Coaching: 4 Implementation Challenges And How To Defuse Them

Essays • 28 Apr '22
Josh Goodrich
Arielle Boguslav

Every school we know of that has ‘successfully’ implemented Instructional Coaching changes something about their coaching programme every single year. Implementing instructional coaching isn’t a finite challenge that you can eventually complete. Instead we argue that, like teaching, implementing Instructional Coaching consists of ‘persistent challenges’ (Kennedy, 2016a), perennial issues that schools must continually consider and may need to repeatedly address throughout the life of their programme.

What are these issues? Based on conversations with school leaders, our own work implementing coaching across schools and MATs, and key research, we identify four key challenges that drive successful implementation:

  1. Professional Culture: How can we develop a culture of openness to feedback and commitment to ongoing development? (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Joyce & Showers, 2002; Marsh et al., 2017)
  2. Training: How we can recruit and train a team of skilled, knowledgeable coaches? (Gibbons et al., 2017; Gibbons & Cobb, 2016)
  3. Systems design: How should we structure our programme so that it delivers results in a way that balances with other school systems, and delivers efficiency? (Boguslav et al., 2022)
  4. Responsive Leadership: How can we gather information about what’s happening when our programme is up and running? How can we respond effectively to address issues and deliver continued improvement? (Blasé & Blasé, 2003; Bryk et al., 2015; Coburn, 2001; DeLeon & DeLeon, 2002; McLaughlin, 1987; Nakamura & Smallwood, 1980; Spillane et al., 2002)

As many of us who have been sucked in by a fitness fad can attest, simply joining a gym isn’t enough. Neither is going it once every few months. Sadly, even if you successfully improve your fitness over a few months of regular use, these gains will dwindle if you stop exercising regularly.

Likewise, schools that have built up to a great, impactful coaching programme never stop working on the four challenges of effective implementation. The constantly changing nature of schools means that leaders must remain constantly alert to the need to respond and to change. A school may have successfully built a great coaching culture, but through inevitable staff churn a number of the staff leave and new teachers are recruited. Leaders must then work to rebuild and reset a culture of coaching and continuous improvement. Similarly, leaders may need to change the structure of the school day and are therefore forced to go back to the drawing board around how to engineer effective systems that allow coaching to fit around staff timetables and other priorities.

Although these implementation challenges are never complete, this doesn’t mean that school leaders must always be consciously working to improve every driver, all at the same time. In fact, such an approach is likely to be overwhelming and demotivating. School leaders need to engage in ongoing monitoring of the four challenges, but may only need to engage in intensive work to address one or two at a time.


This seems like a huge commitment, why bother?

Despite the relentless nature of running and maintaining a great coaching programme, the school leaders we’ve worked with express overwhelmingly positive feelings about their efforts. For them, implementing instructional coaching isn’t just about building a successful coaching programme. Yes, we want every teacher to have access to high-quality coaching, but working to improve school culture, training teachers to become skilled teacher educators, refining our school systems for greater efficiency and remaining plugged into the data about what’s happening in our school are valuable goals in themselves, not merely the means to achieve something else (Bryk et al., 2015; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Ronfeldt et al., 2015).

Research on the implementation of peer coaching programmes has found that it has positive “spillover effects” (Sun et al., 2013) on the quality of teaching within a school, even for staff that do not directly receive coaching. Coaching, the paper argues, has a “double effect”: first, a direct impact on the teaching quality of coachees, and second a spillover effect on the wider staff body. Discussing the key drivers of effective coaching implementation with leaders helped us to realise that the working on the four challenges also has likely spillover effects. Building a culture of openness to feedback, for example, will improve the quality of teaching more generally, beyond the direct effects of coaching. The work of implementing a great Instructional Coaching programme never really stops, but the impact becomes greater and more extensive over time.


What is this document, and how could we use it?

Below, categorised by the four challenges, we list 13 hurdles 🚨 that leaders may have to overcome in their continued work on the challenges of implementing instructional coaching (IC). For each, we offer a series of steps that can help leaders overcome these hurdles.

