Virtual Coaching – Benefits and Basics


Marcia_RockHave you ever found yourself challenged in the classroom — wishing you could turn to someone immediately for a guiding hand or an encouraging word? As a practicing teacher, I did. In part, that’s why I worked collaboratively to research and develop virtual coaching.

In our October EL article, The Power of Virtual Coaching, we describe the approach, as well as the research supporting it. With what we call “bug-in-ear technology,” an instructional leader located remotely observes a teacher’s lesson and then offers discreet feedback heard only by the teacher.

Here, briefly, is how it works:

Beforehand, the teacher and coach install the recommended off-the-shelf technology components. Next, the teacher shares the instructional plan. Then, the two decide on a time and date. To begin the session, the coach establishes contact with the teacher through the computer. After exchanging warm greetings, the lesson starts. While the teacher teaches, the coach provides running commentary, using four different types of feedback: encouraging, instructing, questioning, and correcting. Throughout, the coach adjusts the amount, flow, and timing of feedback, according not only to the teacher’s instruction, but also the students’ responsiveness. When the lesson concludes, the two engage in an abbreviated debriefing and jointly establish a few guiding goals. A longer debriefing is scheduled later only if necessary. After the session, the coach arranges the next online session. It’s really that simple.

Intuitively, side-by-side coaching seems easier, so why bother?

First, virtual coaching provides job-embedded support in real time when teachers need it most. Second, it promotes authentic opportunities for shared leadership, joint decision-making, and collaborative problem solving. I have learned as much or more than the teachers I coach. Third, not only is virtual coaching less intrusive, but also it may be more effective than traditional support. Why? Immediate feedback trumps delayed feedback. Fourth, virtual coaching eliminates the barriers of time and distance. One obvious benefit is reduced travel cost. Less apparent, however, may be opportunities for bridging the research-to-practice gap and improving student achievement. Finally, virtual coaching motivates educators — inspiring excellence and promoting accountability, while decreasing isolation.

These are my thoughts. Now I would like to hear yours. What are your questions about virtual coaching?

Post submitted by Marcia Rock, associate professor in the Department of Specialized Education Services, University of North Carolina, Greensboro.


  1. This sounds a lot like the teacher version of Parent Child Interaction Therapy that came out of UC Davis. In PCIT, the parent and child are alone in a room with a one-way mirror playing. The clinician coaches the parent on dealing with the child’s behavioral issues through an earpiece as they watch from the other side of the mirror, encouraging the parent and giving them ideas on how to handle the situation. Results of PCIT are very positive.
    I could see this taking some getting used to on the part of the teacher who is juggling the class and the feedback at the same time but, once they became comfortable with it, I think it could be very effective.

  2. Thanks for your post, Tiffany. You are correct there is some “juggling” involved. Fortunately, we can predict approximately how much time that typically entails. Practical application and research of traditional bug-in-ear (BIE) technology dates back over 50 years, across a variety of disciplines. In fact, in 1952, Korner and Brown noted that it took approximately four sessions for individuals to get comfortable using the BIE (i.e., easily attend simultaneously to two sets of verbal stimuli). Our recent findings have been similar. My colleagues and I are standing on the shoulders of many. In addition to the folks at UC Davis who you mentioned, Carmen Giebelhaus (University of Phoenix, Indianapolis Campus) and Mary Catherine Scheeler (Penn State University Great Valley) have prepared teachers, using traditional (i.e., on-site) BIE technology. The beauty of mobile and internet technologies is we can now carry out the BIE coaching anywhere anytime. That means we can provide support to more teachers when it matters most –in their classrooms in real time. Really though it is the teachers who are the true pioneers. They have allowed me and my colleagues to develop and research the virtual BIE through them. What an honor that has been! MLR

  3. As an instructional coach who is about to go out on leave, I find this idea intriguing. This may be a way for me to do my job from home!

