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5 things I learned as an instructional coach this year

favicon Some of you may know that I was an instructional coach this year. After 15 years in the classroom teaching students, I focused this year on helping teachers improve their literacy instruction. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. Here are some highlights:

1. Coaching is infinitely easier than teaching.
Coaching is predictable, while teaching is not. The introvert in me prefers stability over chaos, and while coaching certainly isn’t as scintillating as teaching, it’s undeniably easier. There are no papers to grade, no lessons to plan, no late nights, and no early mornings. My stress level plummeted, and as a result, my energy was almost always high (which made me better at my job).

As a coach, I probably worked 30 percent as hard as I did as a teacher. We all know that teaching is a challenging job, but until you’ve done it and then not done it, it’s impossible to tell. Compared with teaching, my full-time job as an instructional coach seemed like a fully paid sabbatical.

2. It’s not easy to be a good coach.
Even though coaching is much easier than teaching, that doesn’t mean being a good coach is particularly easy. There’s a fine line that coaches must balance — between being an expert and being an colleague. Some coaches, perhaps in attempt to legitimize their position, present themselves as too “knowing,” too much like an expert. This is the wrong approach. It does not honor teachers or teaching.

But the flip side is also problematic. If you’re too much of a “friend” — and if you hide your experience and your years of struggle (and epiphany) — then you’re not appropriately serving as a coach, either. The teachers I worked with reported that I mixed wisdom (maybe my graying hair?) with collegiality — and that humor also didn’t hurt. Most important, I learned that establishing rapport is by far the most crucial step in building a strong working relationship.

3. I’m pretty good at coaching.
It helped that I had a great boss who helped me hone my skills and an excellent coach colleague that I bantered with every day. But what I learned is that while I still struggle with large professional development sessions (facilitating a group of 10+ teachers is not easy for me), I’m pretty good at seeing teachers as they improve their practice.

One thing I did at the beginning of the year was observe each teacher for an entire period. Apparently, this wasn’t standard practice. In the back of the classroom, I took informal notes, and nearly all of the teachers told me that they expected me to stick around for just part of the period before moving on. This little (and easy) gesture built trust quickly and easily.

4. Coaching makes me a better teacher.
When you’re a teacher, you rarely get to observe other teachers. All you know about your colleagues is what they report and what students say. What happens in the classroom, then, is filtered through the eyes of others. (That’s partly why more teachers are filming themselves now.)

As a coach, I get to see good teaching and learning every day. I get to talk with students about what’s effective, about the best ways they learn. I get to talk with teachers about what excites and sustains them. And I get to advocate for strong literacy instruction every day. Nobody thinks I’m a crazy person when I champion the importance of reading. It’s my job.

5. I miss teaching.
Yes, coaching is easier, and it means my nights and weekends are free, but it’s not as fulfilling or exciting as teaching. There’s a once-removed piece to the real work of supporting students to reach their goals and dreams. Teaching was always a struggle for me. I had as many failures as successes. But as cliche as this sounds, there’s nothing more important.

For the time being, I’m sticking with coaching, maybe for a couple or few more years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll get too used to the ease of coaching and not return to the classroom. But I hope not. It’ll be better, I think, to figure out how I can forge a new chapter of teaching that is good for both me and my students. favicon


  1. imene

    Hi Mark, Thank you for sharing you experience as a coach. I agree with you that teaching is one of the most challenging and exhausting jobs I’ve never had. Teachers need experienced coaches in order to continue to do their everyday job the best they can do. I am sure that they were lucky to have you1

    • Mark Isero

      Imene, thank you for the kind words. You’re right that teaching is a challenging and exhausting job. The teachers with whom I worked this year were excellent at what they did AND they appreciated having me around. I learned that all teachers should have an instructional coach. The profession would look much different if that were the case.

Please share your brilliant insights!