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Instructional coaches: 5 common misconceptions

Many educators assume that instructional coaches are subject-matter experts and have a supervisory role. But actually ...

5 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

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In recent years, leveraging instructional coaching has become more commonplace as schools strive to improve teacher practice and professional learning. Research suggests that instructional coaching can have significant, positive effects on instructional practices and student learning, even more than student-level interventions like high-dosage tutoring or summer programs. Instructional coaches play a crucial role in supporting teachers and improving instruction within their schools.

Launching instructional coaching is easy, right? Just pull some strong teachers out of the classroom, put them into a content position to provide collegial support and professional learning, have a lead administrator guide them, provide them with a few books or a workshop or two, and send them out into the district. After all, what could go wrong?

Answer: A lot.

As a department coordinator for instructional coaches and a virtual coach trainer for several years, I have found many things need to be clarified, such as assumptions about the qualifications, roles and characteristics of effective instructional coaching. Here are some of the most common misconceptions and the reality that points to truly effective coaching.

Misconception No. 1

Only experienced teachers make effective coaches

Actually … While experience is valuable, effective coaching requires a specific skill set to work with adults. This includes strong communication, empathy, collaboration, a commitment to ongoing professional learning and the ability to analyze and provide feedback. The strongest classroom teachers who work effectively with children may or may not possess those skills because there is a big difference between pedagogy and andragogy. Newer teachers or those with different educational roles can also possess these qualities and make effective coaches.

Misconception No. 2

Instructional coaches should be content experts in particular subjects

Actually … While content knowledge is important, effective instructional coaching is more about the coaching process, collaboration, reflection and facilitating teacher growth. Schools do not need content-specific coaches for every instructional area. Trained coaches can work effectively across various subjects by focusing on pedagogical strategies, effective teaching practices and professional learning methodologies.

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Misconception No. 3

Coaches operate as evaluators, supervisors or extended administrators

Actually … This is something both schools and coaches get wrong. While they will say they understand this concept, their actions speak differently. 

Effective coaches operate in a nonevaluative capacity. They build trusting relationships based on collaboration and support rather than judgment. Coaches should be collaborative partners, acting as a mirror to help teachers reflect on their practice, provide resources and support teacher agency.

A coach is not a boss. An administrator should not ask a coach what is happening in the classroom. If an administrator is concerned, they should go directly to the teacher and provide resources and support for professional learning. An administrator has the positional authority to “fix” teachers; a coach does not and should not act like they do. A significant difference exists between an administrator’s positional authority and a coach’s relational influence. 

Misconception #4

Instructional coaches only work with struggling or new teachers

Actually … Effective coaches should work with all teachers, including high-performing ones, to enhance instructional practices. Newer teachers may benefit from support on foundational practices, but experienced teachers can benefit from coaching to refine their skills, stay current with best practices and navigate educational changes. Effective coaching is not remedial but aims to foster continuous improvement for every educator, regardless of their current skill or experience levels.

Misconception #5

Instructional coaches should have all the answers

Actually … This is another area that schools and coaches need to correct. Effective coaches are facilitators of learning rather than repositories of all knowledge. They help teachers identify solutions, encourage reflection, look at data and provide resources — but they do not know everything, nor should they be expected to do so. Coaches empower teachers and support them in taking ownership of their professional learning. 

In addition to the expectation that instructional coaches know everything, coaches can suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a cognitive bias where people tend to overestimate their abilities and expertise.

Finally, some additional confusion stems from the word “coach” itself. People who come to me with administrative backgrounds or athletic coaching experience are often shocked to discover that what they believe about effective instructional coaching skills needs to be corrected. An effective athletic coach usually evaluates performance, looks at things critically and is directive and prescriptive with suggestions and improvements. Those actions are entirely counter to what an effective instructional coach does.  

By dispelling these misconceptions, schools and educators can better understand the qualities and roles contributing to effective instructional coaching. This clarity can lead to more purposeful hiring practices, a better understanding of coaching roles and the development of effective coaching programs. Coaching adults is very different from teaching students.   

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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