The number of instructional coaches hired by school districts has more than doubled since the introduction of federal standards requiring an ongoing and focused attention on the professional development of teachers (Domina et al., 2015). This means that the majority of school districts across the United States now employ instructional coaches to work with teachers to provide professional development, implement standards-based policy, and improve teacher effectiveness in the classroom by building instructional capacity. Many of these new instructional coaches are former classroom teachers with a high level of instructional expertise, but limited experience with professional development, instructional coaching or knowledge of the complex roles they have been asked to assume (Gallucci et al., 2010; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015).
This research study will examine the teaching, learning, and coaching beliefs and practices of instructional coaches. Special attention will be paid to these beliefs and practices within the context of coaches’ cognitive, organizational, and reform roles. In their cognitive role, coaches influence teachers’ instructional beliefs and behaviors as they help teachers make curriculum and instructional decisions. In their organizational role, coaches build instructional capacity among teachers, helping teachers to develop the processes to affect whole school improvement. In their reform role, coaches frame policy messages and help teachers to make sense of and implement the practices of policy reform in their classrooms. The study will also explore the tensions and obstacles that arise when coaches’ beliefs, perceptions, practices, or roles are misaligned.
Instructional coaching emerged as a strategy to improve the instructional practices of classroom teachers and grew in scope when it was adopted as a strategy for whole school improvement (Joyce & Showers, 1982, 1985; Neufeld & Roper, 2003; Poglinco & Bach, 2004). These two seemingly similar, yet different, purposes have resulted in numerous types of instructional coaches and a variety of roles that coaches assume depending on their school and program context. As a result, the position of instructional coach differs widely and the perceptions of the roles of the coach may not always align with their assigned tasks and responsibilities. Many instructional coaches enter the position directly from the classroom and the training they receive is often limited and may or may not align with the work they are doing with teachers. As a result, instructional coaches are constantly working to make meaning of their role. This study will explore these ideas through the lens of organizational sensemaking, which focuses on how individuals make meaning of their experiences and then act on that understanding.
The current body of knowledge examining instructional coaches own beliefs and perceptions of their work is minimal and little is known about how these perceptions influence their coaching practices or how coaches perform their various roles. This research study will address this gap through an examination of instructional coaches’ perceptions of their roles, their coaching practices, the alignment of the perceptions and practices in everyday work, and the tensions that occur when roles, beliefs, and practices are not in alignment.
It is important that instructional coaches have a greater understanding of the various roles they are asked to play and the complexity of their roles because they, knowingly or unknowingly, act as sensemakers for classroom teachers as they make decisions about what policy messages teachers focus on, thereby influencing how the policies are ultimately implemented into classroom practice. District and school leaders will also benefit from this knowledge as they make decisions about instructional coaching programs and aligning the work of their coaches with the goals of the school or district. This understanding also has the potential to impact how leaders support their instructional coaches in affecting policy change in the classroom through the professional learning that coaches receive. Researchers will also benefit from the results of this study as it provides further insight into the complexity of coaching roles and responsibilities through an examination of coaches’ perspectives and practices within these roles and responsibilities.
Current educational policies and reform efforts have increasingly called for improved teacher practice that leads to increased student achievement surrounding academic standards (Galey, 2016). As a result, the professional development of teachers is shifting away from standalone workshops and seminars to a more authentic, differentiated, ongoing, and job-embedded learning that is supported by the work of instructional coaches (Knight, 2006; Stover, Kissel, Haag, & Schoniker, 2011). As a broad definition, instructional coaches are full-time professional developers, working on-site with teachers to incorporate research-based instructional practices into their classrooms (Knight, 2007). Originally, coaching was conceived as a way to help ensure that teachers began to use new models of instruction in their classroom practice, to build communities of teachers who engaged in the study of their craft, and to develop the shared language and understandings necessary for the study of new knowledge and skills (Joyce & Showers, 1982; Showers, 1985). However, coaching is being framed more and more in the context of educational and policy reform (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Domina, Lewis, Agarwal, & Hanselman, 2015; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015; Galey, 2016). As a result, coaches are being asked to act as “professional sensemakers” in their role as intermediaries between federal, state, and district-directed policies and classroom practices (Domina et al., 2015).
