Building Teacher Capacity: The True Role of Instructional Coaches

I believe that I work with some of “the industry’s” best instructional coaches!  They are hard-working, positive and focused on improving learning experiences for children.  But they are also often pulled in many directions, and I listened carefully as they began describing what “a day in the life” really looked like.  After several of these conversations, I realized that their daily tasks were falling into three categories:

  • Coaching tasks that build teacher capacity
  • Tasks by coaches that make the lives of teachers easier
  • Tasks that are administrative in nature or otherwise unconnected to coaching

This realization led to a natural conversation to help the coaches prioritize their many tasks.

Defining “building teacher capacity”

It is always helpful to come to a shared understanding of terms that are frequently used in the world of teaching and coaching.  Many of the coaches would quickly respond, “My job is to build teacher capacity”, if asked.  But what does that mean, and what does that look like in practice?  

At our next coach gathering, I reiterated that the job of an instructional coach is to build teacher capacity.  Heads nodded.   I continued, stating that “building teacher capacity” does not necessarily mean making the lives of teachers easier.  Leaving the last statement hanging, the coaches were asked to think about all of the tasks that they work on during the course of a typical school day.  They were to write each task on a separate sticky note.  After several minutes of furious scribbling, the coaches were then asked to individually sort their sticky notes into the three categories previously mentioned: tasks that build teacher capacity; tasks that make teachers’ lives easier; and tasks that are administrative and/or unrelated to coaching.  The coaches were then invited to share their discoveries with each other.  The discussion was powerful!  One coach exclaimed in dismay, “Oh, no!  I am an enabler!”  Others talked about how they form initial relationships with teachers.  We concluded that sometimes “making the lives of teachers easier” is an appropriate strategy to demonstrate servant leadership and to establish positive relationships with new and/or resistant teachers.  We agreed, however, that this approach must be followed by a “gradual release of responsibility” so that we are soon returned to a focus on developing instructional strategies in teachers that will allow them to independently foster student success.

Role of coach 2

Establishing priorities

With their daily tasks still in front of them on the sticky notes, coaches were offered an opportunity to establish priorities.  They collaborated to brainstorm ways to empower other teacher leaders in their buildings as they considered the tasks that fell into the third category; tasks that were either administrative in nature and/or unrelated to coaching.  Some tasks in the “making lives easier” category were determined to be simply unnecessary, and others were carefully analyzed to consider whether they may still be necessary with some teachers, and if so, which teachers and for how long.  As coaches either shifted or eliminated tasks, their energy around the work of truly building teacher capacity soared!

Team effort

Our coaches left this meeting with a fresh outlook on their role and with many ideas of how they could return to their schools and empower other teacher leaders, while narrowing the focus of their own work.  An instructional coach, however, is just one member of a site-based instructional leadership team.  Recognizing this, building administrators were given the opportunity to engage in the same reflective experience.  Role of coach 1This served several purposes.  First, it allowed for informal review of our district’s expectations for instructional coaching.  Second, it highlighted the  somewhat untapped potential of other great teacher leaders in the buildings.  Third, it opened the door for the instructional coaches and principals to engage in conversation about what coaching actions really need to be the focus to build teacher capacity in each school.

Instructional coaches are dedicated to creating opportunities for others to experience success.  When a shared understanding of “building teacher capacity” exists, focused coaching can lead to teacher and student growth!