Hands holding gear.

Monica Washington January 22, 2019

Three Words that Turn Instructional Coaches into Allies: Show. Don’t. Tell.

Monica Washington

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

While helping Chris Odam, a Kansas City-based in-school ELA instructional coach think through some strategies for helping his teachers improve their students’ writing, I asked him to reflect on what made his best days as a coach this past semester feel so successful.  He replied, “The days when I see a teacher excited about using a method or instructional practice are those when I feel most useful and even rewarded for my involvement.”

After our meeting, I spent some time reflecting on Chris’ thoughts and wondered, “How can coaches be more like Chris and become true allies for the teachers they support?” As a former ELA teacher myself, I quickly thought of one of the phrases I would say to my students when they were building their writing skills: Show, don’t tell. I would say that great coaching lives in each of these words, too. The three words, Show. Don’t. Tell. represent what great instructional coaches can do to help teachers see positive change in the classroom.


Great coaches show teachers the practices that lead to student growth. Because of the demands of the school schedule, however, instructional coaches are rarely given the time they need to “show.” A quick visit to a PLC meeting to tell teachers what they could do better is so much less effective than having time to visit teachers classrooms to engage in a Quick Classroom Visits or a Coaching Observation, to model lessons for teachers, or even to co-teach in order to model a strategy. Coaches often provide resources for teachers, but rarely are there opportunities to spend time with teachers to show them how to manage new technology or engage students with new instructional techniques. Instruction can always improve when instructional coaches are granted the time to turn quick resource delivery into supportive relationships that are grounded in collaborative understanding and respectful modeling of best practices.


Great coaches don’t shorten processing time. Time can be so limited during the school day that when coaches introduce new material and strategies, there is sometimes very little time to allow teachers to think, plan, and try. At BetterLesson, we call this TML: try a new strategy, measure its impact, and reflect on learnings. Instead, teachers are sometimes told to implement new learnings before they fully process them in the context of their classrooms. Coaches should be allowed the opportunity to follow up with teachers (one-on-one, in PLCs, and through email) to answer any questions about new professional learning in order to build teachers’ confidence and self-efficacy. This prevents professional development from dying on a teacher’s shelf in a binder.


Great coaches frequently tell teachers what they are doing well. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is having someone show up in your classroom, write a few notes, and leave without ever revealing their scribbled secrets. Teachers want to hear about the positive things they are doing to improve student achievement, and they seek feedback on with those things they could be doing better. There is so much power in a coach being able to specifically point out the ways that a teachers’ work is making the learning environment better for students. Coaches who give positive and constructive feedback on teacher performance can help teachers become more open to feedback and more likely to grow.

While it is so important for instructional coaches to “show, don’t, and tell” it is also extremely important for the lead educators in the school, administrators, to prioritize the time for coaches to build these types of relationships. Demands on all educators seem to increase each year, but creating the time and space for coaches to become allies for teachers is vital to student growth. After all, the best coaching is showing.