Many schools and school districts are coming around to the notion that instructional coaching is an important impact tool to raise student achievement, and with federal COVID funds available, principals are looking for coaches or for coaching models to implement in order to improve student success. A quick search on the internet provides so many different coaching models, books, and terminology that it’s overwhelming: cognitive, mediative, directive, facilitative…the list goes on. How can you decide what is best for your school?
The first place to start is with a general understanding of what connects all coaching models to some fairly universal concepts of coaching. Then, go with your gut: choose a model or coaching guru whose specific ideas, language, or tone resonate with you, and start learning. If you find you’re wanting something different, then pivot to another model, no harm done. Coaching is a journey, like anything else in life: we learn, we grow, we make mistakes and learn some more. What’s exciting is the process itself, and even more so when principals and teachers engage in that process together with others—teachers or leaders.
A coaching model is simply a framework, the structure within which a coach works with her client. It helps define the coaching session, its purpose and process, and keeps the conversation focused on the client’s needs and the client’s growth. As you research, you’ll quickly see some coaching names and books rise to the surface. In the educational field, Elena Aguilar’s The Art of Coaching is a classic, along with Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching. Costa and Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching is another well-known and well-respected model utilized and taught all over the world, along with the substantial research and resources from Robert Marzano, Sir John Whitmore, or Norwood and Burke.
A coaching model is simply a framework, the structure within which a coach works with her client that defines the coaching session’s purpose and process to focus on the client’s needs and growth.
What’s important to recognize is that they all have some basic ideas in common. The most foundational element to all coaching models is a trusting relationship, and this often takes a long time to establish depending on the organization and interpersonal dynamics already in play when coaching begins. But it is absolutely essential that a client trust a coach to be empathic, supportive, and non-judgmental. Coaching, like all learning, is relational, and nothing substantial will happen without a positive and genuine relationship between coach and client. Another universality to coaching models is dialogue, because talking transforms thinking. A coaching session is not a training, not a client listening to the coach prattle on about his insights into everything the client needs to improve. Coaching is conversational, and in fact it is the client who should do most of the talking, and the coach should be intentionally, deeply, actively listening. The third universal across all coaching models is the process: usually cyclical, coaching typically begins and ends with conversation, and gathers/addresses data or engages in practice and experimentation, in the middle.
While there is no shortage of coaching models, we can loosely categorize them into instructive, cognitive, and hybrid. That being said, individual coaches will find they lean one way or another often based on their own preferences or the client’s needs.
(Coach provides skills-based direction to help client’s practice improve)
Goal: To help client develop or advance in specific skills, often skills prescribed by the school’s or organization’s leadership.
Relationship: Coach as expert, model, mentor. Coach and client assume coach has more knowledge than client on the addressed skill, and can transfer/teach that knowledge.
(Coach mediates client’s thinking and belief systems for improved habits of mind)
Goal: To help client develop into a self-directed, reflective decision-maker whose robust experiences and knowledge are elevated as resources.
Relationship: Coach as developmental support for client, addressing client’s knowledge and beliefs as they surface through different states of mind or mindful intentions.
(Coach may offer skills-based direction aligned with cognitive support resources)
Goal: To help client develop advanced skills and instructional moves to become a more self-directed, reflective decision-maker.
Relationship: Coach as thought partner, sometimes acting as expert/model/ mentor, sometimes simply as a sounding board to help make client’s thinking and beliefs visible.
Oftentimes, a coach finds herself transitioning between supportive functions within one or across a few sessions, sometimes acting as a consultant by providing data or resources from outside sources, sometimes collaborating as a thought partner to brainstorm possible solutions with the client, sometimes modeling effective practices as an expert with a high level of content knowledge and skill. Regardless of the function, the coach is always there for the client, the leader or teacher, to help him grow, hone her craft, develop their efficacy.
It is important for the coach and client to establish what kind of support the client teacher is looking for. Does the teacher lack some knowledge or skills in classroom management, and seeks resources to learn from and then apply? Does the teacher want to improve his backwards planning, and needs a partner to bounce his thinking around with in order to better understand his beliefs about his students or content? Perhaps the leader knows she needs some kind of support to help her improve student achievement, but isn’t sure exactly what she needs, so a consistent and trusted listener will help her hone in on what she can do to up her game for her students.
Coaching, like all learning, is relational, and nothing substantial will happen without a positive and genuine relationship between coach and client.
Bringing It All Together
Once you decide what kind of coaching model to implement, when and how, it is important to address other critical questions you’ll need to decide, such as if the administrators will be coaches, if you will create a TOSA position for coaches, or if you will hire coaches from outside your school. These decisions will impact who to train as a coach, and how to introduce the coaching model to teachers, touching on coaching expectations and processes. And, even if you are not planning on being a coach yourself, all school leaders should be trained in the coaching model you’re implementing alongside your coaches so that you all speak the same language.
Establishing an instructional coaching program at your school means your school is a community of learners, that the adults—both teachers and administrators—are engaged in learning with a growth mindset, just as we want students to be. It’s both a powerful message, and a powerful practice.