In various forms, instructional coaching initiatives have cropped up all across the educational landscape over the past few decades. Based originally on research from Joyce & Showers (1980) and reinforced in multiple studies since, instructional coaching is the very simple concept that teachers are professionals, and engaging in coaching partnerships grows professionals…ergo, coaching our teachers will result in professional growth. Benefits to student-learning outcomes and other positive school metrics follow directly after.

The potential for instructional coaching efforts to yield immensely positive results is limitless. Unfortunately, that potential is rarely realized because of our collective unwillingness to let our coaches actually…coach.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to bypass some of the prerequisites for coaching to be successful: relationships, clarity of the vision of the coaching plan, teacher ownership of the coaching process, goals and action plans, consistent communication plans, and a deep commitment to continuous improvement, self-reflective practices, and authentic collaboration.

Instead, I’m going to focus simply on the logistics, scheduling, and prioritization of coaches engaging in the single professional activity they were hired to do: coach teachers. In my travels, I’ve encountered a half-dozen obstacles to this practice. Let’s tackle ‘em one at a time:

  1. Substitute teaching. It is such an easy tendency to call a coach to fill in when a teacher is absent and no sub shows up. Coaches typically have a tremendous track record of being terrific teachers, plus it’s nice to keep ‘em sharp in the classroom; however, when a coach is subbing in a classroom, there’s no coaching happening. That can often turn into days and days of lost coaching opportunities over the course of a school year. Instead: double-up classes, pay teachers on their prep period to cover, or (and this was one of my favorite parts of being a school principal) get an administrator in there instead.
  2. Student discipline. Often, instructional coaches are seen as a “available” because their days are not structured as rigidly as a classroom teacher’s. Thus, when a student needs an immediate intervention, the coach is often called upon. Again, a coach’s EQ and interpersonal skills means this strategy will probably work well; however, when a coach is disciplining or supporting an individual student, there’s no coaching happening. Instead, build partner-classrooms, empower staff and students with various regulation strategies, tend to teacher-student relationships, and engage in the proactive work that reduces the need for anyone to intervene in this manner.
  3. Excessive paperwork. Many districts and schools find the “availability” of instructional coaches problematic. Couple that with the doctor-patient privilege that we encourage for coach-teacher relationships, and there’s a lot of mystery surrounding a coach’s daily whereabouts and activities. In order to ramp up accountability and get a better picture of coaching cycles, impact, and plans, coaches are frequently asked to complete multiple forms demonstrating their plans, approaches, and effect; however, when coaches are filling out forms, there’s no coaching happening. They’re professionals and usually selected because they are highly dedicated, committed, impactful leaders in the building/district. Let’s trust ‘em to do their work, and instead engage in rich professional conversations with them about their impact on a regular basis. That will benefit everyone involved.
  4. Student supervision. I’m a believer that all staff at a school ought to share in the responsibilities to support, connect with, and protect every student that enters the grounds. That said, a coach oughtn’t be called when someone doesn’t show up to cover the playground, supervise the cafeteria, or manage the bus line. Supervising the grounds for a reasonable amount of time is a legitimate expectation; however, when coaches are supervising the campus, there’s no coaching happening. Instead, create a schedule with backup plans that include other auxiliary staff and, of course, administrators.
  5. Test coordinating. On paper, serving as a school’s testing coordinator seems like a manageable task. In reality, it’s a blue whale. Only bigger. I’ve worked with schools whose coaches have told me, “Yeah, I have to get all my coaching in before March, because after that, all I do is manage the standardized tests, forms, make-ups, more forms, training staff, and then it’s the end of the school year.” This is an absurd corruption of our coaches’ time. The accompanying assumption is that instruction also stops in March, which we all hope is not the case. And in districts with benchmark assessments, quarterly tests, final exams, and other testing structures, the reality is this: when coaches are serving as test coordinators, there’s no coaching happening. Instead, if we can’t significantly reduce the amount of testing we’re piling on our kids and teachers, then we ought to hire a position entirely dedicated to the intricacies of this work.
  6. Fidelity underwriting. Most schools have set expectations for teaching staff to meet a certain level of proficiency in utilizing instructional strategies, implementing curriculum, analyzing data, and creating intentional instructional plans. This is realistic and part of a healthy professional organization. Overseeing it, however, is not the coach’s responsibility. Coaches ought not to conduct spot-checks (under the guise of helpful “walk-throughs” or not) to ensure that teachers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and doing it as well as they need to be doing it. Teacher performance, consistency, and application of agreed-upon approaches are ultimately the responsibility of the administrators. When coaches are the enforcers, there’s no coaching happening.

If there’s ever any confusion about what our instructional coaches SHOULD be doing, let the job title guide us. If we truly believe that effective teachers are the #1 determinant of student success, and if we truly believe that coaching our teachers will improve their practice and positively impact student learning outcomes, then we will protect our coaches’ time so it can be allocated to where it will have the greatest effect.

Pete Hall is an expert in instructional coaching and capacity-building, served as a school principal for 12 years, and is the author of six books on the subject, including Pursuing Greatness (McREL, 2019), Creating a Culture of Reflective Practice (ASCD, 2017), The Principal Influence (ASCD, 2016), and Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success (ASCD, 2008).