Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Baker's Dozen of Essential Skills for Instructional Coaches

Legend has it the practice of adding a 13th item to make a baker's dozen started because bakers could be fined if all 12 items didn't meet the appropriate weight or quality.  Throwing in a 13th item compensated for any potential disparity. Who knew?! We are all bound to have certain skill sets that aren't as strong as others. While I don't think anyone needs to be fined for their weaknesses, it's a powerful way to think about how that little bit of extra can help us overshadow our deficits.

I just completed my fifth year of instructional coaching and am reflecting upon the skill sets that have been necessary in this unique role.  While all of these skills might not be in your job description or in books on instructional coaching, it's what has truly been necessary in my work.  Some of these I'm better at than others, which has kept the work challenging for me.

I hope my list will inspire you to think about your own practice. Perhaps spend a little time ranking the 13 items from your greatest skill to your weakest.  Ask someone else to rank you on these same items and then compare with your own ranking.  Think about actionable ways in which you can more deeply infuse your strengths into your work, and specific plans for how you might improve your weaker areas.


  • A LEARNER: I'm often presented with questions I don't know how to answer, or ideas I don't know how to execute.  A relentless drive to learn new things and seek out information, try possibilities, and learn from the experience is necessary and makes the work incredibly rewarding.
  • A SEEKER: In my school, participation in coaching is voluntary. Continually seeking ways to partner with teachers is important to making an impact on students.  Coaches with an entrepreneurial spirit will find opportunities hidden in all kinds of conversations.  
  • REFLECTIVE: Like most work in education, coaching is both an art and a science.  I've often felt like I should have posed a different question to a teacher, or suggested a different idea. Continuous reflection always makes us better for the next time!
  • AN EFFECTIVE MULTI-TASKER: The work of coaching is dynamic and somewhat unpredictable.  At times, I find myself working with multiple teachers of different contents and grade levels, with all different needs.  In addition, you may have roles on committees or be preparing professional development sessions.  Finding ways to be organized so that you can effectively partner and shift gears is key!
  • A CONNECTOR: I realized quickly that I will never have all the ideas, information, or resources to help teachers meet the needs of their students.  As a coach, it's amazing fun to connect teachers with other educators that can help them accomplish their goals.  As a coach, you have the unique opportunity to be in lots of classrooms; keep good mental notes of the strengths of teachers and connect teachers when you can.  Also, don't forget about connecting teachers with researchers in the field and educators on social media.
  • A QUESTIONER: Questions are the secret weapon of coaching! Artfully asking the right question can help a teacher to realize and articulate goals, ideas, frustrations, and hopes. 
  • A LISTENER: If there's one thing I've learned from coaching, it's that every classroom, every teacher, every student, and every situation is unique.  Of course, research-based best practice gives us a guide, but there is no pre-set recipe for teaching.  To be effective, coaches must be willing to listen, listen, and listen some more.
  • A COLLABORATOR: Without true partnership, instructional coaching doesn't work. While I believe coaches can be incredibly supportive when they bring ideas to the table, coaching must rely on the unique strengths and contributions of the teacher.  The teacher must still be the decision-maker!
  • AN OPPORTUNIST: Teaching is challenging, and sometimes frustrating work.  Often, teachers come to coaches when they at the peak of frustration.  Rather than letting the conversation end after the venting, effective coaches find opportunity in these moments of frustration to start a collaborative venture of trying a new method or researching an answer that will support student learning and ease teacher frustration.
  • A NAVIGATOR: There are moments in coaching when you realize you pushed a teacher too far out of the comfort zone; the teacher suddenly seems to be looking for the first opportunity to exit the coaching partnership.  Yikes!  This is the worst.  Coaching requires the ability to navigate conversations in a way that doesn't make teachers go looking for the door. 
  • AN ADVOCATE: Coaches are in a unique position because they are not administrators, yet they likely get to know all teachers in the building in a deep professional capacity. Coaches also likely get insight into what administrators see as needing improvement, and the rationale behind it.  Finding ways to advocate for student learning, teacher success, and systemwide improvement requires tactfully and sincerely offering perspective and examples, while posing questions that will challenge us all to be better.
  • A REFRAMER: Cynicism can creep into the profession through internal and external passageways. The ability to reframe conversations to focus on the positive and on the good in our work is the only way to thrive in this position.  You will enter many conversations of frustration and challenge; without the ability to reframe, you will find yourself defeated.  Find ways to lift up students, teachers, and principals at every opportunity. 
  • A SOLUTIONEER: The bottom line is that teachers will not come back for more coaching if you can't partner in creating solutions to help their students be more successful.  This doesn't mean that you have to create the solution yourself, but you must be relentless in finding ways to make a difference for kids.  Teachers don't have time for any less.
Being a learner and a listener come the most naturally to me, while being a seeker and a navigator are the most challenging.  I'm so thankful, however, for the opportunity to have coached. Check back next week for my post on 5 Things No One Told Me About Instructional Coaching!  

As always, I would love to hear your reactions to this post.  Leave a comment!



  1. You are amazing and will be deeply missed on our team. You have taught me so much about what great coaching looks like and for that, I will always be grateful. You leave some pretty big shoes to fill but I'm excited to watch you rock your new role of administrator.

    1. Jamie, Thank you so much for your kind words! Our team and coaches like you with so much passion and energy to do great things for kids has taught me so much. I will definitely miss the collaboration.