The Missing LiNK: A Common Definition of Instructional Coaching

by Suzanne Myers and Amber Rowland

Instructional coaching is a term that varies widely in interpretations and implementation practices, and seasoned educators know this all too well. Much like “Professional Learning Community,” “Personalized Learning,” and “Balanced Literacy,” instructional coaching implemented in ten different schools is likely to form ten or more different definitions in the minds of educators working in those buildings. This lack of a consistent and common definition can become a great source of frustration, and can leave us feeling confused in conversations with others. Consider what a conversation about instructional coaching between two educators from different school districts might look like:


Educator A:     Wait…you have an instructional coach? So how are you measuring your goals?

Educator B:     What goals?

Educator A:     The student-centered, data-driven…goals. What you and your coach talk about each time you meet?

Educator B:     Oh, we don’t have those. The most challenging part for us is that we have a hard time remembering where we left off last month.

Educator A:     Last month? Don’t you meet every week?

Educator B:     Ummm. No.

It is no wonder we are confused about terms like instructional coaching, with so many different interpretations out there. Even educators working in the same district might have a variety of experiences and orientations that cause them to have different ideas about the very definition of instructional coaching, let alone how it is implemented in many different types of schools with different teachers who have different needs.

In Kansas, we are in our first few months of implementing our Striving Readers grant projects, known in our state as the Literacy Network of Kansas (LiNK) grants. A central component of the LiNK effort is that all districts are required to include high-impact professional development for instructional staff, as well as instructional coaching services for teachers around evidence-based and/or research-based literacy practices.

The reason for this requirement is simple. There is evidence that professional development is a wise investment to boost teacher efficacy and build the collective capacity of an instructional staff (Dunsmore & Nelson, 2014; Foltos, 2014; Fullan, 2011; Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). However, it remains difficult for researchers to prove strong ties between even successful professional development efforts and improvements in student learning. One way that we can more readily ensure that professional development efforts positively impact student learning is by providing teachers a research-based instructional coaching model that includes student-centered goal-setting and a personalized, context-specific focus that research indicates does lead to improved student learning (Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008).

Our LiNK projects are lucky in that Kansas is home to Dr. Jim Knight, an internationally-renowned expert and researcher in the area of instructional coaching. Additionally, due to LiNK’s relationship with the Center for Research on Learning, we are fortunate to have ready access to the work of Knight and other researchers that can help guide our thinking about features that should anchor any quality instructional coaching program for educators.

In his 2007 book, Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction, Knight acknowledges that the term “instructional coach” is often confused or used interchangeably with terms and roles such as reading coach, literacy coach, and cognitive coaching. In order to clarify the term “instructional coach,” Knight provides a list of some key features associated with the role, which include:


·     A focus on building relationships with teachers. The heart of relationships is emotional connection.

·     One-on-one work with teachers.

·     A partnership philosophy; an authentic respect for teachers; professionalism.

·     Collaborative work between coach and teacher; together, they discover answers to the challenges present in the classroom.

·     Modeling so that teachers can see what effective implementation looks like.

·     Partnering with principals.

(Modified from Knight, 2007, p. 33)


Knight wraps these features into a solid definition, stating that instructional coaches, “partner with teachers to analyze current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to meet goals, and provide support until the goals are met” (p. 22). Studying this definition and key features alongside preliminary data from a sample of LiNK districts’ teachers can provide us with some useful information to guide future LiNK project work.

We sent a survey on professional development and instructional coaching to randomly-selected school districts, all of which are receiving LiNK grant funds. We made three separate requests for responses, and received 36 replies. Twenty respondents were K-5 educators and sixteen work with students in grades 6-12. The majority of respondents were seasoned educators (72 % with 11 or more years in the classroom), and at the time of the survey, all but one was fully certified in the area in which they were currently working.

To extract baseline data, we asked respondents to identify their level of engagement with an instructional coach prior to this first yearof LiNK grant implementation. Figure 1 shows responses separated by Elementary (K-5) and Secondary (6-12).

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It is with Figure 1 that we begin to see discrepancies in definitions of instructional coaching, even across this small sample of educators. For respondents who did report engagement with an instructional coach prior to this year, those who reported engagement “about once a year” or “2-3 times per semester” and maybe even those who reported “about once a month,” likely would define instructional coaching very differently from the definition provided in Knight’s book. Given their professional experiences of instructional coaches as they have been used in their respective contexts, some of these respondents might equate the role of instructional coach with the role of a PD provider or consultant, who may only visit their schools or classrooms periodically.

A partnership in which teachers are working one-on-one with a coach to (1) identify a goal, (2) learn ways to achieve the goal, and (3) improve teaching and learning is unlikely to occur if a teacher and coach are only meeting a handful of times per year. Knight elaborates on this IDENTIFY-LEARN-IMPROVE model in his 2018 book, The Impact Cycle. The model is built on a foundation of what Knight (2018) calls “partnership principles,” which include equality, choice, voice, dialogue, reflection, praxis, and reciprocity (p. 5).