These steps are not an exhaustive tick-list of things school leaders must do to make IC work. Instead, this is a menu of things school leaders could do to improve their programmes. Focused work on one or two hurdles at a time is likely to be more effective than attempting to tackle them all at once. In identifying hurdles and action steps, we have drawn both on published research and our practical experiences of implementing coaching.

We recommend that when working from this document, leaders ask themselves the following questions to diagnose which drivers and hurdles may be most helpful:

  1. Which driver seems most pertinent to you at the moment? What’s your evidence? Do your colleagues agree?
  2. Within this driver, which 1-2 hurdles do you think you may be facing?
  3. Within each hurdle, do any of the Steps strike you as a useful starting point? Will you need to make any context specific adaptations?

What if we are completely new to coaching?

For schools that are at the beginning of their implementation, we would recommend taking on the drivers roughly in order:

There is no one-size-fits-all way of implementing Instructional Coaching. The most successful schools build their programme in their own image. We hope you find this document helpful as you do so.


Challenge 1: Professional Culture

Aim → Teachers are open to receiving regular feedback about how to improve their practice. They feel that regularly watching others and offering praise and feedback is an important part of their role, no matter what their position in the school. Teachers trust that being observed and receiving feedback will help them improve their practice. Teachers do not fear being evaluated or judged during observations. Teachers feel as if it’s their right and responsibility to make consistent improvements to their practice, supported by others.

Teachers believe in the power of reading educational research, shared planning and lesson rehearsal as effective tools in making consistent improvements. In short, schools that build a culture that promotes teachers’ buy-in and motivation to participate in IC and make changes to their practice are more likely to see positive effects from IC (Kennedy, 2016b; Knight, 2007; Teemant, 2014; Sisson & Sisson, 2017).

🚨 Hurdle 1

Instructional Coaching is implemented alongside ‘hard’ performance management (PM) practices like graded observations, performance-related pay and teaching-quality metrics; coaches are the same people who implement these performance management systems.

Outcome → Teachers don’t trust the process and see regular coaching as a threat; a culture of openness and trust - something that is central to effective coaching - isn’t created.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Openly message about the differing purposes of PM and IC; make it clear that IC is exclusively for the purpose of getting better
  2. Get rid of graded lesson observations. Replace them with more regular drop-in visits
  3. Ensure, if possible, that the same people who conduct high stakes performance management for teachers aren’t also doing their coaching. Try to make coaching feel egalitarian, as a sense of trust is vital
  4. To truly build a culture where constant improvement is front and centre, remove all performance management where teachers are graded against a metric.

🚨 Hurdle 2

Schools launch whole-school coaching without first ensuring that staff are comfortable with regular visits to lessons and regular low-stakes feedback. Staff don’t yet value the chance to regularly see others’ lessons.

Outcome → Teachers can begin to see coaching as something scary, threatening or anxiety-inducing. Coaching can be seen as just another accountability mechanism or leadership fad that won’t work and should therefore be challenged. Teachers don’t commit to coaching as a process that will help them to get better.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Build an open-door culture by encouraging staff to give regular, short, ‘zero-stakes’ drop-ins
  2. Make this overwhelmingly positive by beginning this with a period where staff give positive feedback only
  3. Overtime, encourage staff to add developmental feedback into their drop-ins as well as positive feedback
  4. Provide positive reinforcement by regularly celebrating staff who regularly choose to drop into lessons and give feedback
  5. Encourage staff to drop-in regularly within their own departments. Encourage the head of department to make drop-ins a central feature of department development plans and to gather data for planning subject PD

🚨 Hurdle 3

Coaching is used exclusively as a tool for leaders to target and improve ‘struggling’ or ‘less effective’ teachers within the school.

