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Five Reasons Instructional Coaching in International Schools Is So Complex

By Kim Cofino
Five Reasons Instructional Coaching in International Schools Is So Complex

As discussed in this series many times, instructional coaching is a complex role. It’s an informal leadership position that requires that coaches balance being a peer, while often being perceived as a leader. This is certainly not easy work, and often requires a new set of skills when moving into an instructional coaching role.

However, when we are working in international schools, there is often even more complexity involved in the role, which may go unrecognized by school leaders, or even coaches themselves because this complexity is our “normal.” Recently, while speaking at the EARCOS teachers conference, we unpacked some of those complexities in one of my sessions. In our conversation, we identified five key factors that make instructional coaching highly complex in our international school setting.

Please note, this does not mean that instructional coaching is not complex in other settings, or that any of these factors are not present in other settings, these are just five layers of complexity that are often the norm in international schools.

1: Consistent Teacher Turnover

For most international schools there is a certain percentage of teacher turnover every year. While we have many procedures to help make these transitions as smooth as possible for both new and returning teachers, the reality is that we all have to build relationships year after year. 

Instructional coaching relationships require vulnerability and trust, and this takes time - sometimes even longer than just one school year. When we have consistent teacher turnover, it can feel like we’re starting from scratch building those relationships every year. This means that we can begin developing a coaching relationship, only to find that the teacher we’re working with is leaving at the end of the year. Or we can start working with a team but find that work stalls when many of the team members leave. The relationships that we built to get us to that level, now need to be built again, with new colleagues the following year. We may also find that our coaching partners are struggling with the same challenge. While the returning teacher may have a history of working with a coach, they may know that new teachers will take time to understand the value of coaching, which can slow down coaching at the team level.

When our work is so dependent on relationships and when we have consistent teacher turnover year-after-year, we can find that has a huge impact on how many coaching partners we are able to work with. We may find ourselves spending more time building relationships than engaging in deep coaching cycles, especially when the school may not have a strong coaching culture, yet (please see more about this in point four and five).

2: An Extremely Diverse School Community

We know we are working with colleagues, students, parents, and leaders who may have completely different worldviews, training, and perceptions of almost everything about teaching and learning, including the concept of coaching and being coached. 

When we consider the visibility of instructional coaching, including teachers being vulnerable to learning in front of other colleagues or their students, we also need to keep in mind the varying perception that others may have about this kind of experience. While we may expect that everyone hired by the school has an understanding of the vision of the school, that may not always be the case. 

We may need to:

  • unpack the rationale for our work with a variety of stakeholder groups within the school, 
  • discuss and understand different perceptions about our work,
  • clarify and validate the way that our work aligns with the vision and mission of the school.

It is likely that instructional coaches in international schools need to feel confident having these kinds of conversations on a daily basis and at different levels so that we can meet the needs of all stakeholders in understanding the value and purpose of coaching.

We may also need to consider that instructional coaching may need to look different in different cultural settings. Being able to adapt for the needs of our coaching partners and understand and navigate the cultural norms around professional growth, vulnerability, and openness to learning within and between all stakeholders is another element of complexity in an international school setting.

3: Host Country Culture Expectations

Along with the multi-cultural environment of our schools, we are also located within a host country culture, which may be very different from the cultural norms of the international school. In some schools, staying after school to work is the norm. In others, the workday ends at the end of the school day. In some schools, work-life balance is highly prized and prioritized. In others, the focus is on building professional capacity, even if that means working longer days. When teachers move from country to country, it can be a challenge to adapt to new host country expectations. 

For instructional coaches, when we are working towards building buy-in and ownership over the coaching process, we may not always take into consideration host country culture expectations and how that may impact our work process. Navigating those norms and managing the “lifestyle experiences” of living in a different culture adds a layer of complexity to how we work.

4: Lack of Structural Support

International schools are usually an independent organization without national, regional, or local infrastructure, funding, or support. For the most part, they don’t have larger districts or governmental structures providing guidance, clarifying expectations, or defining outcomes, aside from global or regional accrediting bodies. Although this provides a large amount of professional freedom for an individual school, it often means that each international school defines programs, procedures, and structures independently. 

This freedom provides both a benefit and a challenge to international schools. Each school must articulate and define both the purpose and implementation of an instructional coaching program, as well as the support needed to make the program successful and sustainable, rather than being able to rely on a larger organization to provide that structure.

This means that defining, building, implementing and sustaining an instructional coaching program is dependent on the perceived needs or value of instructional coaching by the current school leadership - and much like point one above, when school leaders transition, the process of building understanding around coaching needs to begin again. 

Combined with all of the other factors above, this is why clarity around the definition, purpose, and process of instructional coaching, in alignment with the school’s vision and mission is so essential. It can be easy to assume that hiring coaches is enough to build a coaching program, but developing a coaching culture requires structural support throughout the school. Ensuring that there is time, energy, and funds to devote to the development and sustainability of a coaching program requires focus and intentionality. When international schools are very dependent on enrollment for their own sustainability, it may become challenging to devote the needed resources to structural support for instructional coaching.

5: Lack of Consistency

Because each international school is its own institution (aside from those that are part of a larger body), it’s unrealistic to expect any consistency in definition or implementation of the role of instructional coach from one school to the next (this is why there was a need for the Association for the Advancement of Instructional Coaching in International Schools!)

This means that as teachers and leaders move from school to school, they may be bringing different understandings of instructional coaching - both positive and negative - from their previous experiences. Because language around coaching is often vague and there can be an assumption that we are all talking about the same thing, it may not even be clear that we do not have a shared understanding until we are implementing the work. Given that there is very little research or data on instructional coaching specifically in international schools, there is also very little that we can base our decisions on, aside from the personal experience of those involved.

The lack of consistency between schools affects coaching and coaches even in just one school, in one school year. As teachers and leaders come and go, the beliefs, understandings, and implementation processes need to be revisited and redefined, again and again. In many cases, instructional coaches are the only members of staff with the depth of knowledge and advocacy needed to take on this role.

This often means instructional coaches are left to do the work of defining coaching and the role of a coach after they have been hired to implement the role - and again every time they move to a new school, or when their leadership changes. This is a layer of pressure and leadership expectations often placed on individual coaches (or teams of coaches) without realization from school leadership. 

Navigating the Complexity of Instructional Coaching in International Schools

Given that instructional coaching is already a complex position, with many informal leadership responsibilities, these additional layers of complexity inherent in the international school context add another dimension. This means that international school instructional coaches need to deeply understand the ways to advocate for, plan, and implement a successful coaching program - especially if you’re moving to a new school next academic year!


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 Founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, author of Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership (Routledge), host of the #coachbetter podcast, and the creator of the Eduro Learning The Coach, Women Who Lead, and COETAIL certificate programs. Find out more about Kim and Eduro at:  

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