Educational leaders around the world are recognizing that real improvement in schools requires ongoing, focused, intensive, goal-directed, job-embedded professional development. That is, instructional coaching.

My colleagues and I at the Instructional Coaching Group and at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas have been studying and supporting instructional coaches for more than two decades. During that time, we’ve found that administrative support is one of the two most important variables that make or break coaching success (the other is hiring the right person for the job). When coaches and principals work together successfully, there is an excellent chance the coach will have an unmistakably positive impact on students and teachers. The opposite is also true.

In this article, I identify seven actions administrators can and should take to support coaches so that positive change can occur in schools.

1. Understand Instructional Coaching

Since coaches play a central role in any change or improvement plans in a school, principals must understand what coaches do so they can provide the right support. Understanding coaching will likely involve the following: (a) agreeing on a set of beliefs to guide coaching actions (we propose the partnership principles), (b) outlining the skills coaches need for effective coaching conversations (in particular listening and questioning), (c) following a coaching cycle that coaches can move through in partnership with teachers to organize, set, and hit goals (we suggest the impact cycle), and (d) drawing upon strategic knowledge about data gathering and high-impact instruction to move through the cycle. When administrators understand the beliefs, skills, processes, and knowledge inherent in effective coaching, they are much better prepared to support coaches in the other actions I describe in this article.

2. Theoretical Alignment

Coaches and administrators work well together when they have theoretical alignment. This is a fancy way of saying that the coach and principal agree on the principles that should guide the coach’s actions. When they don’t, that can undercut a coach’s effectiveness. For example, if a coach has learned that coaching should be a partnership between professionals, with teachers having a lot of autonomy, but the principal sees coaches as experts whose primary job is to fix teachers by telling them what to do, that difference can make it difficult for coaches to act effectively and with confidence.

The ultimate goal of coaching should be to have an unmistakably positive and lasting impact on student achievement and well-being. My research suggests that coaches will be more successful if they work from what I call the partnership principles. When coaches see themselves as partners with teachers, they see teachers as equals who should have a significant say in their own professional learning. Coaches who act as partners engage in back-and-forth (or dialogical) rather than directive (one-way) conversations that focus on reflective work for real-life change in the classroom. Most coaches learn quickly that telling teachers what to do is counterproductive, but involving teachers in identifying goals and strategies increases the likelihood that teachers will commit to their coaching goals.

3. Role Clarity and Time

To succeed in their job, coaches need to know the expectations for their job, and they must have sufficient time to do that job. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. And, when there is no clarity around what coaches do, coaches can end up doing low-priority tasks that keep them from partnering with teachers to move through a coaching cycle.

Jim Knight, co-founder and a senior partner at the Instructional Coaching Group.

We suggest coaches and administrators sit down together and review a list of all the tasks coaches might be asked to do. Then, they need to discuss each task and decide if the coach will—or will not—do it. Administrators and coaches need to prioritize the actions that will have the greatest impact on student achievement and well-being. If coaches are going to spend at least 60% of their time coaching, and at least 10% of their time on their own professional learning, that doesn’t leave much time for other tasks.

Administrators will often need to help coaches say no to many tasks if coaches are to focus on the most important work. Potentially valuable tasks such as leading PLCs, conducting walk throughs, overseeing state testing, designing and leading workshops, and so forth may all need to be set aside so coaches can focus on partnering with teachers to make dramatic improvements in learning and teaching practice.

4. Principal Support

In almost all organizations, people seek the approval of the leaders to whom they report. When it comes to coaching in schools, this means teachers will be more likely to prioritize coaching if their principals prioritize coaching. At the most fundamental level, principals need to believe that effective professional development leads to important improvements in schools, that professional development isn’t just a box to be checked. If administrators don’t believe in professional development, something needs to change.

Administrators can also support coaching in many other ways. They can speak publicly about the importance of coaching, they can observe coaches when they offer model lessons, and they can encourage teachers to speak publicly about their positive coaching experiences.

One of the most powerful ways principals can support coaches is for principals to agree to be coached themselves. More and more districts are offering leadership coaching for principals, and some administrators are learning to take a coaching approach to leading by learning and using coaching skills, beliefs, and a coaching process.

One of the most powerful ways principals can support coaches is for principals to agree to be coached themselves.

