Instructional Coaching FAQ #3

By Pete Hall

If you’re looking for information about launching an instructional coaching initiative, refining your instructional coaching practices, or augment your instructional coaching program, you’ve come to the right place. In this multi-blog series, I’ll share what I’ve learned about the nature of instructional coaching/capacity-building work. Here’s the third installment, where we unpack a common bugaboo for instructional leaders: TIME.

“Hey, do you have a minute?”

As instructional coaches, you hear this question a lot. It’s an innocent question, probably born from a teacher’s need to have a wondering answered, a resource located, a problem solved, or a challenge tackled. And who better to help than the person who’s 100% in that teacher’s corner: You, the instructional coach!

You and I both know that “a minute” doesn’t mean “a minute,” though, right? This innocent question is, on the surface, a request for your time. However, it’s not really about your time. It’s about your impact.

The teacher who asked the question probably doesn’t just want company for 60 seconds. More likely, she needs something substantive, and is asking for you to impact her practice in a positive way. What a fabulous testament to your relationship and your influence, and what a fabulous opportunity to leverage your role to make a difference!

In this, the third installment of the most Frequently Asked Questions I’ve received in the world of capacity-building and instructional coaching, we’re going to address the elephant in the room that relentlessly stomps his foot and waves his trunk around: time. Except you’ll notice the theme, as mentioned earlier, is not really about time; verily, it’s about impact.

When Alisa Simeral and I published Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success in 2008 and its partner texts, including the updated and upgraded “definitive” guide for instructional leaders, Creating a Culture of Reflective Practice, a decade later, we knew that time was a hot topic. Time is fleeting, yet enduring. It is endless, yet limited. It is our enemy, yet it’s one of our greatest assets.

So, if you’ve got the time, let’s wind it up and clock in for FAQ #3:

How should I spend my time?

Okay, are you really ready for this? I’ve tried to set you up to understand that it’s not really about time, so while the questions here may all appear to be about time and time management, they’re really about impact. When we ask about how to use our time, we’re really asking about what our priorities are. We’re really identifying where we ought to allocate our energy. We’re really determining what earns our attention. It’s not time management that we need to wrangle, it’s priority management.

The short answer, then, is this reflective question: What are your priorities?

Okay, so how should I prioritize my time?

I figured that response might seem a little glib to those of you who are looking for a little more concrete information from me, so let’s dig in.

First, let’s follow up with that last reflective question I posed, plus a couple others: What are your priorities? Do you know? How are they established? How do you know those are your priorities? What are the outcomes you’re working toward? How will you measure them? What does success look like? What work actions/strategies will lead you to spectacular success in meeting and exceeding your goals?

With that information firmly ensconced in your mind, you can now take out your calendar, your Post-It notes, and whatever to-do app you use, and we can play “time management” for a minute. Here are a couple strategies for prioritizing your time, energy, priorities, attention, and impact:

A. Write them down. Keep your goals handy and write down the actions/strategies that are most likely to yield spectacular success next to them. Then, on a daily or weekly basis, commit to taking those actions. If you have a to-do list, be sure to record the actions that are most pressing and/or most impactful at the top of that list. I can’t tell you how many of my clients lament the things they don’t have time to do, but can’t show me where they keep track of what’s important to them! Write it down, folks. It’s a symbolic level of commitment, not to mention a clear and compelling call to action.

B. Take charge of your calendar. Rather than letting the calendar dictate what you’re doing and when, plug your high-priority items into your calendar in advance. We tend to do the things we’re scheduled to do, so schedule those important actions! In the words of Stephen Covey, “Don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.” When you agree to visit a teacher’s classroom, set up a day and time to do so, and while you’re calendaring that, schedule your debrief coaching conversation. Then, schedule some time to process your visit and hone your coaching focus. When it’s on our calendars, we do it. So, if it matters to you, put it on your calendar.

C. Time block. Our brains work best when we’re uninterrupted for a chunk of time, so once you’ve got the important tasks and activities scheduled and the time has come, remove distractions and immerse yourself fully in the task. Put your phone on silent and stick it in a drawer, close your door, turn on the soothing piano melodies soundtrack you like so much, and set a timer for 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted work. (Those are my go-to strategies; you’ll have to identify what works for you.) After the timer rings, assess your progress and either a) add more time right now, or b) allocate another block of time and calendar it right now.

D. Recruit an accountability partner. Most changes are difficult to manage alone, so why not get some support? An accountability partner can be tremendously useful, especially if it’s someone who is engaging in some of the same priority-management work, so you can hold each other’s feet to the fire. Send encouraging messages to each other, set up a friendly competition, build a simple scoring rubric and assess your calendar and your efforts, celebrate and calibrate together, and make it a collaborative, interactive, fun pursuit of positive impact.

E. Change your self-talk. Since we’re really examining priority management instead of time management, quit telling yourself, “I don’t have time to do this,” or “I didn’t have time to get this done.” Instead, replace those thoughts with “It’s not a priority to me,” or “It wasn’t important enough for me to get it done.” Yikes! That may burn a little bit, especially if you say it aloud to someone else. And if it does, guess what? Now you know it’s a priority to you, so scroll back up and choose a strategy from the A-D list and make it happen!

How do I balance all my “extra” duties to make time for purposeful coaching?

The reality for most instructional coaches is that you’re part of a larger machine (a school or district), so you’ll likely have some additional responsibilities as an employee, beyond your sunshine-and-rainbows ideal of coaching all day, every day. We refer to these “other duties as assigned” as “have-tos.” You’ve got to get the have-tos done in order to keep doing the get-tos (coaching, mentoring, etc.).

