit, a video of the teacher in action, or work that students have produced.
What can go wrong? Coaching is less effective when it is “unidirectional” – for example, focused on the teacher implementing a mandated curriculum with fidelity – or when the teacher is directed to observe a model lesson taught by a highly effective colleague. Conversely, coaches can be too nondirective, simply encouraging a teacher’s ideas without engaging them in actively constructing new knowledge and thinking through their impact on students.
• Sustained duration – PD activities that make a difference extend through an entire school year and involve at least 20 hours of contact time. Instructional coaching usually meets this criterion, with regular classroom visits, one-on-one meetings, grade-level discussions, faculty PD presentations, and analysis of student work.
What can go wrong? If coaches have only occasional contact with a teacher, or if their intervention is provided only once or twice a year, their impact is much less significant.
• Collective participation – PD is most effective when it involves groups of teachers at the same grade, subject, or school in interactive learning communities. Coaches can play an important role facilitating discussions of progress monitoring, effective classroom strategies, student work and data, and curriculum unit and lesson planning. “The presence of the coach in these grade-level meetings,” say Desimone and Pak, “is useful when teachers look for expert opinion in navigating the technical challenges of implementing new instructional approaches or in gaining deeper understanding of ways to reconstruct their practice.” Coaches can also lead study groups, cross-grade sharing, and early-morning “community circles” where teachers form networks, question one another, and collectively engage in discussions of the effectiveness of specific classroom practices.
What can go wrong? Lack of common planning time for teacher teams is the most common roadblock. [Another problem is singleton teachers who don’t have any same-subject colleagues in their building – see Memo 675 for one possible solution.]
• Alignment – “When PD is integrated explicitly into teachers’ daily instructional routines,” say Desimone and Pak, “it is more likely to be effective… rather than leaving it up to the teacher to integrate new ideas and strategies into their teaching.” Instructional coaches are ideally positioned to be thought partners and hand-holders for teachers and teams as they integrate unfamiliar practices with district and school goals and materials. Coaches can also take into account teachers’ values and beliefs and help teachers balance the multiple demands being made on them.
What can go wrong? Coaches’ work is sometimes not in synch with district or school priorities, or coaches may disagree with those priorities or not be skilled in prioritizing what they are asking teachers to do. In these cases, teachers can be whipsawed between listening to their coach and following district mandates – not a formula for teacher sanity or improving teaching and learning.

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