To compound the issue, in many cases, instructional coaches are often hired directly from their classrooms and do not have any significant prior knowledge regarding instructional coaching or the multi-faceted role that they are asked to play, especially with regard to their role in educational reform (Gallucci, Van Lare, Yoon, & Boatright, 2010). Much of the practitioner literature for instructional coaching focuses on individual reform, while increasingly, educational leaders call for systemic reform (Ippolito, 2010; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). Therefore, these novice coaches must learn to navigate the tension that exists between meeting the needs of the individual teachers they serve and the needs of the system in which they were hired. To do this effectively, coaches must recognize and understand the diverse roles and purposes they serve for the various stakeholders (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Killion, Harrison, Bryan, & Clifton, 2012; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). Galey (2016) classifies these roles into three broad categories: cognitive, organizational, and reform. In their cognitive role, coaches work with individual and small groups of teachers to improve classroom practice. In their organizational role, coaches work toward building instructional capacity and collegial sharing among teachers. In their reform role, coaches use their position to influence teachers and implement systemic reforms at the classroom level. Tension and conflicts may arise as coaches attempt to make sense of these various coaching roles as they shift from one to another (Mudzimiri, Burroughs, Luebeck, Sutton, & Yopp, 2014; Rainville & Jones, 2008).
Much of the existing research literature examines instructional coaching at the coach level, exploring coaches’ roles and responsibilities (Costa & Garmston, 2002; Deussen, Coskie, Robinson & Autio, 2007; Mudzimiri et al., 2014; Neufeld & Roper (2003); Walpole & Blamey, 2008), identities (Chval, Arbaugh, Lannin, van Garderen, Cummings, Estapa & Huey, 2010; Crafton & Kaiser, 2011; Hunt & Handsfield, 2013), practices (Gibbons & Cobb, 2016, 2017; Stover, Kissel, Haag & Shoniker, 2011; Walkowiak, 2016), and their professional learning (Gallucci et al., 2010; L’Allier, Elish-Piper & Bean, 2010; Stock & Duncan, 2010). Recently, the research has begun to examine instructional coaching at the system level, analyzing the roles of the coach as a position of power and influence in educational reform (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Domina et al., 2015; Fullan & Knight, 2011; Galey, 2016; Hopkins, Ozimek & Sweet, 2016; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015; Poglinco & Bach, 2004). The tensions that coaches experience as they find a balance between their responsibility to the individual needs of the teacher and the needs of the system is an area that has just recently begun to be explored (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Ippolito, 2010; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). While the research has found that coaches acknowledge this tension and the challenges associated surrounding it, little is known about the extent to which this tension affects their daily work (Hunt & Handsfield, 2013; Ippolito, 2010; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). There is also little known about coaches’ own beliefs about their roles and the extent to which they align with the organizational, cognitive, and reform roles they are asked to play. The research is also lacking in the study of how coaches’ beliefs/perceptions impact their practices with teachers and how these beliefs and practices align. Thus, this research study will explore the gaps in the literature by examining the concepts of coaches’ perceptions about their roles, the alignment of their perceptions and coaching practices, and the tensions that coaches experience as they serve cognitive, organizational, and reform roles.
In the following sections, this dissertation will examine the complexity of the roles and practices of instructional coaches in an era of educational reform. The first section describes organizational sensemaking, the conceptual framework of this study, which focuses on how people make meaning of their circumstances to inform their sense of identity and guide their behaviors. Next, the literature review will examine the educational environment in which instructional coaching exists, the types and roles of coaches, and the complexity of the roles of coaches. A review of the methodological literature will focus on how researchers have approached the study of instructional coaching. Then, a discussion of the methodological issues will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the methodological approaches used in the research of instructional coaching. The synthesis section will pull together the various elements of the literature review to present a picture of the current state of instructional coaching. Next, the critique section will examine the strengths and weaknesses of prior research studies to identify where and how this dissertation contributes to the larger body of instructional coaching research literature. Finally, a summary of the chapter will identify the key elements of the discussion and describe the need for the current study.
