Rethinking the Role of an Instructional Coach

Instructional coaches bring a range of valuable skills to a school community, but they rarely have the opportunity to teach. Meanwhile, teachers are under pressure, schools are stretched, and everyone is searching for ways to improve instruction effectively.

By reimagining the role of instructional coaches as practitioners who can incorporate classroom instruction into their roles, schools can provide high-quality instruction and ensure that coaches’ jobs remain grounded in relevant, engaging practice.

In our current educational system, coaches are often seen as middle managers. However, this middle management role is not always effective for leading or connecting with classroom teachers. 

To earn the credibility and respect of the teachers they work with, coaches must fully understand the challenges teachers face. This is difficult to achieve when they are not experiencing those challenges day in and day out. 

As an instructional coach who is also in the classroom, I have found that having both roles helps me build mutual respect and trust with teachers. When I am open about my own challenges, I can genuinely demonstrate what it means to be a reflective practitioner, seeking feedback and ideas from my colleagues. Sharing stories about lessons that didn’t go as planned or challenging student behaviors shows that we are all on the same team. No one is pretending to be perfect or to have all the answers, but by reaching out and collaborating, we can all become more effective educators.

The Benefits of Lab Classrooms

Teachers consistently report that observing other teachers in action is one of the most beneficial methods for improving their practice. While traditional instructional coaches can facilitate these observations, coaches who also teach can provide daily opportunities for teacher observation. This maintains transparency and builds professionalism, increases teacher capacity, and fosters “collective teacher efficacy,” or the belief that by working together, we can have a positive impact on student learning. Researcher John Hattie has shown that collective teacher efficacy has significant, measurable benefits for student achievement.

In practice, this means that when I can say to another teacher, “I’m dealing with that same issue; could you observe my classroom this week and offer me some feedback?” it communicates that their professional input is valued and that they play an important role as a colleague. 

When teachers are empowered to give and receive ideas and feedback, we create a culture of professional learning and increase teachers’ confidence. Having a coach-facilitated “lab classroom” where this type of reciprocal mentoring takes place levels the playing field and makes observation a routine for all.

Addressing Logistics

Allowing instructional coaches to teach requires collaboration among coaches, administrators, and district leadership. It requires creative thinking and strategizing to allocate full-time equivalents (FTEs) in a way that benefits the school. FTEs measure employment in a way that allows employees to be compared, even when they work different hours per week.

Schools may find that they do not need to hire additional FTEs; instead, they can divide them among two or more current staff members who have instructional expertise and leadership potential. In this scenario, coaches can collaborate with each other, working part-time as classroom teachers and part-time as coaches, further increasing their effectiveness.

In my role, I teach at least two sections of language arts each year. The grade level I teach depends on the student population. Instructional coach-teachers can help manage large class sizes. I see myself primarily as a classroom teacher, but I also collaborate with another instructional coach to develop and implement embedded professional development and provide instructional coaching throughout the building. This other teacher-coach has a position similar to mine.

The New Approach

This proposed role for instructional coaches is different from the traditional “teacher mentor” model found in many schools. It challenges the assumption that wisdom and influence mainly come from experienced teachers. Creating a truly collaborative culture that seeks to improve instruction at all levels requires a new approach focused on building teacher capacity throughout the entire school.

Thinking flexibly about a school’s schedule and FTEs to allow room for instructional coaches to teach provides the flexibility to designate teachers as coaches when needed. For example, when two coaching hours became available at my school, the administrators chose two newer teachers to share those hours. These young educators proved to be highly effective instructional coaches for several reasons, including their recent experience as new teachers and their ability to guide others entering the profession.

If increasing teacher capacity is a priority in your school, consider creating or adapting instructional coach positions to include classroom teaching. This approach introduces a level of role fluidity that supports collaborative professional learning and enables mutual inquiry among school staff.