Outcome → Teachers equate being coached with being on a ‘support plan’ or a ‘competency’ process. Coaching ceases to look like a great opportunity to learn and starts to look like something that should be feared.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Set coaching up initially as an optional practice. Offer it out to all staff and see who wants in
  2. Help to ‘sell’ coaching amongst your staff by asking a few early adopters to discuss how engaging with it has benefitted them and their students
  3. If you want to use coaching as a tool to help specific groups of teachers, it helps if those teachers are grouped non-arbitrarily. Unlike the label ‘struggling/unsatisfactory teacher’, nobody can argue that the labels ITT, ECT or ‘teacher within the first two years of joining the school’ applies to them; this isn’t based on a potentially hurtful or unsound measure of their teaching skill
  4. If you do want to use coaching as mechanism to ensure the rapid improvement of struggling teachers, then coaching needs to be the way that everybody gets better. If everyone receives coaching, then no-one is stigmatised by it
  5. Remove a fear that coaching is something that is done to teachers by leaders by offering the chance to train to be a coach widely to staff at different levels of the school.

🚨 Hurdle 4

The school moves towards regular coaching before teachers have a chance to become familiar with the specific techniques of coaching, for example the use of modelling and rehearsal as tools to improve teaching.

Outcome → Staff haven’t had an opportunity to see what good quality modelling, rehearsal and deliberate practice can look like. Done poorly, these can feel embarrassing, infantile and—frankly—terrifying. Coaches begin to avoid these aspects of the coaching process and so the impact of coaching is limited.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Use rehearsal of key teaching skills as a central process in whole-staff PD first, so that staff can see this modelled and used well before they are asked to do it as part of coaching (Kazemi et al., 2016; Lampert et al., 2013; Lemov et al. 2012)
  2. Explain the centrality of modelling, rehearsal & practise to learning in other high-status, high-skill professions, like medicine. Communicate this to teachers regularly
  3. Ensure that leaders model the importance of deliberate practice: every instance of whole-staff practice should begin with the session leader modelling good quality practice (Ibid)
  4. Be unapologetic about asking staff to rehearse & practise. Replace: “now for the awkward bit!” with “Now for the important bit!”. It may be worth initially acknowledging that practice can feel awkward and scary at first.
  5. Once your coaching programme has begun, reinforce great quality rehearsal and modelling by including short models of these techniques at the start of the week in a staff meeting, or at the start of staff feedback time. For example, show a great example of a coach modelling a teaching technique.

Challenge 2: Training

Aim → Teachers know what good practice looks like at their school (Desimone & Pak, 2017). They use the same names and terminology for teaching strategies and parts of the lesson so that discussion of great teaching is efficient and productive (Blachowicz et al., 2010; Boerst et al., 2011; Kennedy, 2016a). The school spends time and resources training teachers to become teacher educators (Gibbons & Cobb, 2016; Stoetzel & Shedrow, 2020). The chance to become a coach is offered widely to staff and is considered an attractive option. Coaches are focused on the process of sharpening their skills, and talk about doing this in the same way that teachers talk about getting better in the classroom.

🚨 Hurdle 5

The school doesn’t develop a personalised, shared ‘vision of excellent teaching’. This exists but the school doesn’t share it clearly with teachers. The vision of excellence isn’t rooted in the best available evidence about what works. Terminology and technique names aren’t standardised across teams.

Outcome → Coaches struggle to diagnose the central issues that teachers face in their lessons; coaching can feel aimless or have a negative impact as coaches aim at practices that aren’t evidence-based or a priority; coaching is not fully harnessed in the service of the school’s needs and aims; coaching feels ‘cosy’ in the sense that it tackles comfortable areas for teachers without pushing practice forward.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Develop a working knowledge of evidence-based practices in teaching and learning by ensuring that you and your T&L team have read a series of key texts
  2. Conduct regular learning walks and other data gathering (book looks, discussions with teachers & students) aiming to identify what the teaching strengths and weaknesses are in your school
  3. Seek out examples of other successful codifications of great teaching by visiting schools that have already been successful in building a vision of excellence. Get hold of their documents and ask about the process of putting them together as a starting point to building your own
  4. Work with your T&L team and staff to create a detailed vision of what you want great lessons to look like
  5. Ensure that your vision of excellence can drive great quality coaching by ensuring that it meets certain criteria: a) it goes down to a sufficiently granular level to support the setting of great steps, b) each action step contains a criteria for success to enable high quality modelling, c) each action step contains a clear practice task to enable great feedback, d) each action step contains a model of what great looks like in a similar context to your own. The Steplab sequence contains all these components and can be customised to match your own vision of excellence.

