Instructional Leadership and a Coaching Approach

Instructional Leadership is a term that has been popular in recent years…but what does that mean? Does it mean school leaders are in collaborative partnerships with teachers, spending large amounts of time in classrooms, observing, supervising, providing feedback and demonstrating exemplary teaching practice?

Possibly for some, but is that realistically do-able in the majority of contexts, given the other demands on a school leader’s time? Does the research support that approach as the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching?


I would like to challenge the notion that school leaders should be the sole instructional expert in a school. Whilst the Principal and other senior leaders need to know what good teaching practice looks like and what constitutes ‘good enough’, it is not realistic nor is it likely to be the most effective approach for them to be the sole providers of this feedback to teachers. Researchers (Hattie, 2012) suggest that it is more effective to have teachers working collaboratively and for very high effect, using a coaching approach in how they support each other. This coaching approach is supported by the Australian Professional Standards for Principals and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) providing many resources to help. Refer

Leaders play a significant role in leading instruction; however, it is when teachers work collaboratively with peers, incorporating data collected through peer observation and following up with regular and sophisticated collegial coaching conversations, that we see the most impact on teaching practice. This impacts directly on outcomes for students. There are occasions where the Principal may be the best placed, if not the only person in the school that is qualified to do this. As a Principal of eighteen years myself, I was the only appropriate person available to do this in some schools I led, particularly small rural schools with a staff of very inexperienced teachers.

Let’s be clear about what a collaborative coaching partnership looks like:

  • Teachers work with a peer in a high trust relationship.
  • Teachers asks their peer to collect ‘data’ on them. This data collection is aligned with the teacher’s specific classroom needs and own developmental needs.
  • Follow up coaching conversations between teachers and peers occur that establish goals and actions.
  • This concept is nothing new - the best teachers have always done this.

For the first time, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers provide us with a common language as to what highly effective teachers need to know and do, and describes what good leaders also need to do to support their teachers. Increasing research evidence within highly effective schools is that a coaching approach is essential. It points the leadership of the school to create a coaching culture where these collaborative partnerships will flourish. (McKinsey and Company 2010)

So what does a school leader do to lead instruction? Years of experience in a Principal role, and now in supporting other school leaders grappling with this question suggests that the following guidelines/principles will be a helpful place to start:

  • Leaders set the direction and priorities within the school using participative processes with their community and board.
  • Leaders seek over the medium to longer term to create a culture in their school where feedback is sought and welcomed.
  • Leaders communicate these in a way that will influence the coaching conversation between peers.
  • Leaders conduct performance conversations with the next level of leadership within the school (e.g.; Assistant Principals) where this exists, or directly with teachers in small schools.
  • One of the key focus areas of these conversations where the school has a middle management level, will be how the Middle Manager will lead the teachers they manage. At least one of the focus areas of these conversations between Principal and Middle Managers is how they interpret the school's direction, within their specific context and conduct coaching conversations with individual teachers, to support them in setting goals and actions relevant to the needs of their students.

    The teacher is interpreting the school's direction and the Professional Standards within the context of their individual skillset and knowledge base, via performance conversations with their manager. The teacher’s focus areas are always informed by the needs of the students.

    The outcomes of these performance development and review conversations would be recorded and referred to in subsequent performance development and review meetings. This is the accountability aspect of the performance development and review process and may include iSMART goals and strategies that the coachee has committed to implementing. This process is collaborative and the coachee is expected to be professional and self-directed in how they interpret the school’s priorities.

    Leaders are a “leader as coach” and model the approach in the way they conduct themselves.

