Making Our Coaching Responsive, Part 2 ~ January 2019

Last May, our post focused on the importance of making our coaching responsive and considering where teachers are on the continuum from Novice to Expert.  We noted that even very experienced teachers may be “novices” when new curricula or instructional ideas are introduced.  And although it’s important to honor the years of experience they bring to our coaching interactions, we also have to acknowledge that even experienced teachers may feel vulnerable with new ideas.  New teachers also may feel vulnerable and are often overwhelmed by the responsibilities and instructional challenges they encounter in the classroom.

So where do we begin?  How do we engage teachers across the continuum in coaching that will help build their instructional capacity and fuel their professional growth?  An important component of our coaching is a focus on the needs of individual teachers to reduce any inclination to fall back on a “one-size-fits-all” coaching plan. This brings us back around to the responsive coaching and its importance as a framework for all of our interactions with teachers.

As it turns out, a focus on responsive coaching has strong support in the research, with relationship building often emerging as an important factor for coaches’ effectiveness. In fact, positive relationships between coaches and teachers are an essential component that can fuel pedagogical capacity-building to the benefit of students’ literacy learning (L’Allier, Elish-Piper, & Bean, 2010).

The relationship-building aspects of coaching are also evident in a group of studies that centered on the relationships among coaching actions, teachers’ participation in coaching, and student achievement. Among the major findings, researchers reported that specific coaching behaviors (e.g., affirming teacher knowledge, demonstrating empathy toward teacher experience, directing dialogue toward teacher expertise) influenced teachers’ willingness to participate in coaching (e.g., Jayaraman, Marvin, Knoche, & Bainter, 2010).  Coaching talk aimed at building relationships and actively supporting teachers’ professional growth also strengthened teachers’ positive identities (e.g., Hunt, 2016; Hunt & Hansfield, 2013), mediated possible power imbalances, and positively influenced coaching interactions (e.g., Heinke, 2013; Jones & Rainville, 2014).  Moreover, an emphasis on trust and relationship-building during coaching interactions supported improvements in students’ literacy outcomes (Matsumura, Garnier, Correnti, Junker, & Bickel, 2010; Matsumura, Garnier, and Spybrook, 2013). As one might expect, the frequency of coaching interactions was also found to be positively correlated with student achievement (e.g., Bean, Draper, Hall, Vandermolen, & Zigmond, 2010).

Of course, relationship-building in the workplace takes time. So this is not a quick fix.  In our coaching work, we’ve identified several tiers of support that help us respond to teacher need and build the trusting relationships that are so critical to coaching success.

The first, and most flexible, of these tiers, we have defined as “Corridor Conversations.”  While we always advocate for a coaching relationship that is ongoing and deliberate, there are times when quick, more informal conversations, can also be effective – particularly with more experienced teachers.  These are the conversations that happen in the lunchroom or hallway or during a quick stop by the classroom.  From these conversations we can learn about student needs, assessment results, upcoming units, etc.  These conversations can help to answer teachers’ immediate concerns and provide the coach with information for future planning. These conversations can also lay the groundwork by helping coaches establish a friendly, professional relationship with colleagues that leads to more intensive coaching down the road.

When it’s possible to engage in more planful and deliberate coaching relationships, we have defined three additional tiers.  During Tier 2 we suggest setting aside time for an informal classroom visit and introductory interview.  Information gathered during this time allows the coach to begin to understand teacher needs, and how much coaching support is necessary, given the teacher’s experience, pedagogical knowledge, and instructional repertoire.  After this visit and initial conversation, the teacher and coach can decide whether they would like to continue to check-in informally or proceed with a classroom observation, Tier 3.

Tier 3 involves a more formal classroom observation.  We advocate for viewing this lesson through two lenses.  First, are lessons in the given classroom structured in alignment with what we know about best practice instruction (i.e. inclusion of mini lesson, guided practice, and independent practice)?  If the structure is not supportive of student learning, that needs to be addressed before more nuanced aspects of instruction can be considered.  If the structure is solidly in place, we suggest “digging deeper” and looking for areas where fine-tuning instruction can pay off in learning gains for students.  Examples might be to increase students’ opportunities for collaboration by working in small groups or with a partner, to create choice in reading and writing tasks, or to increase the explicitness of teacher talk in the classroom.

The final tier (4) incorporates a debriefing session after an observation. During this session, we suggest engaging the teacher in a discussion about the outcomes of the lesson – using student evidence to guide the conversation.  Together, the teacher and coach can jointly reflect on the lesson and consider possible next steps.

By considering coaching as formative assessment, occurring in flexible tiers of support, we can better meet the needs of individual teachers and begin to establish relationships with teachers with whom we have not yet worked.  Rather than being prescriptive in terms of support or expectations, this model offers teachers the opportunity to consider what level of coaching is right for a particular task, at a particular point in time.

References cited in this month’s post:

Bean, R. M., Draper, J. A., Hall, V., Vandermolen, J., & Zigmond, N. (2010). Coaches and coaching in Reading First schools: A reality check. The Elementary School Journal, 111(1), 87-114. Retrieved from

Heineke, S. F. (2013). Coaching discourse: Supporting teachers’ professional learning.
The Elementary School Journal, 113(3), 409-433.

Hunt, C. S. (2016). Getting to the heart of the matter: Discursive negotiations of emotions within literacy coaching interactions. Teaching and Teacher Education, 60, 331-343.
Retrieved from

Hunt, C. S., & Handsfield, L. J. (2013). The emotional landscapes of literacy coaching: Issues of identity, power, and positioning. Journal of Literacy Research, 45(1), 47-86.

Jayaraman, G., Marvin, C., Knoche, L., & Bainter, S. (2015). Coaching conversations in early childhood programs: The contributions of coach and coachee.
Infants & Young Children, 28, 323-336. doi: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000048

Jones, S., & Rainville, K. N. (2014). Flowing toward understanding: Suffering, humility, and compassion in literacy coaching.
Reading & Writing Quarterly, 30, 270-287. doi: 10.1080/10573569.2014.909270

L’Allier, S., Elish-Piper, L., & Bean, R. M. (2010). What matters for elementary literacy coaching? Guiding principles for instructional improvement and student achievement.
The Reading Teacher, 63, 544-554. doi: 10.1598/RT.63.7.2

Matsumura, L. C., Garnier, H. E., Correnti, R., Junker, B., & Bickel, D. D. (2010). Investigation the effectiveness of a comprehensive literacy coaching program in schools with high teacher mobility. The Elementary School Journal, 111, 35-62. Retrieved from

Matsumura, L. C., Garnier, H. E., & Spybrook, J. (2013). Literacy coaching to improve student reading achievement: A multi-level mediation model.
Learning and Instruction, 25, 35- 48. Retrieved from


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