Coaching from Within the Classroom

There is a paradigm in U.S. public education that teachers of all levels of experience have come to know: two or three times a year, an instructional leader—typically a principal, vice principal or department head—will observe their classroom instruction and provide feedback to the teachers on their performance with the expectation that the feedback is absorbed, synthesized, and then put into action.

The challenge in this paradigm is that the observer is only getting a snapshot of a few moments—be they good or bad—of the teacher’s entire year rather than getting a seat at a window into the individual’s mindset, efficacy, and effectiveness as a teacher. A more impactful paradigm to grow teachers and encourage lifelong development in the profession is to embed instructional leadership in the classroom on an ongoing and persistent basis and use that perspective to shape how teachers reflect on their work and plan for future instruction.

It is not realistic to expect real growth and change from teachers when we only drop in for 20 minutes three times a year. Teachers also might associate these kinds of observations with administrators who need to check off that they have performed their required observations as a task of their position—even when the administrators are genuinely trying to effect change in their schools and classrooms. But 60 minutes a year is simply not enough contact with teachers to help them mature and develop in their profession—especially for teachers who are struggling.

This isn’t to say that walkthroughs and walkarounds are not valuable tools for instructional leaders to gauge classroom culture and instructional effectiveness, but they are not tools that offer teachers real opportunities for sustainable growth in their profession. Walkthroughs can provide valuable data on classroom cultural indicators and help instructional leaders take the pulse of the school—but more must happen after that.

Instead, imagine a classroom where the instructional leader is a coach embedded in the environment in meaningful and significant way:

  • This could include observing from a detached perspective where the coach collects data on what is said and done in the instructional core (the relationship between the teacher and students in the presence of content)—the center to which everything else in a school system is attached.
  • This could include active, or live, coaching where the instructional leader works alongside the teacher to develop their skill and efficacy in the moment the way that a sports coach would in real time deliver pointers to a player from the sidelines.
  • This could include the coach working with students in need of extra attention and feeding data back to the teacher for future action.
  • This could include taking work samples from classrooms and using the student work as a lens into understanding and the larger cultural implications of the teacher’s daily expectations.

This could also include a combination of any and all the above, depending on what the teacher needs in that moment. The value of this paradigm is that the instructional leader is embedded in the classroom culture and environment in a way that allows everyone to focus on the most leverageable indicators of understanding and effect meaningful change to grow student, and teacher, learning. It also allows instructional leaders to adapt their coaching as teachers grow and confront new problems of instruction that did not arise before they developed new skills and strategies for their students. And what better way to model a growth mindset for our students than to show them that we as teachers are learners who also need our own teachers.

As in any effective coaching relationship, the consistency and frequency of contact is essential to teacher growth. It is the difference between taking a cooking class a few times a year and then trying to master the art of cooking based on those three classes versus working side by side with a master chef as she coaches you through your decisions, gives you pointers on technique, talks with you afterwards about the impact of your decisions on the final dish, and probes understanding of how those decisions can be executed in the future, opening the door to new challenges and new cuisines.

As educators we have a responsibility to our most important stakeholders: the children in our classroom seats. To that end, the most effective way to grow teachers is to embed ourselves as instructional leaders into classrooms at multiple levels and in a variety of ways to first see the very complex relationships between the teacher, the students and the content and use every opportunity to help our teachers be the best they can be for our students. 


This post was contributed by Dr. Christopher Emmerson-Pace, an Instructional Coach at Classical Charter Schools. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.

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