Professional Learning Without Coaches: Empowering Teachers to Drive Their Learning

Dr. Natalie Saaris
October 18, 2017

Intensive coaching for teachers is relatively rare; only about half of teachers report receiving coaching in the last year, and less than a quarter receive it on an intensive basis (weekly or more). The reason? Instructional coaching programs can cost $3,260 to $5,220 per teacher per year, which makes this a resource that not every school can afford.

So what can you do to improve teaching practice if your school doesn’t have the funds for intensive coaching?

The answer lies in understanding what instructional coaches do and figuring out ways to encourage the same behaviors through your school’s PD program or Professional Learning Communities. Let’s investigate the key functions of an instructional coach:

1. Engage teachers’ personal theories of learning

One widely documented problem in learning to teach is that teachers often draw on their own experience as students when defining quality teaching (Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, & Bransford, 2005). Teachers may have fundamental misconceptions about learning, such as believing that information can be transmitted to the learner rather than being actively constructed by the student. For a teacher who sat through years of lectures and sit 'n' gets, this may be the model that he or she is most familiar with, but one that is no longer current given what we know about learning. Teachers may also have a superficial understanding of teaching as a series of activities such as managing classrooms, distributing handouts, and explaining concepts; these are the activities that are most visible to an observer. The deeper understanding of how learning occurs and what activities can improve learning outcomes may be less obvious but ultimately crucial to effective instruction.

Research shows that a failure to engage these misconceptions results in limited professional learning gains for teachers. Practices like formative assessment, engaging metacognition, and encouraging higher-order thinking do not align with a pedagogical foundation of learning as transmission of knowledge. If teachers are not on board with the bigger-picture schema of learning as social and cognitive construction, it will be difficult for them to integrate effective practices into their teaching.

  • Include individual and group reflection about theories of learning during PD sessions or in Professional Learning Communities. Ask questions like, “How do you believe that students learn best?” and “How does your experience as a student fit or not fit into the current framework of learning?”
  • Ask teachers questions that expose their beliefs about teaching and learning prior to engaging in PD sessions. As an example, prior to discussing ways to scaffold reading assignments, ask the question: “True or false: the biggest obstacle to reading comprehension is a lack of skills.” The answer to this question reveals a fundamental belief about students’ reading challenges that determines how teachers will assimilate scaffolding into their practice.

2. Build deep knowledge of instructional practice

Instructional coaches are often the ones who fill in the gaps about teaching practice because they understand the reasoning behind it, how it impacts learning, and how to integrate it into daily teaching. Teachers are time-strapped individuals who don’t necessarily have time to research learning theories and teaching practices, which is why it’s so useful for them to have a resource who can distill that information and explain it in a concise way.

In the absence of that resource, teachers need to find an alternative path to develop deep understanding of instructional practice. The reason why depth matters is that teachers often have to make spontaneous decisions that entail many complex factors. It’s almost impossible to follow a rigid script when dealing with a heterogeneous group of students with fluctuating interests and variable levels of energy, engagement, and knowledge.

"[...] when teachers' prior knowledge and beliefs are not engaged and the implications for practice clearly understood, teachers usually adopt new ideas at a superficial level only, while believing they understand them more deeply."

- Timperley (2011)

In the absence of a script, teachers need to know the “why” behind any given practice so that they can adapt that practice to their needs in the moment. For example, a teacher who has a shallow understanding of metacognition will be flustered when students don’t engage with the modeled think-aloud. A teacher with a deeper understanding of this practice will find other avenues to get students to monitor their understanding, such as strategic annotation.

  • Encourage teachers to read and discuss high-quality, well-researched books about instructional practice. It might be tempting to cover more ground with a collection of articles, but books tend to go into greater depth and ultimately develop better understanding.
  • Focus on the “why” in addition to the “how”: explain why practices matter and how they affect students. Fleshing out the reasoning behind a given practice will empower teachers to make informed decisions in their dynamic class environments.

3. Create clear criteria for effective teaching

Great coaches help teachers understand how to judge a good lesson from a poor one. This is not always obvious. For one thing, it can be surprising for teachers to realize that good teaching often means that students are doing more of the work (as opposed to teachers doing all of the work.) Or that good teaching is not defined by students appearing busier or more engaged (because it is their thinking that matters rather than the activities in which they are engaged.)

Teachers can evaluate their own teaching and craft more effective lessons if they have a clear picture of what they are shooting for. This is a learning principle that applies to learners more broadly: it helps to know the learning goal and what it will take to get there in order to improve. 

“An important technique for helping students understand learning intentions and success criteria is asking them to look at samples of other students’ work and to engage in a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of each.”

- Wiliam (2011)

Teachers should look at sample instruction and discuss its merits and drawbacks. These samples can be pulled from the web, which is full of worksheets, lesson plans, and other instructional guides. "Are these examples of questions that would promote higher-order thinking? Is this an annotation strategy that would build students' metacognition?" These are the types of questions that teachers should be answering as they review the samples.

Going through the samples should clarify the criteria for effective instruction and make it possible for teachers to assess their own effectiveness. One example of this criteria might be the Education Trust’s Literacy Assignment Analysis Guide that assesses quality instruction based on whether it is aligned to standards, requires thinking at higher cognitive levels, and creates opportunity for working on extended tasks, among other criteria. This sort of checklist acts as a guide for teachers as they are evaluating their own efficacy and working towards improvement.

  • Work with teachers to design a clear criteria for effective instruction, and periodically ask them to review their lessons to note their successes and areas of improvement.
  • Have teachers watch videos or see examples of lessons in their professional learning communities, then assess them according to the criteria. This helps to clarify expectations and develops the skill of recognizing quality instruction.

4. Observe classes and provide feedback

One final significant role of the instructional coach is to observe classes and provide feedback. Hopefully, by the time the coach goes around to observe teachers, teachers have developed a shared understanding of the learning process, deep knowledge of effective practice, and clear criteria of what constitutes success. If those elements are in place, observation and feedback will be a straightforward process that teachers can perform within their peer networks.

One advantage of relying on peers to observe and provide feedback is that teachers might actually trust one another more than they do an administrator or outside expert. In a multi-year survey of over 1,000 elementary-school teachers, researchers found that teachers were almost twice as likely to turn to their peers as to the experts designated by the school district, and four times more likely to seek advice from one another than from the principal. Teachers felt more comfortable exposing their weaknesses to peers and recognized the value of sharing ideas among colleagues who were likely encountering the same problems in their classrooms. In some ways, having to develop the ability of teachers to evaluate each other’s classrooms might prove advantageous.

  • Ensure that teachers who are observing and providing feedback have a clear understanding of criteria for success. This will help guide what they are evaluating and enable them to provide clear feedback.
  • Create a space for teachers to engage in a conversation during the feedback process. This is another terrific opportunity for teachers to reflect on their practice by providing context about their objectives, what they felt was successful, and what they struggled with prior to hearing the feedback from the observer.


Works Cited:

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (2005). How Teachers Learn and Develop. In Preparing Teachers for a Changing World (pp. 358-389). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the Power of Professional Learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.

Get the latest posts in
your inbox
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
We respect your privacy