Creating a culture of coaching and collaboration in high schools

Most students look forward to high school as their first opportunity to exercise choice in their learning and delve deeply into subjects they find interesting. When high schools are effective, students embark on a journey with their teachers to discover new ideas, solve complex problems, and consider alternative perspectives.

To provide these types of experiences for all students, teachers and principals must work together to design coaching systems to support the development of educators throughout their vocation.

Those who have focused their careers on high schools understand the complexities of coaching teachers as they move through the various stages of their profession. Although we hire and value high school teachers with strong content knowledge, we don’t always create a culture in which every teacher feels both challenged to continuously improve and comfortable enough to take risks by trying new approaches. We need to think differently about how to support those teachers.

Recent studies confirm that coaching provides excellent promise when it is individualized, intensive, sustained, context-specific, and focused. This type of coaching requires a shift in culture—one where all staff members embrace the responsibility to help their colleagues improve their craft. Adding one or two instructional coaches in a high school or placing the sole responsibility for coaching on principals will not drive excitement or sustain a program of professional development over time. Many coaching models are used across the country with varying success, but relatively few focus specifically on the unique needs in high schools.

Coaching to Deepen Content Knowledge

High school teachers typically have a passion for their subject matter and specialized degrees in content areas—rather than generalist degrees focused on pedagogy. Additionally, high school teachers spend a great deal of time with their department colleagues, which further immerses them in their field of concentration. This is distinctly different from elementary school teachers who are generalists with broad knowledge about a variety of subjects. Coaching models for high school teachers must acknowledge this difference and be designed to simultaneously deepen content knowledge and increase instructional effectiveness.

As a superintendent of a high school district, I had the opportunity to work collaboratively with teachers and principals to create a new model of teacher support. During my first few months in the district, the principals and teachers shared many concerns. Among the most common was their desire for a system of shared leadership focused on professional development and coaching driven by teacher need, collegial relationships, and collaboration. For as long as anyone could remember, each of the high schools in the district had a traditional structure with department chairs responsible for mostly managerial tasks and principals without time to individually coach large numbers of teachers. While teachers appreciated the hard work of their colleagues who took on department chair roles, they longed for something more. Teachers wanted to drive their own professional development and, when necessary, receive assistance from colleagues who understood the content in their courses.

These teachers had a desire to improve their skills to ensure that all students performed at high levels. Another widely shared worry was that there wasn’t an established system to support teachers beyond the state-required mentoring program for first- and second-year teachers and the collectively bargained employee evaluation process. Teachers asked to work with their principals and district office leaders to establish a new method of teacher leadership in order to build a culture of coaching and continuous improvement.

As principals sought input from teachers, there was a consensus that school leaders should have a part in a new model focused on teacher development, but that they could not carry the responsibility alone. Principals and assistant principals were respected as experts in teaching and learning, but teachers also wanted access to coaches who understood the specific content that they taught. Plus, school leaders had the added burden of being responsible for evaluation, which can complicate a collegial coaching relationship.

Limited budgets did not allow for creating new positions, so we determined we’d enhance the jobs already in place to give the teachers access to the type of collaboration and coaching they wanted. Principals worked with teachers to establish that the new system of teacher leadership should include the following elements:

  • A network of distributed leadership among teachers
  • Support for teachers in large and small departments, including teachers of singleton courses
  • A focus on both instructional methods and content area expertise
  • A focus on nonevaluative, nonthreatening support for teachers to improve student outcomes using data
  • Shared governance with administrative teams at each school and the district office
  • Clear expectations regarding the curriculum

Principals and teachers worked together to redesign the department chair role. We acknowledged that teachers who took on these newly defined positions would need time during the school day to plan for their department, work with colleagues, and work closely with their principals in the process of shared leadership. Working to change school culture would take more time than we could provide, so extra pay in the form of a stipend was also an important factor.

Teachers and principals worked together to brainstorm a catchy name for these new positions, but nothing seemed to capture the essence of the collaboration and coaching focus. Ultimately, the new positions were simply called “teacher leaders,” but the job descriptions focused on building collaborative relationships among teachers by increasing time and opportunities to focus on student data, sharing best practices and ideas for instruction, and assisting struggling colleagues. Teachers also recognized that it had been many years since the curriculum had been thoroughly audited, so teacher leaders took on the responsibility of working with every single teacher in their departments to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum for each course.