Review of the Literature
Instructional coaching, as a general concept, emerged from research finding that schools were “loosely coupled” organizations, in which teachers are connected to administrators, but that each maintained their own identity and separateness of work (Weick, 1976). Other research around this time characterized the American educational system as being bureaucratic, fragmented, unresponsive to change, and ineffective, especially in the sense that school leaders lacked influence over the important instructional work taking place in classrooms (Taylor, 2008). This lead to a proliferation of research centered on characteristics of effective schools: autonomy of schools to address academic performance, strong school leadership, staff stability, purposeful and organized curriculum, schoolwide staff development, involve parents, celebrate academic success, maximize learning time, and be supported by the school district (Purkey & Smith, 1983). There was also evidence that these characteristics could be enhanced by a productive school culture in which there was collaborative planning and collegial relationships, a sense of community, clear goals and high expectations, and order and discipline (Purkey & Smith, 1983).
Instructional Coaching Background
It was out of this educational research environment that Joyce and Showers’ (1982, 1985) research on peer coaching developed. They advocated the use of peer coaching as a way of building communities of teachers focused on studying instruction, developing a shared language and understanding of knowledge and skills, and as a way of providing a structure to ensure the transfer of skills into classroom practice (Joyce & Showers, 1985). Their previous research had shown that even with strong professional development experiences, few teachers who had learned a new skill or instructional approach would add it to their classroom practice on a regular basis. However, when a coaching component was added to the teachers’ learning experiences, the majority of teachers began to transfer the new approach into their practice (Joyce & Showers, 1982). Other researchers began to investigate this staff development model and a strong research base for peer coaching developed, which eventually served as a foundation for the instructional coaching models that emerged from the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) mandated that states and school districts include provisions for hiring highly qualified teachers and creating school improvement plans that included professional development for teachers. In addition to funding programs to help schools increase student achievement, the federal government also awarded funding to assist schools with professional development that was “on a continuous, ongoing basis, and is sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused” that included strategies such as “mentoring and coaching in the classroom” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p. 9). It was from these programs that the formal position of instructional coach began to more clearly emerge in the research literature as researchers focused on the characteristics and results of these federally funded programs in schools across the United States (Deussen, Coskie, Robinson, & Autio, 2007; Neufeld & Roper, 2003; Poglinco & Bach, 2004).
Instructional coaching has come to be viewed as an effective professional development strategy because it offers teachers authentic and differentiated support for their learning, thus treating teachers as professionals by providing “time and support for teachers to reflect, converse about, explore, and practice new ways of thinking about and doing this remarkably important and complex act, called teaching” (Knight, 2009, p. 2). Instructional coaching also adheres to the principles of high quality professional development: 1) intensive, ongoing, and connected to teacher practice, 2) focused on student learning and curriculum content, 3) aligned with school improvement priorities and goals, and 4) builds strong working relationships among teachers (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). Instructional coaching research has shown that coaching impacts teacher practice by increasing the transfer of new learning into classroom practice (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Joyce & Showers, 1982; Knight, 2005, 2007; Poglinco & Bach, 204), increasing teacher agency (Vanderburg & Stephens, 2010), improving instructional quality (Coburn & Russell, 2008), and connecting teachers with federal, state, and district policies (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Galey, 2016).
As more and more schools are hiring instructional coaches to help meet the professional learning needs of their staff, the available research is also increasing. Researchers have provided insight into the roles and responsibilities of coaches (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008; Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Deussen, Coskie, Robinson, & Autio, 2007; Mudzimiri, Burroughs, Luebeck, Sutton, & Yopp, 2014; Walpole & Blamey, 2008), their coaching practices (Gibbons & Cobb, 2017; Heineke, 2013; Ippolito, 2009, 2010; Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015), their identities as coaches (Chval, Arbaugh, Lannin, van Garderen, Cummings, Estapa, & Huey, 2010; Hunt & Handsfield, 2013; Rainville & Jones, 2008), the models of instructional coaching (Killion, 2010; Knight, Elford, Dunekack, Bradley, Deshler, & Knight, 2015), the professional development of coaches (Brown, 2016; Stock & Duncan, 2010; Stover, Kissel, Haag, & Shoniker, 2011), their impact on teacher practice (Vanderburg & Stephens, 2010) and student achievement (Kraft, Blazar, & Hogan, 2016; L’Allier, Elish-Piper, & Bean, 2010), and organizational factors influencing coaching programs (Ferguson, 2014; Fullan & Knight, 2011; Mangin, 2009; Niedzwiecki, 2007; Poglinco & Bach, 2004).