🚨 Hurdle 6

Leaders fail to provide sufficient initial training or practise-time to coaches before they are unleashed on teachers.

Outcome → teachers get an initial experience of coaching that isn’t good enough. They don’t experience early success with their students (Guskey, 2002) and therefore don’t build trust in the process.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Recruit widely for your initial coaching team. Willingness to learn and an excitement to coach is as important than previous experience. Try to recruit more widely than your SLT: heads of department and their deputies are also prime candidates
  2. Provide frequent training for coaches: they need to be invested in the schools’ vision of excellence and in key areas of coaching expert knowledge and skill. This includes: how to effectively diagnose a classroom issue (Gibbons & Cobb, 2016); how to set an appropriate and granular action step (Cohen et al., 2020); how to skilfully ask probing questions that determine teacher need and guide thinking (Costa & Garmston, 2015); how to effectively model change (Gibbons & Cobb, 2017); how to rehearse change with teachers in a way that builds mastery and automaticity (Ericsson & Pool, 2017); how to hold teachers to account to change and support them with implementing those changes
  3. Help your coaches develop confidence in the approach by giving them a chance to practice coaching on each other before they ‘go live’ with your staff. Pair them up in reciprocal coaching pairs; only ‘unleash’ them on teachers when you - and they- feel ready
  4. Keep an eye on the strengths and weaknesses of your team as they develop by conducting regular ‘coaching-on-coaching’. Visit lessons with your coaches, discuss these with them, watch them give feedback and then coach them to develop their skills
  5. Look carefully at the data you receive from the coaching process: are the Steps that coaches set sufficiently granular and appropriate? Is the script that the coach has planned coherent and well thought out? Is the coach repeating Steps multiple times, or moving teachers on too quickly? Discuss this data with coaches to explore their thinking.

Challenge 3: Systems design

Aim → Your coaching programme feels like a priority - one of the most important parts of the week - to coaches and teachers alike. Coaches have the time and space in their timetables to do coaching well: they can prioritise their lesson visits and feedback meetings without sacrificing other important elements of what they do (Bean et al., 2010; Boguslav et al., 2022; Deussen et al., 2007). Coaching is integrated with the school systems by removing other less important systems that may conflict with or block it. Teachers are able to focus on their coaching because feedback from other areas of the school are aligned, or kept to a minimum (Desimone & Pak, 2017).

🚨 Hurdle 7

Leaders don’t provide coaches with sufficient time to complete their weekly lesson visits and feedback meetings; they expect coaches and teachers to make things work by observing and feeding-back in free periods

Outcome → Coaches can become burnt out. A positive start to coaching quickly fizzles out as coaches realise that they have other equally pressing things to do. Teachers and coaches start to resent coaching as something that adds to their workload; they start to skip observations and feedback meetings so coaching never becomes a habit of improvement.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Carefully consider the time costs for each additional teacher that your coaches need to work with: each adds around 15 minutes for the lesson observation and 30 minutes for the feedback meeting, at a minimum
  2. Ensure that the ratio of teachers that you assign to each coach is sensible. A ratio of 1-1 is highly achievable. Higher ratios may be achievable for senior leaders or coaches with dedicated time assigned, but may prove too much for others
  3. Ensure that coaching loads are achievable by thinking carefully about what you can take away from coaches and teachers that take part. If coaching is to have the impact that you want, it cannot be just an extra thing that they have to add to their already overflowing to-do lists.
  4. Gather and interrogate data on feedback completion. Is there an issue with coaches competing their feedback? Are they completing their observations but failing to do the feedback meeting? Ask your coaches whether things would be easier if feedback time was provided
  5. Solve the ‘time for coaching’ issue in one fell swoop by providing dedicated time for coaches and teachers to complete feedback. One method that has worked well in many UK schools is to re-purpose a weekly meeting as feedback time. This has the added benefit of bringing everyone together for feedback, helping to build a shared culture and giving instant data on the quality of feedback. Another method is to give all coaches and coachees a timetabled free period in which to coach. This is expensive, but signals a real commitment to coaching.