Slowly Building Buy-In

The process to both uncover the need for a new way of thinking and create new positions intended to shift school culture was deliberate work that took several years to accomplish. As can be expected with any significant change, there were bumps in the road.

The district had historically struggled with trust between teachers and administrators, and the lingering effects of this made even a distinctly collaborative effort difficult at times. There was ongoing resistance from those who could see no reason to change the system or culture that had been in place for so many years.

Several specific decisions were made to begin to build trust throughout the process. Only internal candidates were considered and hired for the new roles, and existing department chairs had the right of first refusal. We included teacher leaders in creating agendas and facilitating school-level leadership meetings, and they were given time to periodically meet with their counterparts from other schools at the district office.

We determined that teacher leaders would take part in decision making for issues that impacted teaching and learning, and we realized that they should gather input from their colleagues to represent the breadth of teacher voices. Also, the teacher leaders had extensive involvement in hiring decisions for their department but did not participate in teacher evaluations—to alleviate the fear that collegial coaching would lead to adverse employment decisions.

The ultimate purpose of the teacher leader role was to work collectively toward a climate of collegiality, and specific job duties were developed as vehicles to move schools closer to that goal. Teacher leaders facilitated collaborative, data-focused department meetings using the tenets of author Richard DuFour’s professional learning community model. Also, teacher leaders worked with principals to develop appropriate professional development plans, including opportunities for teachers to share effective practices with other teachers. Teacher leaders were instrumental in developing systems for teachers to observe one another, to practice new skills, and to receive honest peer feedback without fear of reprisal.

Coaching and Caring for One Another

Although creating and filling the positions took several years, it was just the start of a shift to a culture of teachers taking responsibility to coach and care for the development of one another. Early on, the new teacher leaders expressed comfort with their level of content knowledge and effective instructional practices, but they requested additional training in creating and sustaining high-​functioning teams, honing their facilitation techniques, developing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and coaching colleagues to use data to drive instruction. In response, principals, district leaders, and teacher leaders worked together to create a customized and flexible plan that allowed them to learn and practice new skills over time and in a safe environment. Principals modeled effective coaching practices with teacher leaders so that they could, in turn, model effective coaching with their colleagues.

We eventually noted gradual changes in school climate, and many important outcomes began to be realized. Perhaps the most tangible result was the involvement of every single district teacher in the development of a standards-based, vertically aligned, guaranteed, and viable curriculum for each course. Teachers felt more comfortable gathering and sharing data about student performance with their colleagues once they implemented the curriculum that they had developed themselves. The arduous work to create effective teams at the department level began to pay off when teachers were willing to ask for help and accept assistance from colleagues and to take risks to try new instructional methods. Eventually, specific requests for professional learning were regularly being submitted, and principals happily supported the work to develop innovative instructional practices.

The focus on creating a truly collaborative system to support teachers brought about other subtle changes. Both principals and teacher leaders were trained in the skill of active listening, and as a result, we noticed positive professional relationships and friendships develop where no one would have thought possible. Small shifts such as focusing on teachers’ strengths rather than deficits and a consistent focus on students at the heart of all efforts also brought educators together with a shared purpose and a renewed sense of optimism for their colleagues.

Upon reflection of the process used to support the continued growth of teachers, it is clear that the progress and success were a result of principals listening to the needs of faculty and working together to build a structure to support the desired culture. The imposition of a ready-made or generic coaching program would have resulted in shallow implementation at best. Any program not designed for our teachers and by our teachers would not have met our shared goal of supporting their dual need to improve both as content experts and as experts in innovative and effective instruction.

Another essential element of the culture shift was patience. The pace of change was slow but deliberate, and there were often setbacks that caused us to return to a discussion of why the work to support teachers was essential to the success of students.

On the surface, it may have appeared that the focus was to redefine the traditional department chair role, but what was accomplished was much more significant. By creating opportunities for teachers and principals to work together to create new positions, new structures, and new expectations, the culture of the school shifted from individual teachers working in isolation to one in which teachers supported one another’s development and where student growth was the driving force for the work of principals, teachers, and school communities.


Laurie Kimbrel, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Research, and School Improvement at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, GA.


Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments

You can ensure that teachers have timely access to curriculum materials and training. You can set clear expectations and ensure that teachers are meeting those expectations by conducting—or delegating others to conduct—classroom observations. You can ensure that teachers receive feedback on their practice and access to professional development aligned with their areas of need.

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.