Think of it this way: You’ve got to set the table before you can have a fabulous meal.

Another way to think of it is the 3/3/3 method, shared by Oliver Burkeman, in which you plan (and execute the plan) these three things daily:

*Spend 3 hours working on an important project.
*Complete 3 shorter, urgent tasks or meetings.
*Do 3 maintenance tasks to keep life running smoothly.

The order in which you address and complete the 3/3/3 items is up to you. (Hint: Write them down, put them on your calendar, use time blocks, access your accountability partner, and shift your thinking about how you’re spending your time.)

You’ve got your window of time that you’ll be at work on any given day, and in that window, you’ve got to decide what your priorities are and how steadfastly you’re going to match your actions to your priorities.

How do I keep coaching at the top of my to-do list?

If coaching is indeed your priority, and if you indeed write down a to-do list every day or week or class period, then write “coaching” at the top of the to-do list. The work your way down the to-do list from the top to the bottom.

When do I find time to meet with teachers?

You don’t. You never “find” time, like you find a $20 bill in an old book or you find a missing puzzle piece in the pocket of a vest hanging in your closet. I don’t mean to be snarky about this, but time is everywhere, and you can bank on it, like clockwork (haha), to tick off 24 hours every day. You’re not going to “find” a bonus 15 minutes in a desk drawer or in that oft-ignored space behind your Keurig.

No, you don’t “find” time, you “make” time; in fact, to repeat a theme, you “prioritize” the time you’ve got. You’ve got your window of time that you’ll be at work on any given day, and in that window, you’ve got to decide what your priorities are and how steadfastly you’re going to match your actions to your priorities. If meeting with teachers is a priority to you, schedule it and behave like it matters to you.

How do I prioritize which classrooms to spend my time in?

This isn’t really a question about time management either, though it’s cloaked in one. This is a question about levels of support. Fact: Every teacher needs a little different level (intensity, frequency, duration, method) of support. There’s no one-size-fits-all coaching approach. Some teachers may occasionally reach out to refine a practice while their classroom keeps chugging powerfully along. Others are ready to throw in the white towel while their classes rage like a three-alarm fire. Not to mention the teachers who aren’t asking for help, whether or not they need it, and those who actively go out of their way to tell you they don’t need coaching support, thank you very much and have a great day coaching someone else down the hall.

My simple rule for how to prioritize classrooms and teachers for coaching support: Go where you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck. Start with the willing teachers, even if they’re highly reflective, tremendously successful, and seemingly don’t need coaching support. Why? Because when those coaching conversations go well (which they will), the teacher will feel empowered and become even more effective, and he will sing your praises (or at least the praises of the coaching process) to his colleagues, meaning more teachers’ hearts, minds, and doors will open up as a result.

I’ve mentioned before that the epicenter of teacher-coach partnerships must be the teacher. You must be invited in. You must be asked to help. You must be approached somehow. Starting with the willing sets that precedent.

Then, once word gets out, your calendar starts filling up, and things get rolling, you can start using the gradual-release of responsibility to build teachers’ capacity, challenge them to continue the great work you’ve started together, and you can fold another teacher into your mix. If it helps, use a coaching cycle with a defined time frame to keep coach-hogs from dominating your time and ensuring that each teacher on your docket gets adequate time, feedback, and support.

*Note: I often hear this request in relation to the question, “Teacher L is really struggling. Shouldn’t I be spending more time in her classroom?” Not necessarily. Remember, in this capacity-building coaching model, we’re playing the long game. We cannot “fix” struggling teachers immediately, no matter how badly we want to. Our goal is to support their reflective growth and usher them to a place where they can “fix” themselves: accurately identify their own goals and struggles, evaluate various options and choose the most promising approach, engage with consistency, assess the direct cause-and-effect relationship between their actions and the outcomes that follow, and dissect the proceedings in order to adapt and adjust in the future. For every teacher, the time frame is different and unique.

How do I handle the “Hey, do you have a minute?” requests?

Finally! This is the innocent question that launched this post, and this is where we’ll wrap it up. If you’ve gotten anything from this post, it’s this: How we spend our time is a reflection of our priorities, so our priorities ought to determine how we allocate our time.

That said, we need to maintain a little flexibility in our roles as coaches, because things come up. Folks have emergencies. Unanticipated events may leapfrog their way to the top of our to-do lists. Our supervisors may have other plans for us in any given moment. So, sometimes, the answer we give to that innocent question is “Yes. Yes, I do have a minute for you. How can I help?”

On the other hand, we must protect our boundaries. We may have a little more flexibility with our schedules than a classroom teacher does, but that doesn’t mean we can be commandeered at a teacher’s whim. More often than not, a teacher asks that innocent question to you because you’re right there. You’re a trusted colleague and you’re likely to be able to help (even if you’re not the right person to be asking). So, sometimes, the answer we give to that innocent question is, “Yes, I do have a minute for you; unfortunately, it’s not right now. Can we put something on the calendar and I’ll be there for you ASAP, when I can give you my full attention and support?”

How do you know which path to take in any given moment? It all comes back to your priorities.

There will be more, and the topics will depend on YOU. Drop me a line and submit your question(s), and I’ll be happy to include them in future installments of this FAQ series. Hope that helps!

Pete Hall is the President/CEO of EducationHall, LLC, and the author of 12 books. You can reach him at

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