While much of the instructional coaching research has focused on literacy coaches, the current research base has expanded to include specific studies on other content area coaches, including math coaches (Gibbons & Cobb, 2016; Luebeck & Burroughs, 2017; Walkowiak, 2016), science coaches (Anderson, Feldman, & Minstrell, 2014; Rangel, Bell, & Monroy, 2017), and educational technology coaches (Halter & Finch, 2011; Sugar, 2005). There is also a growing focus on instructional coaching in a general sense that can be applied across disciplines and situations (Galey, 2016; Gallucci, Van Lare, Yoon, & Boatright, 2010; Kurz, Reddy, & Glover, 2017; Neufeld & Roper, 2003).
Types of Instructional Coaches
One of the obstacles researchers have encountered in studying instructional coaching is defining the roles and responsibilities of the instructional coach due to the multiple approaches and models available for categorizing the work of the coach. In a study of elementary literacy coaches, Deussen et al. (2007) identified five categories of coaches based on how they spent the majority of their time each day: data coaches, student-oriented coaches, managerial coaches, teacher-oriented coaches who focus on individuals, and teacher-oriented coaches who focus on groups. Coaches have also been described by their purpose within the school: change coaches focus on whole school improvement and content coaches focus on improving teachers’ instructional strategies (Neufeld & Roper, 2003). Other models of coaching have focused on the coach’s expertise: instructional coaches have proficiency in effective instructional strategies and pedagogy, technical coaches are resource-providers and model high-quality instruction, content coaches have significant content expertise, cognitive coaches understand Costa and Garmston’s (2002) Cognitive Coaching process and have knowledge in habits of mind and cognitive processing, and peer coaches have particular expertise in collaboration and inquiry practices (Killion, Harrison, Bryan, & Clifton, 2012).
Roles of Instructional Coaches
Killion and Harrison (2006) identified ten roles that describe the multiple dimensions of coaches’ work: resource provider, data coach, instructional specialist, curriculum specialist, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, mentor, school leader, catalyst for change, and leader. While each of these roles is distinct in terms of the knowledge and skills required to fulfill that role, the reality is that the majority of coaches typically fill multiple roles simultaneously and at varying levels of implementation that are dependent upon their context, tasks, and with whom they are working (Killion & Harrison, 2006; Mudzimiri et al., 2014). Galey (2016) has classified the many roles of instructional coaches into three broad categories based on their function: cognitive, organizational, and policy reform.
The cognitive role of instructional coaches. In their cognitive role, coaches focus on teacher development for the purpose of improving instruction and student learning. Student achievement is impacted most when teacher professional learning is connected to their application of knowledge to classroom planning and instruction (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009; Desimone & Pak, 2017). To accomplish this, coaches work in partnership with teachers, helping teachers to identify areas in which they would like to see improvement in their instruction, assessment, classroom management, or student achievement (Mudzimiri et al., 2014). In this work, coaches typically engage teachers in a cycle of planning, observation, modeling, reflecting, and conferencing that is focused on collaboratively identifying a goal or strategy to improve classroom practice, practicing and implementing the strategy, and monitoring the implementation of the strategy as well as student outcomes to determine whether the goal is being met (Akhavan, 2015; Knight et al., 2015). As coaches work with teachers, they build teachers’ sense of efficacy and help them develop a sense of agency as teachers are encouraged and supported to take risks and try new practices in their classrooms (Akhavan, 2015; Cantrell & Hughes, 2008; Tschannen-Moran & McMaster, 2009; Vanderburg & Stephens, 2010).
