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Common Pitfalls of Coaching Programs

Stay out of common pitfalls and take these recommended actions!

With all the changes teachers have had to keep up with during the COVID-19 pandemic - new curricula, new policies, new teaching platforms - it’s never been more apparent that teaching is a practice of continuous change and, hopefully, improvement. Having an instructional coach is a great way for a teacher to receive the support needed toward the improvements even the most veteran teachers among us can make. Indeed, research shows that job-embedded coaching is the most effective type of professional learning for teachers.

Why, then, do some coaching programs fail to produce desired student learning outcomes?

In this series of articles, we will share insights about common pitfalls of coaching programs, especially programs focused on math, and offer recommendations on how to make the most of your investment. An overview of each pitfall and how to avoid them are given in this post. Click the headings for further insight on each pitfall and to for ideas on how to implement the recommended actions.


Pitfall #1: Getting instructional coaches into classrooms as soon as possible

Just because you have instructional coaches ready to help teachers, doesn’t mean you should let them loose in classrooms.

Recommendation #1: Set an improvement strategy with instructional coaching as a channel of support


Pitfall #2: Putting the coaching program on auto-pilot

Designing a thoughtful instructional coaching program is important before coaches get into classrooms, but it’s just as important to reflect on and revise the program throughout its implementation.

Recommendation #2: Support implementation of a coaching program by setting SMART goals, collecting data, and analyzing efforts frequently.


Pitfall #3: Taking advantage of having another adult in the building

It’s tempting to use instructional coaches as substitute teachers, test coordinators, student tutors, and lunchroom monitors, but doing so will derail your coaching program.

Recommendation #3: Respect the role and schedules of instructional coaches.


Pitfall #4: Asking the coach for insight on teachers’ progress

Soliciting insight from a coach about a teacher’s abilities, progress, weaknesses or even strengths is a sure way to sink your coaching program because it breaks the trust between teachers and their coaches.

Recommendation #4: Communicate the understanding that real professional learning requires risk-taking by signing a Confidentiality Agreement.


Pitfall #5: Leaving evaluators out of the professional learning program

When primary evaluators are unaware of the pedagogical shifts in mathematics that standards-based teaching requires, classroom teachers are afraid to make any shifts at all.

Recommendation #5: Create a culture of learning by modeling learning at every level and including evaluators in professional development efforts.


Pitfall #6 Having content generalists as your math coaches

It may be seemingly efficient to have one instructional coach for all subjects, but an instructional coach who does not possess both a deep understanding of mathematics content and pedagogical knowledge specifically for mathematics can perpetuate harmful misconceptions that hurt students in the long run.

Recommendation #6: Select instructional math coaches who understand the nuances of the developmental teaching and learning of mathematics.


With good reason, schools all over the country have bought into the idea of instructional coaching as a part of the professional learning offerings for teachers. Aside from improvements in instructional capacity, a report by the Annenberg Foundation for Educational Reform published in 2004 concludes, “an effective coaching program can affect the culture of a school or system, thus embedding instructional change within broader efforts to improve school-based culture and conditions” (Neufeld and Roper 2003). Clearly, the potential impact of a well-designed and managed coaching program on an entire school community, not just individual teachers, is too exciting and important to let sink into the common, yet fully avoidable pitfalls mentioned here.

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