By Tom Many, EdD

While support for coaching as the best way to improve a teacher’s instructional practice has grown, so too have the questions principals have about how to implement coaching successfully. One of the biggest questions principals have is should coaching be a choice or an expectation? Should it be up to teachers  to decide if they want to be coached? What responsibility do principals have in promoting coaching as a way to improve teaching and learning in their schools? To explore whether coaching should be voluntary, let’s consider a series of if/then statements:

If, the fundamental purpose of a school is to ensure all students learn to high levels, and
If, in order to achieve that goal, teachers must be continuously working to improve their professional practice, and
If, coaching collaborative teams is recognized as the best way to help teachers improve teaching and learning in their school,
Then, teacher participation in the coaching process as a way to improve their instructional practice must not be voluntary, period.

Strong words? Yes, but if the first three statements are true, the last one must be true as well. Principals have a moral obligation to ensure all students learn to high levels and, by extension, that every member of the faculty is the best teacher they can be. So, if coaching collaborative teams is considered the next generation of best practice and the most effective way to improve teachers’ instructional practice, the only logical conclusion is teachers’ participation in the coaching process cannot be voluntary, it must be an expectation.

Coaching: Voluntary or Expected?

While the answer to this question seems clear enough, some of coaching’s biggest advocates have taken the opposite position and argue coaching must be voluntary. They cite the necessity of “teacher buy-in” and claim without it (teacher buy-in), coaching is ineffective. The problem with the idea that coaching should be voluntary is if coaching collaborative teams is considered best practice, then allowing teachers to opt out of coaching is allowing them to opt out of best practice. And as Ken Williams (2019) says, “In a Professional Learning Community, no one gets to opt out of best practice.”

Given the conflicting messages about whether coaching should be a choice or an expectation, what is a principal to do? Thankfully, there is an alternative and rather than relying on either a voluntary or compulsory approach to coaching, principals and teacher leaders are far better served to focus on creating a coaching culture in their school.

Creating a Coaching Culture

“A coaching culture exists in an organization when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers, and staff engage and develop all their people.” – Hawkins (2012, p. 21)

In a coaching culture, collaborative teams commit to improving their practice by engaging in a process of collective inquiry through reoccurring cycles of continuous improvement coupled with an action orientation that is focused on results. Teams thrive when coaching cultures are focused on these four essential elements. In fact, creating a coaching culture is one of the most effective ways school leaders can promote the development of a high performing PLC.

In schools with strong coaching cultures, coaching is seen as the primary way of delivering professional development. Principals and teacher leaders actively promote the process of coaching as best practice and place a high priority on teachers learning together as members of collaborative teams.

Equally important, schools with strong coaching cultures find ways to commit resources such as time, money, and personnel to support coaching. Evidence of this commitment is seen in the way the master schedule is organized, how staffing allocations are utilized, and the availability of ongoing training opportunities for members of the faculty and staff.

In these schools, coaching is not limited to beginning teachers or those on improvement plans. Coaching is everywhere; it is ubiquitous and readily available to the entire faculty. In order to maximize the impact of coaching, the greatest emphasis is placed on the coaching of collaborative teams.

Finally, in a coaching culture, there is a conscious effort to provide sufficient coaching capacity by using a variety of internal and external coaches, teacher leaders such as department chairs and grade level leads, administrators—even the teacher teams themselves. The word “coach” is no longer viewed as someone’s title; coaching cultures are about coaching, not coaches.

Coaching Collaborative Teams

“If we use coaching to create a safe, supportive relationship where we can help people explore different possibilities and consider how making some of those changes help them [teachers] achieve what’s most important to them, we can get them more invested in the change.” – J. Matthew Becker (2018)

The view that coaching is either one or the other (voluntary or mandatory) sets up a false dichotomy and is too simplistic. It goes without saying that coaching teachers who are willing to improve their practice will undoubtedly make coaching easier but, coaching teachers who are reluctant or even resistant to the idea of becoming more effective makes coaching important!

In the ideal world, every teacher would come to school eager to improve their instructional practice and voluntarily seek out feedback from a coach. Just as it would be great if every student came to school on grade level and ready to learn but neither of these scenarios are realistic. Principals can help even the most hesitant teachers improve their practice by focusing on coaching collaborative teams. In doing so, they create the conditions whereby coaching, and with it a coaching culture, become an accepted part of the school’s collaborative culture.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

TEPSA News, September/October 2019, Vol 76, No 5

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