The organizational role of instructional coaches. Researchers have found that facilitating professional learning that emphasizes teacher collaboration and inquiry is a key factor in promoting school change that impacts both individual classrooms and the school as a whole (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009; Hopkins et al., 2016). In their organizational role, coaches focus on building the instructional capacity of teachers through their own collaboration with teachers and their work with facilitating professional learning communities and collaboration among teachers. There is evidence that shows that well-developed and high-functioning professional learning communities positively impact both classroom instructional practices and student achievement (Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). Vanderburg and Stephens (2010) found that teachers also value this type of professional learning, which might include coach-led study groups with discussions, the sharing of teaching experiences, and connecting with the same content teachers in other grade levels. Schools and instructional coaches who are able to design their coaching programs to focus on providing these types of professional learning experiences for their teachers often situate their coaches as brokers, individuals who have the capacity to “facilitate the spread of information and resources by either directly or indirectly connecting previously disconnected individuals” (Hopkins et al., 2016, p. 217). This brokering is both vertical and horizontal and internal and external. When coaches connect district leaders and administrators with classroom teachers, they are bridging the vertical levels of the system and when coaches connect teachers and ideas through the sharing of successful instructional practices, they are brokering across horizontal gaps (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003). In addition to this exchange of information within the organizational system, coaches also bring outside knowledge into the school to continue to encourage ongoing improvement through new instructional practices and new research-based strategies. These brokering moves not only impact the quality of the collaborative interactions among teachers, they also have the potential to shape the school’s culture toward learning and collaboration as teachers become the source of innovation of classroom practice (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Hopkins et al., 2016). Fullan and Knight (2011) identify this organizational element as crucial to the work of coaches because it is through this work that coaches help to change the culture of the school and connect teachers with the larger educational system as it relates to instructional practice.
The reform role of instructional coaches. Instructional coaches also play an important role in implementing and supporting instructional policy in system reform. Coaches bridge the gap between the vision of reform and its enactment in classroom practice (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003). To do this, coaches act as knowledge managers, which allow them to provide context and vision for what reform can be in their particular school setting. Coggins et al. (2003) propose four dimensions through which coaches manage knowledge: a) data and assessment that informs teachers about student progress, b) identifying gaps in equity that help to close achievement gaps, c) the implementation of new instructional practices and reflection on current practices, and d) a vision of what a school needs to do to improve teaching and learning that is based on a coach’s knowledge of the school and its context.
As intermediaries between district leaders, coaches routinely frame instructional policies for teachers and school leaders, which can influence how teachers understand and implement the policies in their classrooms (Coburn, 2006). Coburn and Woulfin (2012) found that coaches played a significant role in helping teachers to implement policy initiatives into their classroom practice. Although coaches were only involved in 28% of the policy messages that teachers received, teachers were more likely to implement greater levels of policy changes in their classroom practice and less likely to reject the policy message when delivered by the coach than when delivered by outside program consultants, state program monitors, school district leaders, building administrators, or other school materials related to the policies (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012). Other researchers have also linked the work of instructional coaches with building instructional capacity for policy implementation within various reforms (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Hopkins, Spillane, Jakopovic, & Heaton, 2013).
The Professional Development of Instructional Coaches
The role of instructional coach is fairly new in many school and districts and, as a result, many instructional coaches are hired directly from their classrooms with a high level of instructional expertise and years of classroom experience, but with limited experience with instructional coaching or facilitating professional development experiences for adults (Gallucci et al., 2010). While a strong instructional background is essential for coaching, researchers have found that the professional vision for coaching is distinct from a professional vision for teaching and there are additional layers of knowledge and skills that coaches must have to be effective (Burkins & Ritchie, 2007; Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003; Gibbons & Cobb, 2016). At the same time, instructional coaching requires more than just acquiring additional knowledge and skills, it requires a professional identity that is different from a teaching identity (Chval et al., 2010). As a result, instructional coaches, especially novice coaches, benefit from professional learning that is focused specifically on developing the unique skills and competencies of coaches (Gallucci et al., 2010).