  4. I think this is a marvelous way to meet the coaching needs of many teachers in the schools. As I read, “The Power of Virtual Coaching” in EL/Oct, 2011, I thought about all the years I have taught university education courses simultaneously with observations and supervision in many student teachers’ classrooms. Receiving immediate feedback from the classroom observations was by far, a more meaningful and reflective experience for the student teachers’ and their mentor teachers. Our conversations were constructive and natural and positive. We were all talking about the same classroom and children and their classroom behaviors. Theory and practice were naturally met. The window into a teachers classroom is always priceless information. I would love to be a part of the virtual coaching process. Who can I contact to become more involved?

  5. I am intrigued by the idea of virtual coaching to assist teachers in improving their instruction in a discrete and personal format. I was an instructional coach for several years and part of the collaboration with teachers we established codes, hand signals, and gestures for use during the delivery of lessons. The immediate communication minimized or prevented mishaps, misinformationl or misteps from happening. Teachers and I developed the signals together and it took open communication, trust, and belief in each other. A concern I have is of the virtual coaching is when the technology does not work or connection is lost. What are the provisions for loss of communication or connection? How adaptable is virtual coaching for users with hearing loss?

  6. Thanks, S.J., Beverly, and pgteach, for sharing your thoughts and concerns. S.J., I have done many a virtual coaching session from home, which allowed me to be productive (and supportive) when I had to be out of the office to care for a sick child. Beverly, like you, I found that virtual coaching was a highly effective way to bridge the research to practice gap. Also, I was able to quickly and accurately assess what I had taught well in class, and what I had not. Pgteach, your concerns about the technology glitches and adaptability for users with hearing loss are important to consider. When the online connection dropped, we simply tried again. Sometimes that was successful, but other times it was not. If we were unable to reconnect quickly, we simply rescheduled the session. Our longitudinal data confirm that the overall benefits outweigh any intermittent disruptions. Also, pgteach, I have not had direct experience using virtual coaching with individuals with hearing loss, but some of my UNCG colleagues are beginning work in that area. Beverly, you are always welcome to e-mail me. My contact information is included at the end of the EL article. Again, I am grateful to each of you for expressing an interest in virtual coaching. Supporting teachers and making classrooms a better place for all is a passion we share. M. L. Rock

  7. Thanks, M.L.Rock for clarifying and providing answers to the questions posted by S.J.,Beverly, and me. I would like to know more about the experiences of your UNCG colleagues as they continue to work with teachers with hearing loss or hearing impairment. Given the longitudinal data showed the benefits outweighed the glitches, do you think schools would invest in this new strategy? What are the benefits to school? What are some of its limitation? Is virtual coaching effective at levels of education (elementary, middle, high school or higher education) or is there a preferred level?

  8. I embrace the collaborative efforts, measures and other resources available for teachers and teacher leaders. I agree that professional learning communities are most efficient tools for teacher learning. The much needed coaching and supportive practices implemented can only fuel student learning. There are many benefits to those who take advantage of the constructive feedback, debriefing and shared leadership.

  9. Many thanks not only to pgteach for continuing the discussion, but also to vvanrogue for joining us. Pgteach, allow me to clarify that the work underway at UNCG is in the very beginning stages. Now, do I think schools will invest in virtual coaching technology? I certainly hope so! The benefits to students, teachers, administrators are many. Increased use of evidence-based practices, improved student engagement, and heightened feelings of satisfaction are chief among them. Obvious limitations include technology glitches and scheduling hassles. Our work has focused on virtual coaching in elementary and middle school settings. However, over the past 50 years, findings published by traditional bug-in-ear researchers lead me to conclude the efficacy of virtual coaching should be not be diminished when used in high school or higher education. Vvanrogue, I think your point is an important one to reiterate. There are many validated approaches for enhancing professional practice and improving student learning –the key to success is in carrying them out with compassion, consistency, enthusiasm, and fidelity. Again, I am grateful to you both for sharing your thoughts. MLR


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