🚨 Hurdle 8

The school’s coaching programme is just one voice on what to prioritise, among many. Teachers are set different targets in whole school PD and different ones again in their subject-specific PD.

Outcome → Teachers can become overwhelmed and overloaded by what they need to work on; often, feedback can clash or compete for their attention. The potential impacts of coaching are limited and teachers can begin to feel jaded.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Ensure that PD is aligned by setting specific priorities for a certain time period. For example, over a term teachers may be asked to work on improving the precision and quality of their explanations: coaches can focus on providing bespoke support in their weekly coaching, whole-school PD can explore the science and rationale behind this and provide quality models and subject-specific PD can work to ensure that teachers build this into their weekly lesson planning
  2. Help staff to invest in what matters by thinking hard about what to focus on and what can be taken away. Teachers only have so much capacity: if coaching matters most, then we should prioritise this over and above other potentially less effective PD.

Challenge 4: Responsive Leadership

Aim → Leaders develop systems to gather lots of useful data on what’s happening in the coaching process (Bryk et al., 2015), including, but not just, data on whether or not coaching takes place. They take regular action to work with coaches based on data to improve the quality of coaching (Blachowicz et al., 2010). Leaders look for and take every opportunity to widen the impact and improve the quality of their programmes to avoid stagnation and respond to contextual changes: they are thinking constantly about which of the four challenges may need extra work. Leaders look to upgrade their visions of excellence regularly as teaching improves across the school (Ronfeldt et al., 2015).

🚨 Hurdle 9

Leaders fail to gather, analyse and act on the data around completion of coaching.

Outcome → over time, coaches begin to see that coaching is not a priority that’s valued by leadership. They stop investing in it. Other things begin to take priority.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Build systems to gather regular information about whether coaches are completing their assigned observations and feedback meetings
  2. Ensure that you utilise your data on coaching effectively by setting aside some time on a regular basis to access and analyse it. It can help to set aside some time in your calendar to make sure it happens every week
  3. Send a brief message to all coaches that missed coaching for the previous week. Remember, often coaches are simply unable to get it done, or perhaps were not even in school, so it’s important to avoid being heavy-handed. Simply issuing a reminder that coaching is valuable and important and making a request that it’s completed the following week is likely to be enough: we all need reminders to help us build habits
  4. Take the time to speak personally to coaches that miss multiple weeks of coaching back-to-back. Often, there’ll be a barrier to completing coaching that we can help to solve. It can often help to re-arrange coaching pairs to ensure that timetables match up, for example
  5. Build a culture where coaches feel valued for their hard work by taking the time to recognise coaches that are getting their coaching done, week-in, week-out. A simple message can be enough, but some public recognition may also help to motivate others.