To build their vision of coaching, coaches need training that focuses on understanding instructional practices, but goes beyond to also understanding the continuum of teacher development with these instructional practices so the coach can support the teacher in improving their classroom practices (Gibbons & Cobb, 2016; Scott, Cortina, & Carlisle, 2012). Burkins and Ritchie (2007) identified three layers of relating that coaches need to develop that include being qualified to make instructional decisions to support teachers as they support their students, to understand what is required to coach adults, use effective change strategies, and maintain a reflective stance, and to offer support to and be supported by other coaches. Gallucci et al. (2010) also emphasized the importance of the reflective stance so that coaches are able to make sense of their own learning to be able to support that same learning for teachers.
In a survey of literacy coaches, Blarney, Meyer, and Walpole (2008) found that graduate level coursework, district level professional development focused on coaching, and professional readings were the most common forms of professional learning in both their initial preparation and ongoing training as instructional coaches. Coaches in this study recommended that professional development for coaches should include opportunities for collaboration among coaches to provide time to plan and to learn new research-based instructional strategies, to share ideas about what is and is not working, and to commiserate on the challenges (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008). Other researchers suggest that coaches would benefit from mentoring and professional development in the areas of building instructional capacity among teachers, using data, working with difficult teachers, creating a collegial staff environment, strategies for direct coaching of teachers, (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003; Stock & Duncan, 2010). Obara and Sloan (2009) identify a set of specific skills for coaches to be successful in their work that includes “content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, knowledge of the curriculum, knowledge of gift and special needs students, knowledge of research, and social leadership skills” (p. 11).
Providing professional development for instructional coaches can be a challenge due to the cost, lack of research on effective professional development for coaches, an assumption that good teachers are automatically good coaches, and a “ready-fire-aim” approach to change and innovation in schools (Gallucci et al., 2010, Mangin, 2009; Toll, 2017). Mangin and Dunsmore (2015) also found that the type of professional development that coaches receive can also create challenges. For example, the training that many instructional coaches receive, especially in the practitioner literature, is framed in the context of supporting individual teacher change. This training can conflict with system-wide reform efforts when coaches do not utilize other structures to facilitate group conversations related to teaching and learning, leading to role confusion for coaches as they try to operate within the framework of their training, but are asked to push for the demands of the larger system (Mangin & Dunsmore, 2015). This illustrates the importance of coherence and assuring alignment among systems, specifically related to the professional development of coaches and the goals of the system in which they work (Honig & Hatch, 2004; Mangin, 2009; Toll, 2017).
Characteristics of Effective Instructional Coaches
Researchers have identified many different characteristics of effective instructional coaches, but there are several characteristics which are found across multiple studies. First, coaches who have a clarity of their role and responsibilities are more effective than those who do not have clear direction in their work (Luebeck & Burroughs, 2017; Riddle Buly et al., 2006; Toll, 2017). Another common characteristic of effective coaches is their use of a plan in their work with teachers. Effective coaches have a plan in place to focus their work and to serve as a roadmap for their interactions with teachers during coaching conversations, including teacher goals, evidence of progress, and student work showing outcomes of the coaching work (Knight et al., 2015; Toll, 2017a, Toll, 2017b). Coaches who develop trust and partnerships with teachers also tend to be effective in their work (Obara & Sloan, 2009; L’Allier, Elish-Piper, & Bean, 2010; Luebeck & Burroughs, 2017; Toll, 2017). Coaches who see positive outcomes from their work with teachers and students typically have good communication skills and strategies who can bring their experiences and insights to the work, but also demonstrate an openness to the opinions and experiences of the teacher with whom they are working (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008; Crafton & Kaiser, 2011; Heineke, 2013; Walkowiak, 2016). Toll (2017) identifies these types of coaching conversations to be “the crux of the coaching process” (p. 3).
