Six Tips to Consider When Implementing a District Instructional Coaching Program


If you watched the Olympics this winter you saw someone standing beside every competitor just before and after they competed – their coach. The top skaters, snowboarders, and skaters in the world all have coaches. Every college and professional sports team has a team of coaches, each helping high-performing athletes to improve and adjust to changing conditions. What about educators?

For some reason, we in education have no problem with assigning a brand new teacher a coach or buddy, but the master teacher rarely gets a coach. The same holds true with our administrators. I remember sitting at my desk on Aug. 1 of my first year as a building principal and thinking, “Now what? Who can I call for help without them thinking I am in over my head?” Who is your coach?

In my work with instructional and technology coaches throughout the USA I strive to help coaches understand their role and develop an understanding of the coaching cycle. Too often, a district will rightly decide their teachers would benefit from coaching, but provide no structure or training for coaches. Here are six tips consider when implementing a district-wide coaching program:

  1. Develop a culture of trust. For a coaching program to be successful it is important to have a culture in the school oriented toward growth and focused on the idea that everyone can and should improve. A coach has to earn the trust of the coachee. If you are going to be my coach I have to have confidence that if I try new teaching strategies you won’t immediately report my struggles with the new learning to my principal.
  2. Establish what a coach is and just as importantly, what a coach is An instructional coach is not an additional administrator and certainly not an evaluator. There should be an open line of communication between the building principal and the coach, but the coach shouldn’t be expected to share any specifics about the coaching relationship other than the agreed upon goals of the coaching sessions as defined by the teacher and coach.
  3. Use a common coaching cycle and develop district-wide tools and protocols for all coaches to use. Too often a strong teacher is asked to move into the role of instructional coach without a clear understanding of the role of a coach, the process of coaching an adult learner, and the expectations for success as a coach. At the district level there should be common tools and protocols provided to all coaches so they follow a consistent coaching model that is coherent with the district strategic plan and therefore, has the support of the central administration and Board. While coaching is highly individualized to the needs of each coachee, a common process can help align the work of a number of coaches throughout the district. A model for instructional coaching I use shown below:
  4. Push and scaffold. Like in sports, sometimes a coach needs to push their coachee out of the comfort zone. In early childhood we talk about the zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she cannot do. A coach wants to support their coachee as they work in the ZPD. A common coaching strategy is I teach, we teach, you teach.
  5. Everyone gets a coach. Coaching shouldn’t be viewed as something only struggling teachers get. Over time, everyone in the organization should have the opportunity to be coached. That includes teachers, principals, and central office staff. The superintendent should not only get an executive coach, but talk about it proudly with staff. Send the message that coaching is part of the process for all.
  6. Provide professional development for coaches. If everyone will benefit from a coach, that includes the coaches themselves. Provide targeted professional development for all coaches to ensure they are operating within a common framework and have the tools they need to be effective. Ideally, bring in someone from the local service center or BOCES to work with coaches on the process itself. Set up a common meeting time in which all coaches in the district come together at least once a month to discuss their progress and troubleshoot the process.

Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto stated in his article, “Personal Best” in the Oct. 3, 2011 New Yorker – “There was a moment in sports when employing a coach was unimaginable—and then came a time when not doing so was unimaginable. We care about results in sports, and if we care half as much about results in schools and in hospitals we may reach the same conclusion.”

Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, technologist, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd editionUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Dr. Pitler at, on Twitter, or on his website.