Five ways to avoid ineffective ‘instructional coaching’

Written by: David Weston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The instructional coaching approach is being misunderstood in some schools leading to ineffective support for teachers. David Weston explains why and considers what we should be doing


The word “instruction” in “instructional coaching” is still leading to ineffective and overly directive coaching that is disappointing leaders and demoralising teachers.

But careful attention to the research behind this approach can produce a more impactful and empowering practice.

In America, where the term instructional coaching originated, “instruction” is a word that generally refers to the act of teaching. The term “instructional coaching” is therefore meant to refer to a form of coaching that is focused upon a teacher’s practice.

In the UK, however, the word “instruction” is commonly interpreted as an order or a direction and “instructions” are a detailed list of steps to be taken or rules to be followed.

And so, a practice named to encourage reflective discussion around a teacher’s practice has, in some cases, mistakenly become synonymous with telling teachers what to do and giving routines and rules to be followed.

Drawing on a recent Teacher Development Trust (TDT) webinar on effective coaching in schools, I will discuss here five practical tips for leaders.

But first, let’s look at some research behind this approach.


What is instructional coaching?

A professional development approach that relies mainly on “instructing” is unlikely to work. School leaders are seeking highly effective practitioners who are using all of the most impactful teaching approaches and adapting them continuously and efficiently to the needs of their classes.

We know from studies of teacher expertise, that inexperienced teachers are fairly rigid rule-followers, easily overwhelmed by unexpected situations and very poor at adapting both the speed of the lesson and the approaches taken to meet the needs of pupils and subject matter (e.g. Berliner, 2004; Hogan et al, 2003).

However, more experienced and effective teachers are very different, adapting their lessons very flexibly in response to a much larger volume of formative assessment that they use continually throughout their lessons. These teachers also anticipate issues of learning and behaviour either before they occur or nip them much earlier in the bud, and plan learning sequences much more reflectively and flexibly to respond to need. Effective practice has become, for them, instinctive and automatic, but in a way that is flexible.

Based on this, leaders clearly need to help their teachers move from overly rigid, inflexible and unresponsive sets of weak practice to a much more perceptive and adaptive approach that flexibly weaves together highly effective teaching approaches.

A coaching approach is unlikely to work if it focuses only on telling teachers what to do, without developing perception, reflection and professional flexibility.

In a recent review of school leadership research, Coe et al (2022) identified that teacher collaboration is more likely to drive improvements in pupils’ learning when teachers work together in ways that support, enhance and challenge each other with feelings of trust towards peers that engenders feelings of affiliation to the team and organisation.

Similarly, they note that teachers are more likely to improve with an “improvement mindset” that includes teachers’ beliefs in their own capacity for improvement, willingness to experiment to improve outcomes, and a feeling of responsibility that they are accountable for improving their own practice to support better outcomes for pupils.

A coaching approach is therefore unlikely to work if it creates the expectation that teachers have no agency over their own improvement, that they need to rely on others to judge issues and to direct improvements. If success as a teacher is linked with following orders, receiving judgements and displaying consistent practices to observers then it hinders rather than helps the progress of teachers turning into confident, effective and self-improving adults.

There is a tension here, of course. It is an exceedingly rare person who can become a top expert in complete isolation, completely self-taught. Most of the world’s virtuosos and top experts have got there by working alongside other great practitioners and minds. For this reason, setting up a high-trust, reflective culture is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for great teaching.

Coe et al (2022) note that there is significant evidence that teachers can get better through the presence of highly skilled and effective peers and having the time and conditions to learn with and from them.

But focusing on trying to “spoon-feed” expert teaching into teachers without the right approach and right culture is very unlikely to generate sustainable improvement, particularly if you haven’t already established a culture where staff are continually reflecting and trying to improve and where colleagues are receptive to coaching and support.

To some extent, your next next steps to create effective coaching will depend both on the current reality in your school and also the previous history of the school. For example, if coaching was well known to be used a few years ago as a measure for ineffective teachers on capability, you will have to tread much more careful to allay fears.

If current workloads are high, morale is low and teachers feel that new things are constantly introduced and never sustained, then you will have a much harder implementation process to gain buy-in, build confidence and protect enough time to make coaching a success.

Nonetheless, any school would do well to pay attention to the advice of Paul Lockyer, a senior leader at Cheltenham Bournside College, who reflected in the recent TDT webinar (2022) about how his school has turned coaching into a force for improvement. The five pieces of advice signposted in the title to the article in fact come from him.

  • Set up and carefully analyse your teacher coaching pairings. It’s important to create really strong and trusting relationships, so act quickly where partnerships are not working and act quickly if things are not going well.
  • Completely separate your coaching processes from your quality assurance and performance management processes. While teachers may choose to bring their appraisal targets to their coaching sessions for work, they should be under no obligation to do so and the content of coaching discussions should remain confidential and non-judgemental.
  • Keep coaches well trained, with that training regularly refreshed. Paul’s school has trained two cohorts of 12 coaches using the TDT Pedagogical Coaching training. He also organises for cascade training to other staff and is available to support them through coaching trios or modelling.
  • Be flexible in your implementation and listen carefully to staff. Initially, his school tried to impose exactly when through the year the coaching would happen. But after listening to feedback from staff about how this clashed with other work at crunch times, they moved to a more flexible system where coaches needed to find time for their 12 hours of coaching work at times of the year that worked better for them.
  • Avoid making it hierarchical – if you avoid coaches always being more managerially senior than coachees then it helps to dispel the idea that this is judgemental and directive.

  • David Weston @informed_edu is the CEO of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective development and leadership in schools and college. Read David’s previous articles for Headteacher Update, including articles in which his work is cited, via https://bit.ly/htu-weston and find out more at https://tdtrust.org/


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