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Getting the Most from Instructional Coaches

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Making the Most of Instructional Coaches” by Britnie Delinger Kane and Brooks Rosenquist in Phi Delta Kappan, April 2018 (Vol. 99, #7, p. 21-25),; Kane can be reached at
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Britnie Delinger Kane (The Citadel) and Brooks Rosenquist (Vanderbilt University) say that instructional coaching would seem to be “a near-holy grail for teachers’ professional learning.” Why? Because it embodies three key characteristics of effective PD: It’s ongoing (compared to one-shot workshops); it takes place in teachers’ daily workplace; and coaches have content-specific expertise that is of great value to teachers.
But the evidence on coaching’s impact on teaching and learning is mixed. One reason is that many instructional coaches spend only a quarter of their time working directly with teachers on instruction; the rest is spent on activities like locating curriculum materials, tutoring students, substitute teaching, collating test data, making copies, and organizing students’ log-in information for software programs.
Kane and Rosenquist report on an eight-year study that provides insights on various ways of organizing instructional coaching. Researchers noticed important differences between coaches hired by schools and coaches hired and deployed by the central office:
• School-hired coaches worked full time in their school and had the advantage of knowing the school’s personnel, students, and culture (many had been teachers in their school prior to becoming coaches). But school-hired coaches often had additional duties: teaching full classes, tutoring, substitute teaching, acting as department heads or Title I coordinators, organizing assessments and curriculum materials, proctoring interim assessments, identifying students for interventions, and teaching courses created in response to low test scores. All this took 60 percent of coaches’ time.
“Unfortunately,” say Kane and Rosenquist, “none of these activities helps teachers improve their instructional practice, which means that school-hired coaches did not necessarily get to make the best use of the strong relationships they built with teachers.” Although all the principals interviewed appreciated the coaches for their instructional expertise, they were under pressure to raise test scores and chose to allocate coaches’ time to short-term activities related to test preparation and administration (as well as other immediate needs), versus the long-term goal of improving teachers’ instructional effectiveness.
• Central-office hired coaches generally spread their time among several sites, with one day a week in each school and then Fridays attending meetings in the office. The obvious disadvantage of this arrangement is that coaches aren’t in any one school enough to build trusting relationships with teachers, especially veteran teachers whose doors are “open, but just a crack.” Principals seem to have regarded district-hired coaches as marginal to the school’s improvement goals, often having them work with new or struggling teachers. While those teachers’ needs were real, research suggests that a better use of coaches’ time would be working with veteran as well as novice teachers. The researchers found that these coaches spent as much as 92 percent of their time on co-teaching, modeling, observing, giving feedback, and orchestrating collaborative teamwork. That was because their district bosses viewed these as the core of their jobs and made sure they allocated their time accordingly.
Kane and Rosenquist believe there’s a way to have the best of both worlds, and they were fortunate enough to observe such a model in the course of their study. The solution, they suggest, is hiring and directing instructional coaches centrally but having each one spend full time in one school. “Because the coaches were accountable to district leaders,” the authors explain, “ – who were shielded to some extent from the accountability pressures that principals faced, giving them more freedom to invest in long-term instructional improvement – district-hired coaches were less likely to be assigned to non-coaching duties meant to help boost test scores. And because they now spent their time in a single building, they were able to develop stronger relationships with teachers and staff.” Principals were also required to apply for an instructional coach and agree to set aside specific times when coaches and teachers would work together. During the year studied, coaches using this model spent 66 percent of their time working closely with teachers and principals – significantly more than the 40 percent spent by school-hired coaches.

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