    And what do these coaching conversations typically involve? The GCI coaching approach identifies three core pillars of good coaching conversations:

    • GROWTH Model - a process or framework
    • COACHING SKILLS - key interpersonal communication skills refined to fit the coaching context
    • COACHING ‘WAY OF BEING” - a high level of Emotional Intelligence and a “way of being” that reflects a solution focus, positivity, unconditional positive regard and humility


    At the teacher to teacher level, the goals set within the performance development and review meeting with their performance manager are interpreted at a very specific and micro level. For example, a teacher may request their collaborative partner to collect data via a classroom observation, with the focus of that data collection being informed by the goals they have established with their performance manager. This data would then form the basis of the collaborative coaching conversations between the two teachers. This is where the change in teaching practice is most likely to occur (Hattie, 2012). The reporting of these conversations to their performance manager or the Principal is not recommended. If reporting of goals and actions at the teacher to teacher level is a requirement of administration, then the openness, the honesty and the robustness of the conversation at peer level is compromised.

    School leaders still have direct contact with classrooms and teaching practice through walkthroughs and the like, but in most circumstances, this is not as an “expert” or as a supervisor. As evidenced by (Pink, 2009), leaders can most effectively motivate their staff by linking praise and recognition to the goals that have been self-directed by the staff member. Bland and generic feedback is far less effective than specific, personal and goal oriented feedback.

    If the school has additional roles within its structure such as an Instructional Coach or Teacher Development Coach, these people would have a role to play at the teacher to teacher level. They provide the instructional expertise and input for the teacher and would ideally be a strategy identified by the teacher, within their performance agreement. It is not recommended that these people would report directly to the teacher’s performance manager about the teacher’s specific goals and actions unless this is agreed to and known by the teacher.


    Where performance issues become known to leaders within the school, then the relevant performance manager of that individual needs to raise the observation in a very timely manner with that person. This ‘hard feedback’ provided by the performance manager can still be delivered within a coaching approach and when effectively done, can result in developmental goals that the teacher adds to their performance agreement. This can then inform the conversations they have with their collaborative partner. When a coaching culture is evident in a school, feedback becomes normal and feedback aimed at modifying behaviour is blended with feedback that affirms behaviour in a roughly 3:1 ratio. (Fredrickson, 2009)


    To do this, leaders need to build the culture that will enable a coaching approach to flourish. This starts with training of leaders to enable them to effectively conduct the performance development and review conversations in a coaching style. Teachers need skill training to be able to conduct the co-coaching conversations effectively with a peer. And of course, any coaching skill development initiatives will gain greater traction when they take place within a culture that welcomes feedback and the opportunity to improve


    Sitting above everything is the need for teachers and school leaders to have a deep and common understanding of what good teaching and learning is and an unwavering commitment that all the conversations are centred on the needs of the students.


    • City, Elizabeth A, Elmore, Richard F, Fiarman, Sarah E, Teitel, L (2009). Instructional Rounds in Education – A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning.
    • Fink, Stephen L and Markholt, A (2011). LEADING for Instructional Improvement – How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.
    • Fredrickson, Barbara L (2009). Positivity – Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.
    • Hattie, (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers, Maximising Impact on Learning – Effect Size
    • Hargreaves A, and Shirley D, (2009). The Fourth Way – The Inspiring Future for Educational Change.
    • Hay Group (2012) – Prepared for AITSL – Growing Our Potential; Hay Group’s View on Implementing an Effective Performance Improvement and Development Framework for Teachers
    • Jackson, Paul Z and McKergow M (2002, 2007). The Solutions Focus – Making Coaching & Change SIMPLE.
    • McKinsey and Company (2010) - Capturing the Leadership Premium – How the World’s Top School Systems are Building Leadership Capacity for the Future
    • O’Bree, M (2009) – The Leadership Coaching Guide – Growth Coaching International
    • O’Bree, M and Campbell, J (2010) – Coaching Accreditation Program manual – growth coaching international
    • Patterson, K, Grenny, J, McMillan, R, and Switzler, A, (2002). Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.
    • Pink, Daniel H (2009). Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
    • Van Nieuwerburgh, C, (2012). Coaching in Education – Getting Better Results for Students, Educators and Parents.

Coaching Resource Library