As instructional coaches, we fulfill many roles, and only one of them is actually called coaching. During coaching conversations, instructional coaches take on different stances, based on the needs of our coaching partners. These different stances are referred to as the Continuum of Practice for Instructional Coaches, as defined by Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman in their book, Mentoring Matters. This continuum takes us from consulting to collaborating to coaching.
Recognizing that an instructional coaching role provides different tiers of support is often a huge “aha” moment for new coaches. Being able to recognize these three stances and choose them intentionally in coaching conversations is essential to leveling up your coaching practice. This article provides an overview of the different types of approaches, conversational strategies, and questions that you might ask in your coaching conversations. We go deeper into all of this in The Coach Certificate and Mentorship Program.
It’s worth noting that all models of instructional coaching, including The Impact Cycle by Jim Knight and Student-Centered Coaching by Diane Sweeney, use a continuum like this; although the labels used for each stance are slightly different, the concept is the same. This means you can take these three big themes and apply them to your coaching practice, no matter what coaching model you use.
Let’s take a closer look at these 3 stances…
When a teacher needs specific information, advice, or concrete alternatives or ideas to help them move forward, and it’s already clear that they do not have the answer already within them, you may choose to use the consulting stance.
The consulting stance is more directive, with the coach using a very clear and concise response using a credible voice and using the pronoun I. In most cases, the coach will be providing a specific solution or recommendation and operating in a “problem-solver” mindset. A consulting stance may be appropriate when there is time pressure, the teacher is really stretched thin, or if you are hoping to begin a coaching cycle with a teacher who might not be ready yet. All of these are also strategies to build relationships with teachers.
It’s important to remember that “you can’t pull out of someone that doesn’t already exist,” as Lynn Sawyer noted on the #coachbetter podcast with me, referencing her work with Art Costa. In these cases, you might intentionally offer consulting services to your coaching partner because they likely need support in ways that they don’t already have access to themselves, which is likely why they’re coming to you.
You may find the States of Mind from Cognitive Coaching by Costa and Garmston or the Mind the Gap tool by Elena Augilar helpful to navigate these conversations. Elena notes, “If the teacher truly does want to work on the area that you’re working on, then the [Mind the Gap] tool helps us think about why she’s not making that growth. This framework proposes that we can parse into six groups the things interfering with our ability to do something. This helps us get clear on what needs to be learned and offers insight into entry points to start that learning.” Both the States of Mind and Mind the Gap highlight the importance of understanding and addressing the mindset of the coaching partner around the work being discussed in the coaching conversation. Better understanding the mindset of your coaching partner will help you identify which stance you may wish to take during any given conversation.
It’s important to note that many coaches can get stuck in this consultant role. When Joellen Killion talks about the difference between coaching heavy and coaching light, she says, “Coaching light occurs when coaches want to build and maintain relationships more than they want to improve teaching and learning” (Killion, 2008). If we find ourselves stuck in the consulting role, perhaps just providing answers and support without really digging deeper into the teacher’s professional growth, we may find ourselves trapped in “coaching light.”
There are appropriate times to use coaching light. Joellen also says, “Results can build relationships as relationships can build results” (Cofino, 2020). Relationships we build through “coaching light” can lead to results, but it’s just as likely that the results of “coaching heavy” can lead to relationships too. Ensuring that coaches are aware of the amount of time they’re spending in the consulting stance and making a transition to deeper coaching when appropriate is crucial.
As Laura Lipton says, “In any stance, a coach is a growth agent. The coach has one goal to increase capacity and decrease dependence. If you embrace that goal, giving advice falls in the face of that” (Cofino, 2020). Seeing yourself with the focus of supporting the professional growth of your coaching partner may help you make the decision to transition away from consulting into a coaching conversation.
When you are building something together and collaborating equally on a shared project or experience, this is using the collaborator stance. This stance is often very comfortable for coaches because this is usually the way educators collaborate on teams for curriculum planning. Collaboration is a great starting point for deeper conversations and a great buy-in for teams.
Because many coaches feel comfortable in “problem-solving” mode, it’s important to keep in mind that collaboration can slip into consultation very easily. When you are operating in collaboration, make sure that this collaboration is equal sharing between you and the teacher or you and the team. As you work together, consider the level of input that both of you (you, the teacher, and, potentially, the team) have in this process.
Even though the word coach is in our job title, we might assume that we are doing this all the time. However, now that you’ve read the descriptions of consulting and collaborating you already know that we’re not.
Coaching is facilitating deeper, reflective conversations with teachers, where we primarily are asking questions and being a thought partner, mirror, or sounding board for teachers. We can use this stance when our coaching partners have experience to draw from so they can build their own constructive thinking about whatever they’re working on, and you are helping them talk through that process.
The goal when using the coaching stance is to support their thinking process, so your coaching partner can develop the internal resources for self-coaching and independence. This kind of conversation takes time. It goes deep and needs space for reflection. It’s important not to rush these conversations. When you’re having a coaching conversation, use an approachable voice and try to focus on the pronoun you.
It’s important to note that, although this is the area that as coaches we’re often striving for, it’s not always fun for busy teachers who might not be ready for our coaching conversation. For reference, in a #coachbetter podcast episode, classroom teacher Reid Wilson talks about the frustration of just needing a consultant at a time when coach really wanted to play the coach. They didn’t understand the difference between, “I have five minutes for this conversation and my kids are coming down the hallway right now,” and “This is something I really want to grow into as a professional, let’s sit down and really talk about it.” That’s a really good perspective reminder for us as coaches, that what we value in the moment might not be what that teacher is valuing in the moment – it’s important for us to be responsive to them.
Learn to Navigate All Three Stances
As an instructional coach, it’s important to know when and how to use each of these three stances. If you’re curious about how much coaching you’re doing versus consulting, you might also want to consider tracking your time in each of these stances. If you realize you need more clarity around these three stances, how to transition between them, and how to track your time to measure your impact, this is one of the ways we can support you in The Coach Certificate and Mentorship Program! Find out more at https://edurolearning.com/coach/
Augilar, Elena. (2018). Mind the Gap: Identifying Learning Needs. Onward. John Wiley & Sons https://www.onwardthebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Mind-the-Gap.pdf
Costa, Arthur. & Kallick, Bena (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success. ASCD.
Costa, Arthur L. & Garmston, Robert J. (2002). Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools. Christopher-Gordan Publishers.
Cofino, K. (Host). (2018, Oct 30). We’re All on the Same Team: A Teacher’s Perspective with Reid Wilson (9). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-9/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2020a, January 26). What Makes Coaching Work with Joellen Killion (146). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-146/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2022b, February 23). The Continuum of Practice for Instructional Coaches with Laura Lipton (150). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-150/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2020c, April 1). Essential Coaching Conversation Skills with Lynn Sawyer (75). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-75/
Killion, J. (2008). Are You Coaching Heavy or Light? Teachers Teaching Teachers, National Staff Development Council, 3(8), 1-4.
Lipton, Laura & Wellman, Bruce. (2008). Mentoring Matters: A Practical Guide To Learning Focused Relationships. ASCD
Kim Cofino has been an educator in international schools since August 2000. Having lived and worked in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, Kim has had a variety of roles in international schools, including (her favorite) Instructional Coach. Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Kim is the Co-Founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, which offers online customized professional development in a community-driven environment, including COETAIL, Women Who Lead, and The Coach Certificate & Mentorship programs. Kim is co-author of Your Connected Classroom: A Practical Guide for Teachers, as well as co-host of the #coachbetter podcast and YouTube series. Find out more about Kim at edurolearning.com.