Key Role for Principals: Instructional Coach
Blog, Tips for School & District Administrators

Principal as Instructional Coach: An Overview

By Terry Wilhelm

In the last Leaders’ Link, I cited several research conclusions of Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters about leadership, including this one regarding principals:

“To increase school reliability, the primary job of school level leadership is to ensure high within-school quality and low within-school variability in the quality of instruction for every student.”

To accomplish this stunningly simple but very challenging task, principals may serve in the role of instructional coach. Upgrading classroom practices to ensure high-quality teaching in classrooms schoolwide and a low variability in quality from classroom to classroom involves professional development for teachers, which can take a variety of forms.

Follow-up coaching = effective teacher professional development

However, a frequently overlooked point — first illuminated by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers in 1987 — is that without follow-up coaching, the probability of teachers fully and effectively implementing what they learn during PD is between 5 and 25%. With coaching, the probability of effective implementation rises to around 90%.

This does not necessarily imply that the principal personally provides one-to-one teacher coaching, although the principal’s role as instructional coach could encompass that. Realistically, however, teacher-to-administrator ratios alone could make this a daunting undertaking. Research on principal feedback to teachers after the typically infrequent formal observations required for teacher evaluation in most districts across the U.S. does not bear out its efficacy in improving instruction, nor in supporting high-quality teaching practices that may already be present.

Instructional coaching strategies to improve schoolwide instruction

Teacher evaluation methods are typically contractual, and it is possible that they may not change significantly for a long time. However, several other options to accomplish what Marzano and Waters advocate are worth exploring, and will be discussed in upcoming posts. These include:

  • The use of regular teacher collaboration, in course-alike or grade level teams, for PD and coaching. This requires strategic, deliberate development in order to be effective.
  • Identifying and developing Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs) as instructional coaches. The most effective uses of TOSAs utilize some formal model of coaching. The valuable resource of trained TOSAs will simply be wasted if teachers voluntarily sign up if they want to be coached.
  • The use of group feedback following frequent, informal classroom walkthroughs by the principal, and the entire administrative team, if there is one.
  • TOSAs can also do walk-throughs and provide group feedback.
  • The use of cognitive questioning by administrators, TOSAs, and teachers in team collaborations, when coaching individuals.

Watch for discussions of these and related topics for supporting the principal as an instructional coach in upcoming posts.

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