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Professional Development: Every Teacher Needs a Coach

Jordan Catapano

We emphasize professional development, but often take one of two approaches to teacher improvement: Approach 1: One-size-fits-all staff training centering around what school leadership wants everyone to hear, know, or do. Approach 2: Teacher self-led customized professional development via individual attendance at conferences, use of social media, and research. Both of these approaches are good, so I’m not about to say we shouldn’t do either one. We should engage in both. Administration is responsible for leading a school in a specific direction and addressing broader issues via targeted training, hopefully in conjunction with teacher feedback. Approach 1 is necessary and effective. At the same time, teachers should take charge of their own professional development and engage in Approach 2 types of trainings that yield the results specific to their needs. Of course there are other approaches to professional development as well. But one that I especially want teachers to consider is that of taking advantage of a coach.

Every Teacher Deserves a Professional Development Coach

“Get your head in the game, Catapano!” my soccer coach would yell from the sideline if he noticed me staring at clouds when the ball approached me. I might get mad at being called out, but I would get my head in the game and support my team once redirected. My coach was even more helpful during our team practices, walking me through exercises, training me to develop my skills, and preparing me to be even more effective during game time.

A coach for teachers can help improve performance in the same sort of way. Just like coaches train players to enhance athletic skills to perform better when it matters, instructional coaches can train teachers to be more effective with their students. Kim Greene, a senior editor at the National Center for Learning Disabilities and author of “A Coach for Every Teacher,” claims that, “To improve instructional practices and student outcomes, every teacher—no matter their experience level—deserves a coach.”

Teaching can often feel like an isolated profession. Teachers go into their classrooms, close their doors, and “Do their thing” with their students. Their choice to engage in or apply professional development is up to them, and our hope is that through successful culture and meaningful accountability teachers will continue to pursue best practices. But teachers should know they don’t have to go it alone. In addition to their colleagues and teams, they all deserve a coach in their corner – someone who says, “You can do it!”, who helps them keep their head in the game, and who gives the training that helps them perform better and better.

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Unfortunately, districts that host instructional coaches often assign them to their newest teachers. I say “Unfortunately” not because new teachers shouldn’t take advantage of coaches – they absolutely should – but because we often assume that our more experienced teachers have less to gain from a coach. The truth is that all teachers have much to gain, and just like we value ongoing professional development in general for teachers, coaching relationships are likely to yield profound results for veteran teachers as well.

Here are some of the common benefits of instructional coaching every teacher, whether a seasoned veteran or exuberant newbie, could gain:

  • A sounding board to talk through ideas.
  • A source for reflective discussion.
  • Neutral, objective classroom observations.
  • Connection to supplemental research and resources.
  • Knowledge of broader practices and processes.
  • Encouragement to continually improve.
  • Models and examples of best practices.

Consultant, educator, and leadership expert Jim Knight describes coaches as “A trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board, and a witness to the good … Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing, and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally."

A Culture of Coaching

At no point can a teacher really say, “I’ve got this down. There is nothing for me to improve on.” While various types of professional development may be available to a teacher, few offer the list of advantages like the one delineated above. All teachers stand to gain from a voice that provides practical wisdom on the art and science of education, and the voice that offers encouragement to push through the challenges.

But how do we help all teachers buy into the coaching process? Kim Greene suggests, “One of the most effective ways to get teachers to embrace coaching is to establish a culture that values the practice. It takes a team effort: A school district can devote resources to hiring coaches, a principal can carve out time and space for coaching to take place, coaches can reach out to teachers, and teachers can open their classroom doors to coaches.”

While we may idealize the notion that teachers can improve with a one-on-one coach, it is much more difficult to turn that idea into a real cultural trend in your school. As we stated, teaching can feel insular, and individuals may feel defensive towards opening their door to feedback. The new teacher may want to feel like they’ve got their feet underneath them before being critiqued by a relative stranger. The veteran may believe they know what they’re doing and don’t need the feedback.

Jim Knight recommends the following three-step cycle to comfortably navigate the coach-teacher relationship and take practical steps forward:

  • Identify. The coach works with the teacher both through dialogue and through classroom observation (including video recordings – everyone’s favorite!) to gain an understanding of where the teacher most wants to target their attention and improvement. Then, together the coach and the teacher can set goals related to their observations.
  • Learn. Once the goals have been established, it takes time to figure out exactly how to fulfill them. Before jumping immediately to Solution A or Solution B, the coach and teacher work together to gain knowledge. The coach can connect the teacher to resources – such as reading materials, model lessons, conferences, peer observations – that empower the teacher with information to make appropriate decisions regarding instructional strategies.
  • Improve. Finally, the teacher implements the information they’ve acquired under the coach’s guidance. The coach helps the teacher recognize where improvements have been made, but also acknowledges failure is common after experimenting with a new approach. Encouragement and reinforcement are part of the improvement and application phase.

Even without a direct, formal relationship with an instructional coach, teachers can engage in the same practices with themselves and with one another. The components of reflection, feedback, video recording, learning, and experimenting are all consistent elements in the coaching relationship. While these are most likely to be maximized when teachers are voluntarily paired with a trained instructional coach, they also can be undertaken with what some call “Critical friends” who push one another to improve.

Coaches Make Us All Stronger

Athletes and top professionals rely on their training, their coaches, and their impact relationships. Can you imagine Michael Jordan at the top of his game telling his coaches that he doesn’t need them anymore? Of course not! Coaches play a unique role in how talent is developed and utilized. Think about how your talent as a teacher is developed and utilized, and think about the role of a coach in pushing you even further

At the end of the day, our students are the ones who ultimately benefit from our continued devotion to improvement. While there are multiple forms professional development can take, few compare to the power a one-on-one coaching relationship has. Consider how you might be able to leverage the power of the one-on-one relationship to steadily transform yourself into a more and more effective presence for your students.

How do you utilize instructional coaches in your school? Tell us about your professional development experiences in the comments below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.