Coaching expert Steve Barkley suggests that principals demonstrate the power of coaching by being coached themselves by their school’s instructional coach in front of staff during a meeting. To do this, a principal can teach a model lesson in a teacher’s classroom, record the lesson, watch it to find some interesting sections, then share those sections at a staff meeting. Then, after sharing the video, the principal can be coached by the school’s instructional coach in front of everyone. Barkley says that even in meetings where teachers are usually anxious for the meeting to end as quickly as possible, staff will want to stick around to see their principal be coached. Most importantly, when teachers see how easy and powerful coaching can be, they’ll be more likely to embrace coaching for themselves.

5. Support Professional Development for Coaches

Coaching is a new job for most coaches, and it involves different beliefs, processes, skills, and knowledge than coaches used themselves when they were teachers. Coaches won’t acquire all that new knowledge and skill without professional development and time for learning. Principals can provide support by looking for resources and ensuring that at least 10% of a coach’s work time is spent on professional learning. Also, just as teachers need coaches to translate new ideas into better learning and well-being for students, coaches also need someone who helps them learn and improve their craft. Principals can also provide a great service to coaches by advocating for coaches of coaches.

One final and important form of professional learning for coaches is for them to create instructional playbooks: digital or analog documents that contain (a) a list of the highest-impact strategies to be used by coaches and teachers in a school, (b) one-pagers for those strategies, and (c) checklists that coaches can share with teachers to help teachers get ready to implement new strategies.

6. Confidentiality

Every coach and principal needs to confirm their policy for confidentiality. In the best learning environments, of course, confidentiality wouldn’t be an issue given widespread psychological safety. If all teachers feel 100% safe discussing the students in their classrooms and their professional practice, there would be no need for a confidentiality policy.

In most cases, however, teachers may be less than candid about their needs, especially when they are talking with someone who meets with the administrators who will evaluate them. In some schools, the policy is that coaches share no information at all with administrators so that teachers feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and needs. The most common policy is that coaches share what they’re working on and with whom, but they do not share evaluative information.

What matters most with respect to a confidentiality policy is that it is clearly stated, agreed upon, and widely understood by everyone in a school. A lack of clarity around confidentiality may lead to coaches sharing information that teachers thought was confidential. For teachers, that can feel like a breach of trust. And trust is crucial for coaches to succeed.

7. Effective Evaluation

In too many settings, coaches are evaluated by people who don’t understand effective coaching with an evaluation tool that was designed specifically for teachers. This is a bit like asking psychiatrists to evaluate surgeons with a tool designed for dentists. Evaluation of coaches should be conducted by people who understand coaching and who use a tool designed and field-tested for coaches. We suggest a 360° evaluation be completed by teachers who have been coached by the evaluated coach, and we suggest the coach’s administrator or direct report complete the same evaluation. Coaches themselves should complete a self-evaluation. Such triangulated data can really help coaches improve.

Coaching programs should also be evaluated. At a minimum, schools should assess the impact of coaching by looking at what goals teachers set and hit by working with coaches. Additionally, evaluation should assess the ways in which the school system supports or impedes coaching success. There are many tools for such evaluation described in a book I co-wrote, Evaluating Instructional Coaching: People, Programs, and Partnership.


Real change, change that has an unmistakably positive impact on students, likely won’t happen without follow-up, collaboration, and goal-directed practice. Coaches play a central role in such efforts, but they can’t do it alone. Coaches will struggle to succeed without school leader support. Fortunately, administrators can take concrete and specific actions to support coaches so real change, good change, is always occurring. 

Jim Knight, PhD, is the co-founder and a senior partner at the Instructional Coaching Group and a research associate at the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas. He is the author of several books and articles on instructional coaching and professional learning. Learn more at


Knight, J. (2013). High-impact instruction: A framework for great teaching. Corwin Press.

Knight, J. (1999). Partnership learning: Putting conversation at the heart of professional learning [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association Conference 1999, Montréal, Quebec.

Knight, J. (2021). The definitive guide to instructional coaching: Seven factors for success. ASCD.

Knight, J. (2018). The impact cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching. Corwin Press.

Knight, J., Hoffman, A., Harris, M., & Thomas, S. (2021). The instructional playbook: The missing link for translating research into practice. ASCD.