The Impact of Coaches on Teachers and Classroom Practice
Researchers have noted the influence of instructional coaches on teacher efficacy, teacher agency, and classroom practices that have the potential to impact student achievement. Teacher self-efficacy has been identified as one of most powerful predictors of a teacher’s receptivity to change (Tschannen-Moran & McMaster, 2009). Cantrell and Hughes (2008) identified instructional coaching and collaboration as key elements in developing a teacher’s sense of efficacy in their instructional practices tied to their content and found that teachers with higher levels of efficacy are more likely to implement changes to their classroom practices than teachers with lower levels of efficacy. Teachers working with instructional coaches have felt that the experience empowered them and helped them develop a sense of agency as they were supported in learning and using research-based strategies, taking risks, collaborating with others, providing feedback, assisting with lesson planning, and trying out new teaching practices (Vanderburg & Stephens, 2010). Teachers noted that their willingness to try these new practices was tied to changes in their philosophy of teaching, which became more student-centered and resulted in helping their students to also develop an increased sense of agency as learners (Vanderburg & Stephens, 2010). In a similar vein, Ellington, Whitenack, and Edwards (2016) found that math teachers who are highly engaged with a mathematics instructional coach made changes in how they perceived student learning, leading to a sensemaking approach to learning math rather than a procedural approach. Researchers have also reported higher achievement results on student assessments in middle schools that used mathematics coaching as compared to schools without coaching programs or with coaches who spent less time coaching, especially when new curriculum and standards are being implemented (Ellington et al., 2016; Obara & Sloan, 2009).
Challenges Impacting Instructional Coaches
Instructional coaches face a wide range of challenges in their work. The primary challenge of many coaches is an understanding of their role and their responsibilities, which often comes from a lack of understanding of the position at the district or school level (Toll, 2017; Woulfin & Rigby, 2017). When district or school leaders do not understand the role of the instructional coach, they may assign tasks to the coach that are more managerial and less related to coaching, which limits the work that coaches are able to do to make changes in instructional practices (Luebeck & Burroughs, 2017; Mangin, 2009; Niedzwiecki, 2007; Toll, 2017). The definition of coaching roles and responsibilities is also related to the challenges that coaches experience with legitimacy and coherence.
When the coaching role is not well-defined or ambiguous, coaches also experience the challenge of attaining legitimacy. If a coach’s role is not accepted as legitimate by others, they will experience challenges in all other areas of their work (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003). Both leaders and teachers must see the role as a necessary addition to the school, perceive the coach as having the skills and background to support the school improvement needs, and see that their work is directly tied to helping teachers and students reach their teaching and learning goals (Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003). Another challenge to legitimacy is the fact that the coach does not always hold a position of authority within a school. Without the support of the school leader to help legitimize the work of the coach, not everyone in the school may view the work of the coach as essential or necessary to their work and issues of power and positioning arise (Hunt & Handsfield, 2013; Rainville & Jones, 2008; Smith, 2012).
The challenge of legitimacy is also tied to the challenge of coherence. When a system is coherent – the district and school goals match, the programs and policies in the school are aligned with the school goals, and the work that staff are asked to do matches up with the programs and policies, and the coach’s roles and responsibilities are aligned with all of these areas, then the work of the coach is likely to be viewed as legitimate (Honig & Hatch, 2004). When these systems are in alignment, the coach is in a unique position to continue to bring coherence to the work because of his/her role as a bridge between the vision of improvement at the district and school leader levels and the enactment of the practices at the classroom and teacher levels (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Coggins, Stoddard, & Cutler, 2003).
Even within a system that demonstrates coherence, the instructional coach still serves a variety of roles, which can lead to challenges in balancing the different roles, leading to coaches feeling overwhelmed and incompetent in their work (Cantrell et al., 2015; Ippolito, 2010). Coaches must also deal with the emotions that result from their idealized views of their roles coming into conflict with their actual roles as they work with teachers who may not always welcome them into their classrooms or embrace a change in instructional practice, administrators who may not fully understand their roles, and frustration from dealing with managerial tasks that take them away from their primary work as coaches (Chval et al., 2010).
