Jenna Gilfillan, M.Ed

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

The best coaches are those who are strong collaborators, effective communicators, and able to differentiate their methods to meet the varying needs of the individuals they serve. 

As an instructional coach myself, I know the value of collaborative sharing among educators to reach school or district goals. Whether you’re a new instructional coach or you’ve been coaching for years, I’d like to share my five top keys, tools, and strategies to help you empower your fellow educators.

Strategy 1 – Start by Getting Organized

The most common concern I hear from instructional coaches is that they sometimes feel scattered and want better systems to keep track of their many responsibilities. If this resonates with you, you are not alone. Here are some digital tools to help: 

  • Project management tools such as Asana or Monday can help you track where you are with each educator you work with and feature things like subtasks, timelines, and shared access to help keep you on the same page.
  • Digital documents and spreadsheets through Google Docs or Google Sheets–one useful feature with this is using the search feature (CTRL + F) to help you find notes on certain students or topics.
  • Digital whiteboard tools like Miro or Jamboard– can help you organize your ideas through sticky notes, mind maps, graphics, and other visual organization methods.

The BetterLesson strategy Planning for a Successful Launch of Coaching also has additional examples of digital tools and organization methods and this BetterLesson guide gives a great overview of the process of breaking down high-level instructional goals and designing supports to reach those goals.

Whatever the system you use, select one that feels sustainable–consistency is key.  

Strategy 2- Define Your Role

Communicate expectations clearly

Oftentimes, discontent grows out of assumptions and misinformation. 

Assumptions and misinformation usually show up with the ambiguity that comes from a lack of communication. You can prevent this by clarifying for teachers (early and often!): 

  • What they are tasked with
  • How they will execute their tasks 
  • When they can expect to interact with you

In order to answer these questions, finalize expectations with your supervisor together so they can clearly explain to the faculty your role, expectations, and communication methods. 

Seek leadership support

Seek support from your administrators in reiterating to the faculty exactly what your role as an instructional coach is (and is not) and in maintaining consistency in the tasks you are asked to manage.

If faculty are told an instructional coach’s role is to support teachers in lesson planning, it can be confusing when they regularly see the coach covering classes or handling discipline. Of course, there will be times when all educators step out of their role to help the school. When this happens, as long as it is infrequent and coupled with transparent communication about the “why,” feelings of discontent or confusion can be avoided. Even a quick addition to a weekly announcement email or a shout-out in a faculty meeting thanking the coach for stepping out of their role can go a long way in building a more trusting and transparent professional community. 

Strategy 3- W.O.O.P. It! 

Just as we want our students to own their growth goals, we want this for the teachers we coach as well. W.O.O.P. is one of my favorite goal-setting strategies. What I love about the resources on W.O.O.P. My Life is that they employ a research-based four-step method to help people identify specific action steps to achieve specific goals. The steps are:

  • Wish
  • Outcome
  • Obstacle
  • Plan

W.O.O.P. is my instructional coaching go-to to kick off a coaching cycle. Once the teacher I’m working with and I have defined all steps of this strategy, we revisit it regularly to keep our work focused and goal-oriented. After an action step has been identified, I like to ask teachers this simple question: “How will you know you have achieved or made progress towards your goal?” This leads us into a conversation about how we might measure progress, which is at the root of BetterLesson’s Try-Measure-Learn method of instructional coaching. Plus, the next time you’re helping someone set a goal or work through a dilemma, you get the fun of saying, “Let’s W.O.O.P. it!”

Strategy 4 – Make Feedback Effective

There is certainly no one-size-fits-all strategy that works when it comes to feedback, but the Harvard Business Review’s Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio tells us that the most effective teams receive about six positive comments for every one critical comment. How can instructional coaches set themselves up for success so that educators can receive and use feedback effectively? 

Plan ahead

Having printed and ready Shout Out Slips to leave on teachers’ desks is a good starting point. You can also organize your feedback in a digital tool like Google Docs or another online notes platform in a ready-to-go format so that your post-observation email is sent promptly. Even when feedback is as simple as one sentence starting with “I was impressed with…,” it will help with your 6:1 ratio and give teachers some feel-good motivation. 


Offering more critical feedback is one of the more challenging aspects of a coach’s job. Check out this BetterLesson strategy, Illuminating Deeper Feedback, to learn more about the concept of illuminating rather than giving feedback. This process is more collaborative and the coach acts as a facilitator rather than an informer or problem-solver. 

Consider your feedback category

The Center for Creative Leadership breaks down feedback into four categories: Directive, Contingency, Attribution, and Impact. While each of the four can be effective depending on the scenario, the most valuable overall is Impact Feedback. Impact Feedback highlights the role of the receiver’s actions on others. Ultimately it gets to the root of why a current strategy is or is not working by identifying its effects.

Start with Impact Feedback such as “I noticed that when you paused after posing a question to the class, twice as many students raised their hands.” or “When you asked students to turn in their homework, some of them seemed surprised and unprepared.” Following this type of feedback with the simple question of “Why do you think that is?” empowers teachers to take ownership over problem-solving. You might then facilitate the development of a plan by suggesting resources such as the 5 Whys problem-solving protocol

Strategy 5 – Team-Building is Trust-Building

It’s no secret that working in an environment where you feel support from your coworkers makes a big difference in your well-being and your willingness to try new things. Even the most simple two-minute check-in practices can make a world of difference. Taking the time to get to know those you work with early in the year (and building upon that relationship throughout the year) by asking intentional questions will offer you the first step towards a trusting, valued relationship.   

Build a relationship

Relationship-building can be as simple as opening a meeting with an emoji check-in or a mood meter. When you’re ready to mix it up, try a game like the Culture Wheel Card Game or the conversation starter I use with my kids at dinner most nights: Rose, Thorn, and Bud. Even the simple act of shifting check-in questions from the overused “How are you?” to more specific inquiries such as “What is bringing you joy today?” or “What dilemma is on your plate today?” can help build a relationship. Make sure you participate too so they can get to know you as well.  

Take notes

Be sure to take a few notes that you can refer back to in another interaction. When you are managing multiple people, it can be difficult to remember who said what.  Remembering and referring back to previous conversations offers a model and tool of community building that helps teachers feel a greater sense of belonging which fosters an increase in motivation and teacher retention.

Successful coaching comes with the development of reliable systems that allow our coaching practice to improve. Improvement can be tracked and measured when clear and consistent systems are in place. By planning ahead and thinking about your coaching style, your responsibilities, and your environment, you can ensure that your coaching role is clear, your communication is productive, and you are building relationships that will help you be the best coach you can be.

If you’re ready to learn more about BetterLesson, explore our BetterLesson Lab filled with resources for coaches, teachers, and leaders or contact us today.

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