This text also draws a side-by-side comparison between top-down coaching models and a partnership coaching model. A modified version of this chart is shown in Figure 2.

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As technological advances allow our instructional models to become more one-on-one and personalized to fit the diverse needs of our students, it stands to reason that our professional development structures should also shift to become more personalized to fit the diverse needs of our teachers. Instructional coaching offers schools and districts an opportunity to truly shift their professional development to a model with a better track record for impacting student learning.

Many districts have been working to make this shift over the past couple of decades, but the change has been slow to take hold (Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Phillips, 2014; The New Teacher Project, 2015; Gulamhussein, 2013). Our survey of these Kansas educators reflects national trends, showing that while there is some effort in their districts to open up professional development experiences to include Twitter chats and out-of-district site visits, the majority of PD these teachers experience remains of the large group, information-delivery variety, with little focus on teachers’ individual contexts and needs.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 4.18.50 PM.png

The field of education as a whole depends on a collective growth mindset in order to move forward. We are a field that thrives when all educators consistently (1) identify worthwhile and important goals, (2) learn and research new ways to achieve their goals, and (3) work to perpetually improve teaching and learning within their professional contexts. 

Kansas’ LiNK project provides our state an opportunity to “flip the script” on professional development, and create a cadre of model systems in which personalized PD in the form of instructional coaching is the norm rather than the exception, and large-group learning is used strategically and only when absolutely necessary.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Knightand other researchers in the areas of instructional coaching and professional development, we know the components of a strong instructional coaching program. We know that the success of instructional coaching as a personalized PD model requires leaders to allow for the building and nurturing of relationships between committed professionals, honest reflection on instruction, blameless analysis of data, relentless encouragement, consistent practice, and A LOT of thoughtful work.

Perhaps by turning our gaze to a single research-based definition and working to align our PD models more closely to that definition, our collective vision will translate to more dependable successes statewide for our teachers, and more importantly, for our students.



LiNK to related resource: Check out Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching website, where he explains PEERS goals, a teacher-friendly model for setting goals within an instructional coaching cycle.


Dunsmore, K., & Nelson, C. (2014). Building Capacity for Sustained Change: Characteristics of Common Core Implementation Models that Actually Work. Michigan Reading

Journal.47(1), 14-25.

Foltos, L. (2014). The secret to great coaching: Inquiry method helps teachers take ownership of their learning. Journal of Staff Development, 2014, Vol.35(3), 28-31.

Fullan, M. (2011). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning.

Gulamhussein, A. (2013).Teaching the teachers: effective professional development in an era of high stakes accountability.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Knight, J. (2018) The Impact Cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B. J., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. P. (2007). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American

educational research journal44(4), 921-958.

Phillips, V. (2014). Teachers Know Best: Teachers Views on Professional Development.Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

TNTP (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development.Washington, DC.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and teacher

education24(1), 80-91.

Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., Andree, A., Richardson, N., Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the

United States and abroad.Dallas, TX. National Staff Development Council.




Welcome to the literacy network, where we strive to build champions across the state of Kansas.  We have so many little people in Kansas waiting to become their own champions.  Every one of our students has a story to tell.  Our students in Kansas are those who overcome adversity and celebrate success, and every student can become the champion of their own story.  

It is through words that we read about the stories of others.  With words, our students can become the storytellers.  The power of words is amazing.  With them, we can hear and read about the life experiences of others. We can learn about the world, and we can take our own words to create stories for others to read.   Through words, we can teach ourchildren – our students in Kansas – that life is about growing, learning, crying, giving, receiving, and celebrating.  

This is why we are here as educators.  

We are here because of the power of words.  Words that students learn to put together by first listening, then reading, and finally, creating their own stories or text with purposeful intent.  Words – and the power of literacy – is what educators are here to help give to our students.  

The Literacy Network of Kansas, LiNK, is not just a document on paper that will sit in our schools. It contains words that will help us in the next three years to create activities, and lessons, and programs, and ideas.  LiNK will lead us to powerful thought-provoking questions that help to bring the power of reading so our students can become the creators of words. 

We believe in the combined power of educators within the LiNK network and we think we have put together a group of leaders and researchers and experts in their field to provide us with the resources we need to help students become listeners and readers and creators of their own stories.  Year one of this project is about making that link with our schools and communities. 

LiNK is one of eleven federal grants from the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy initiatve. Kansas schools will receive $27 million over a three-year period, one of the largest grants ever for the Kansas State Department of Education.  Local projects completed a rigorous process and eight recipients were selected – four consortia and four individual school districts representing 32 school districts total.  Each project will be awarded $3.225 million over the three-year period.  

With local funding, school districts decided locally how to help build literacy in your community. It is your plan.  Your project will touch babies all the way through high school seniors.  Your schools have the ability to reach out to families and communities to create partnerships that don’t yet exist, or to build relationships you already have. Your schools can create programs and activities that engage families with the school and get them excited about learning with their children.  Your school can purchase resources that research shows are effective in engaging learners.  These resources are tools to help educators, our greatest resource.  Our LiNK support team hopes you are excited about the opportunities ahead!