Much of the research on instructional coaching has come from the study of elementary literacy coaches and the outcomes may not always be generalizable to other types of coaches or coaches in middle schools or high schools (Riddle Buly et al., 2006). Secondary schools are often larger than elementary schools, which means there are larger numbers of teachers and more diverse groups of students (because achievement gaps widen over time), so expecting one coach in a larger building to function in the same capacity as a coach in a smaller building may not be realistic (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008; Smith, 2009). Teachers in secondary schools have often received different messages about student learning than elementary teachers. In elementary schools, the emphasis is often placed on instruction to meet the individual needs of a teacher’s single classroom of students. At the high school level, the emphasis is often on the content knowledge and the teachers may not focus on individualization, especially when the teacher sees multiple classes of students throughout the day (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008; Riddle Buly et al., 2006).
Instructional Coaches’ Perceptions of their Roles
The majority of research related to the perceptions of instructional coaches is related to the various roles they play within a school system as well as the practices in which they engage. One of the most commonly identified perceptions of coaches is the tension that they experience as they try to meet both the individual needs of teachers as well as the needs of the larger school or system agenda (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012; Ippolito, 2010; Rangel, Bell, & Monroy, 2017; Smith, 2012). This tension comes from being placed in a role in which an instructional coach has little or no actual authority with teachers, but is asked to support, if not lead, the implementation of initiatives and policy and, ultimately, teacher change (Coburn & Woulfin, 2012). Researchers have identified two primary stances that coaches take in their relationships with teachers in response to this role: responsive relationships focus on the needs of the teacher, while directive relationships focus on implementing the policy initiatives and instructional practices into classrooms (Deussen et al., 2007; Ippolito, 2010). In his study of literacy coaches, Ippolito (2010) identified three mechanisms that coaches use to navigate the tensions. He found that coaches will shift between the two stances during a single coaching session, recognizing that different approaches are needed at different times and for different purposes. Many coaches have also turned to protocols to help them facilitate the coaching conversation, to set norms, and establish routines for interacting collaboratively with teachers. A final strategy, highly dependent upon the support of administrators, was shared leadership roles, in which the instructional practices and goals of the principal, teacher, and coach were aligned (Ippolito, 2010). Wilder (2014) notes that it is the coach’s beliefs about the nature of knowledge and learning that are reflected in the stances in which they take while working with teachers. Gibbons and Cobb (2016) identify the concept of a professional vision, distinct from a vision of teaching, that coaches develop that helps them to be able to make decisions regarding how they work with teachers and they activities they choose to use. This professional vision develops from the knowledge, understanding, and perceptions that coaches hold about teaching, learning, and coaching.
In the research, coaches also perceived their role as being supporters of teachers and students, being a curriculum resource, supporting the school as a whole, and playing a role in student assessment and the analysis of data (Blarney, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008; Chval et al., 2010; Smith, 2012). They believed that these roles allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge and build their credibility, develop positive working relationships with teachers, and build trust (Smith, 2012). Coaches had the perception that they needed to prove themselves as experts to the administrators and teachers with whom they work, especially in situations where their role was unclear or expectations for their role was varied (Domina et al., 2015; Hunt & Handsfield, 2013).
Building positive working relationships with teachers was another common perception in the literature (Hunt & Handsfield, 2013; Rainville & Jones, 2008; Smith, 2012). Coaches had a desire to work collaboratively with teachers, to share their knowledge and understanding, to build trust, and to know their teachers well so they could coach them well (Hunt & Handsfield, 2013). Smith (2012) also found that coaches felt that establishing a positive working environment with teachers was a central factor in being able to work with teachers on instructional practices and they did so through flexibility in their scheduling of coaching, establishing clarity and purpose in their observations and conversations, and considering the impact of their words while providing feedback.
Ferguson (2014) found that literacy coaches perceived success in their work as increases in student achievement as evidenced by scores on reading assessments, in seeing teachers implementing the literacy initiatives into their classroom practice, through an increase in professional dialogue among teachers, and an increase the number of teachers seeking out coaching opportunities from the literacy coach. Smith (2014) concluded that coaches’ perspectives of their coaching were framed by the successes and challenges they experienced in their work as well as by their past experiences with teaching and learning.