Instructional Coach’s Roles - Steve Barkley

Instructional Coach’s Roles

I received the following request from an instructional coach anxious to support teacher growth while maintaining the defined instructional coach’s perceived and defined role.

“I am struggling with the fact that we do not have the morning PD times anymore where we were able to use that time to talk about building initiatives and continue to work and build upon strategies or use of resources like technology. I now find it difficult to work with teachers on specific initiatives when doing coaching cycles because I let the teacher choose the focus.  A lot of times the focus ends up being something that we have had PD on, but a lot of times it is not.  How can I find a way to incorporate more coaching with “directed” focus but still provide the teachers the autonomy to choose the focus they want during their coaching cycles with me? “

First, I’d want to reinforce the coach’s desire to provide coaching that supports the school’s professional development investment. As the following diagram illustrates, coaching feedback is critical for professional development to positively impact student learning.


Next, I point to the different roles that coaches can play. At times the instructional coach is working from the peer coach role, giving the autonomy of the coaching focus to the teacher. The instructional coach also has a role that is more in line with mentoring, where the focus of feedback to the teacher is aligned with the system’s agenda such as the implementation of a particular curriculum or instructional process.


In most of the systems where I have worked with instructional coaches, their roles have been defined on the right hand half of the above continuum. I have frequently stressed that part of the principal/coach partnership needs to be clear communication with the staff establishing the coach’s role and responsibility. If teachers perceive that working with the coach is only a voluntary decision, they can be disturbed when receiving feedback from the coach that they did not request.

A school administrator raised this issue by posing the following question;

“For those teachers that aren’t reaching out to the instructional coaches, is it appropriate for the coaches to visit the classroom and meet with the teacher to discuss a compliment and an area that the coach and teacher could explore together?”

 I suggested that this approach would likely be viewed as supervisory by teachers because the coach is selecting the focus area. An alternative would be to select a schoolwide focus and as an administrator or leadership team announce that you and the coaches will be visiting all classrooms and providing individual teachers feedback, as well as gathering schoolwide data, on implementation and its impact on student behaviors.

Example: We agree as a staff that increasing student voice (academic conversation) will increase our student learning. Following PD sessions where various strategies for student talk were shared, it’s announced that student talk will be the focus of administrators’ and the coach’s upcoming observations. Teachers are informed that if they’d like the feedback on a specific lesson, they should contact the coach and schedule an observation. If not, they’ll receive feedback from a drop-in visit. At next month’s staff meeting overall data from the observations can be shared. That data provides individual teachers an opportunity to get a sense of how their progress or struggles compare with colleagues.

I think that in a process like this, the administrator reinforces that the coach is available to assist any teacher who requests the involvement and that any unrequested feedback is part of the school’s professional development plan (non-evaluative). The collection of observational data across the school regarding a desired change in practice is critical feedback for the leadership team. Leadership behaviors are decided by knowing where staff and students are at in the change process.


The more that school leaders and instructional coaches model their openness to using coaching feedback to increase their own growth, the more likely a coaching culture will permeate the school.

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One Response to “ Instructional Coach’s Roles ”

  1. Kevin Schlomer Says:

    Hello Steve,

    My name is Kevin Schlomer. I have been to several of your trainings in central Iowa. I used to be an instructional coach and coordinator of instructional coaching at Indianola Schools (Indianola, IA). I have read your books and led book studies with our coaches when I was at Indianola.

    I am currently an assessment consultant with Heartland AEA. I am working with a school district to examine and make sense of their teacher leadership program’s survey data from teachers. As I read through and sorted the comments left by teachers, I thought back to your continuum of the instructional coach’s roles: Evaluation, Supervision, Mentoring, and Peer Coaching.

    I took your continuum and extended it further to the right of peer coaching with: Light Consulting, Confirmatory Actions, and Indifference. I think when coaching programs fall apart it often comes down to a misunderstanding of the nature of power in teaching. I think this extended continuum will help me have a conversation with the school district about what the narrative comments within the survey are telling them.

    I was hoping you might be willing to look at the diagram I created and give me your thoughts. It is a Google drawing available at this link:

    Thanks for all you do!!

    Kevin Schlomer
    Heartland AEA
    Johnston, Iowa

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