Why Districts Must Support Instructional Coaches in Innovative Ways

Professional Development
Joellen Killion

In the United States, over 200,000 teachers leave the classroom each year, citing a lack of support and inadequate preparation as two of the main reasons for their exodus. Fortunately, district leaders are starting to recognize that preparation and support alone are inadequate for teacher success. And even efforts to ramp up the quality of professional learning isn’t sufficient to serve the demands of both novice and experienced teachers to meet the many needs of their students. Fortunately, district leaders are combining professional learning with an increased focus on instructional coaching to extend support into classrooms.

 As district leaders implement new curricular programs and instructional practices, they are expanding professional learning to include instructional coaching. Coaches support teachers to implement their learning in their routine classroom practices. Instructional coaches personalize support to meet the needs of all teachers, both novice and experienced, within the context of their own classrooms and schools. When teachers integrate new curriculum materials and instructional practices, student success ultimately increases.

While research indicates that instructional coaching is an important supplement to traditional in-person professional learning for educators, the quality of coaching depends of the skillfulness of coaches. As school and district leaders expand instructional coaching, they continue to look for effective and efficient means to prepare new coaches, especially where in-person professional learning is limited, onboard new coaches after initial training has occurred, and maintain and refine coach competencies.

 As district leaders respond to research about effective professional learning and achieve lasting outcomes from professional learning for both educators and students, they acknowledge the need for sustained and deep engagement, and opportunities for ongoing application and reflection. Online platforms make this kind of continual learning possible, and the initial investment for districts leads to long-term, scalable results.

 Over the course my career, I’ve seen the positive results of professional learning transform classrooms, schools, and districts around the globe, yet access to high-quality professional learning and the accompanying sustained support continues to challenge education leaders. Technology eliminates access and personalization issues related to continuous learning for educators. One example, Effective Coaching to Strengthen Instruction, is an innovative online course designed for prospective, novice, or experienced instructional coaches. Developed in partnership with Learning Forward, the professional association that sets the standards for professional learning and PCG Education, a leader in research-backed online professional development programs, the course supports the development of instructional coaches so there is widespread impact of their coaching efforts.

 Instructional coaches are improving teaching and learning, yet districts are rethinking how to prepare and support coaches. Here are three reasons why making the commitment to invest in quality, online professional development of instructional coaches is worthwhile:


1.  Instructional coaching reinforces novice teachers by giving them a support system.

Coaching supports the transfer of learning from what’s a conceptual skill into a routine practice. For entry-level teachers, those transitioning to a new subject or grade, or alternatively certified teachers who have limited classroom experience, coaches play a significant role. Just as students have different learning needs, teachers too have different styles of learning, and instructional coaches can meet individual teachers with their unique needs. And, instructional coaches who are new to their role and who seek to expand and refine their skillfulness, deserve access to the same level of high-quality professional learning that is both accessible and offers ongoing support to apply new knowledge and skills in practice.

2. Instructional coaching refines and extends the expertise of longtime teachers.

Strong teachers benefit from coaching as much as novice teachers. Instructional coaching increases equity in student learning when all teachers in a school, not some, engage with coaches for continuous learning. Recently a veteran teacher in Fort Bend Independent School District, Texas, noted that his interactions with an instructional coach helped him realize that his “old-fashioned” approach to teaching wasn’t having the kind of impact he wanted on his students’ learning. Similarly, coaches benefit from having access to professional learning on evidence-based instructional practices, models of the practices in action, ongoing learning from knowledgeable others, and opportunities to reflect on their practice.

 3. Shared language among instructional coaches can transform districts.

Like classroom teachers, instructional coaches benefit from refining and extending their skills and learning from their experiences. Coaches, the teachers they serve, and the students of these teachers benefit when coaches have a shared understanding about coaching and a shared language to examine and analyze their practice. Online professional learning strengthens the quality of coaching at scale by building a common language, shared goals, and foundational skills among coaches and their supervisors, leading to increased capacity and more effective coaching, and ultimately instruction and student learning.

 As the old adage says, “Give a man a fish and feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Simply giving teachers access to coaches is insufficient to meet the needs of every teacher and provide the support and continuous development they desire for longevity in the profession. District leaders must ensure that coaching is high-quality through sound preparation and continuous professional learning for instructional coaches. Online professional learning can serve as the fuel for coaches to be catalysts for change within schools.


Joellen Killion is a senior advisor at Learning Forward, where she supports a range of initiatives, including the development of standards resources, consulting services, and the work to implement the College and Career Ready standards. Follow her on Twitter @jpkillion.

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