🚨 Hurdle 10

Leaders fail to gather, interrogate and act on the data re: coaching quality

Outcome → Poor quality coaching isn’t identified and improved. Teachers begin to want some coaches over others; some get a poor experience of coaching.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Gather regular information about the feedback that coaches are giving. Set aside some time on a regular basis to analyse and respond to the data
  2. Gather regular information about what teachers think of coaching. Survey teachers and set aside time to analyse and respond
  3. Build a picture of key indicators of coaching quality to help triangulate data: are the steps that coaches set sufficiently granular and contextually appropriate? Are coaches gathering concrete evidence on learning? Is the script that the coach has planned coherent? Are coaches repeating steps multiple times, or moving teachers on too quickly?
  4. Invest the entire of the senior team in improving coaching quality by adding a regular slot into the weekly team meeting to discuss coaching quality: Are the steps appropriate? Are they helping to work towards established school priorities? Are teachers getting better at the rate you’d hope for? What additional help can SLT give to teachers that are struggling to improve? Are all teachers accessing the coach most suitable to help them get better rapidly?
  5. Cross-reference your data against the reality of teachers’ classrooms. Ask your T&L and SLT teams to take a history of steps on a learning walk: are teachers really using these in their classrooms? Do they appear to be ‘working’ to improve learning? what might teachers need to be reminded about? What else could coaches focus on?
  6. Keep an eye on the strengths and weaknesses of your coaching team by conducting regular coaching-on-coaching. Visit lessons with your coaches, discuss these with them, watch them give feedback and then coach them to develop their coaching skills.

🚨 Hurdle 11

The school fails to widen its initial coaching team by identifying, training and recruiting more coaches to add to the initial roster.

Outcome → Coaching fails to take off as a school-wide practice. The potential impact on the school is limited by the capacity of coaches to take on more teachers.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Ensure that you regularly recruit and train more coaches. Remember, every new coach you recruit and train increases your capacity to improve the quality of teaching, as well as developing that coach as a teacher and leader
  2. Recruit teachers to your coaching team who have themselves received great coaching. The experience of receiving great coaching can provide a valuable foundation for being a great coach (Lortie, 2002)
  3. As coaching becomes more established, it can be easy to forget the hard work you put into training your initial group of coaches. Remember to put the same resources and effort into training each new cohort
  4. Be sensitive to changes in your staff body. If lots of your more experienced staff move on, it may be necessary to invest heavily in training again, even if coaching quality has historically been excellent.

🚨 Hurdle 12

The school fails to provide continuous training, models and reminders to its coaching team and staff on culture, the importance of coaching, and how to be a great coach.

Outcome → over time, the quality of coaching can dip. Staff ‘forget’ why they were doing it in the first place.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Remember to work on the coaching skills of even your most established coaches. Coaching is hard and takes constant effort, so it can help to continually revisit and model the central elements: what do great, granular Steps look like; what constitutes effective modelling; how can we best help teachers to build habits through rehearsal; how can we support teachers for whom change is tough through live feedback; what forms of implementation planning work best?
  2. Provide a high-quality model of a small component part of effective feedback at the start of allotted feedback time to remind coaches and teachers of what great coaching should look like
  3. Regularly message all teachers about the importance and potential impact of coaching. It can help to ask teachers and coaches to speak to staff about the impact that coaching has had on them and their students
  4. Ensure that you are constantly working to make coaching better - even as your programme becomes well-established - by making coaching-on-coaching and the interrogation of coaching data a regular practice
  5. Harness the power of the regular relaunch: make coaching feel fresh and remind staff of its importance by strategically relaunching coaching with a new focus, new coaching pairings or similar.

🚨 Hurdle 13

Leaders never revisit or improve their vision of excellence.

Outcome → Over time, teaching can stagnate. More established, experienced staff are not being pushed to improve.

Steps → Work towards solving this problem by...

  1. Revisit and improving your vision of excellent every year. Bring as many staff as possible into this process: it should become everyone’s shared working document
  2. Invest subject leaders in the coaching process by inviting them to create their own, subject-specific visions of excellence to use with their teams
  3. Invest staff in the vision of great teaching by working with a broad cohort of teachers to film modelled examples of what great teaching looks like in your context.

  • Josh Goodrich is the founder and CEO of Steplab. He's an English teacher, former Assistant Principal in charge of T&L and MAT PD lead.
  • Arielle Boguslav is a PhD student at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the design of teacher professional development and is inspired by her experiences as a PD recipient while teaching English in Texas.

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About Steplab

Supercharge teaching in your school.

Steplab is a professional learning platform for schools that harnesses instructional coaching and data-driven insights to systematically improve teaching.

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