Whether we’re talking about teaching or coaching, being effective is more than just giving instructions or advice. It requires a deep understanding of what motivates people and a well-defined process for achieving progress. This is where the coaching cycle comes in. Used extensively in education settings, this 3-step instructional coaching process can help drive student achievement to new heights—while serving as a type of “hands on,” collaborative professional development for teachers to hone their instructional practices.
In this article, we'll explore the basics of the instructional coaching cycle and its role in education, including its benefits and how to apply it effectively. Whether you’re an instructional coach looking for a tried and true method for helping educators thrive, or a teacher curious about taking your instructional skills to the next level, the coaching cycle is worth considering.
And before we dive in, here’s something else to keep in mind: This same overall process holds powerful insight into how you can be more effective in any coaching scenario where your goal is to help people make important changes to their life. So if you coach others in some capacity—read on, and consider how you could apply this framework with your clients!
What is the coaching cycle?
Popularized in part by the work of Jim Knight, Founder and Senior Partner of Instructional Coaching Group (ICG), the coaching cycle is a structured coaching process in which a teacher and instructional coach set an instructional or student learning goal through a series of phases to develop strategies to reach that goal, monitor progress, and evaluate outcomes.
Or, to put it another way: The coaching cycle as a type of instructional coaching that uses a collaborative relationship between a teacher and an instructional coach (similar to a mentor and mentee relationship), where the instructional coach guides the teacher through a series of stages meant to improve their instructional practices—and by extent, improve student learning.
While there are many different formats, each coaching cycle tends to have three phases:
- Co-planning between the instructional coach and teacher to set a goal.
- Collaborative effort between the instructional coach and teacher is used to identify coaching actions for implementing and monitoring the plan. (This will vary based on the goal—and could include everything from formal test scores to student engagement, and more.)
- Reflection that allows the instructional coach and teacher to assess the impact the process had on student achievement. In other words: This is where you ask “Did the instructional practices used help us reach our goal?
To illustrate how the three stages of the coaching cycle work in practice, let's say you're a new teacher working with a group of students who struggle with reading comprehension. Here’s an example of how the coaching cycle might work in a high school setting using co-teaching and small group support.
In the first stage of the coaching cycle, you might assess the students' current skill level by having them read a sample text and providing feedback. In the next phase, you would work collaboratively with an instructional coach or experienced colleague to establish goals for student learning, such as using new strategies to improve comprehension. In the following phase, you might co-plan and co-teach lessons that incorporate these strategies and provide small group support to students who need extra help. Finally, you and the instructional coach would assess the outcome, monitor student work and progress over time, and evaluate the effectiveness of the coaching.
As covered at the start of this article, while coaching cycles are most commonly used by teachers in an education setting, the potential benefits aren’t limited to middle school or high school students. This framework can also be applied to almost any coaching role centered around a coach-client relationship, including coaching in the workplace, along with leadership, sports, health and wellness, fitness, career, academic coaching, and more. As you read on, think about how you could establish the same kind of mentor-mentee relationship with your clients that the instructional coach and teacher use in education to approach the setting, planning, and reflection of goals in a more collaborative way.
In the next section, we'll explore some of the main benefits offered by the coaching cycle in more detail.
Benefits of Coaching Cycles
At its core, the coaching cycle is designed to provide a clear, structured pathway for facilitating growth of the teacher and improving learning outcomes for their students. Similar to how a business aims to constantly be evolving in order to serve the ever-changing wants of its customers, the best teachers (and coaches) are constantly improving to meet the ever-changing needs of their students and clients. The coaching cycle is a process that fosters this growth. Here are some of the main benefits this provides—to both teachers and their students alike.
- Promotes continuous improvement: The coaching cycle provides a structured process for ongoing professional development, allowing teachers to regularly reflect on their teaching practices and make adjustments to improve student learning outcomes.
- Fosters collaboration: Through the coaching cycle, teachers work collaboratively with an instructional coach, often co-planning and co-teaching lessons, which helps to build a supportive and collaborative culture within schools.
- Supports the implementation of new strategies: By providing teachers with opportunities to learn and apply new teaching practices, coaching cycles can lead to the implementation of high-quality instructional strategies that can positively impact student learning outcomes.
- Increases teacher self-efficacy: The coaching cycle can empower and support teachers to take ownership of their own professional development and growth, building their confidence in their own ability to improve student engagement and student achievement.
Instructional Coaching Model Structure
The coaching cycle typically follows a structured process that helps guide teachers through their professional development journey. While there are variations in how the coaching cycle can be structured, most models consist of the following phases:
- Goal setting: In this initial phase, teachers work with their instructional coach to identify specific areas for growth and set measurable goals that align with student learning outcomes.
- Collection of data: Once goals have been established, teachers collect data through classroom observations, student work, and other relevant sources to help inform their practice.
- Practice and reflection: Teachers then have the opportunity to practice new strategies and teaching techniques in the classroom, reflecting on their progress and receiving feedback from their instructional coach.
- Goal review and next steps: Finally, teachers and instructional coaches review progress towards goals, celebrate successes, and plan next steps for ongoing growth and development.
By following the clear structure of a coaching cycle, teachers can experience the benefits of focused, collaborative professional development that positively impacts student learning. But how does this approach differ from traditional coaching? Let's take a closer look.
Difference between coaching cycle vs. traditional coaching
Traditional coaching typically involves a coach offering feedback and advice to a coachee based on their expertise and experience. While this approach can be useful, it does not necessarily lead to sustained growth and improvement. In contrast, the coaching cycle is a more collaborative and iterative approach to coaching that is specifically designed to build capacity and empower the coachee to become a more effective teacher through what is essentially a form of co-teaching.
One of the key differences between the coaching cycle and traditional coaching is that the coaching cycle is focused on specific goals and outcomes to enhance student learning. In a coaching cycle, the coachee works with the instructional coach to identify clear, measurable goals, and then the coach helps the coachee to develop a plan to achieve those goals. This plan is then implemented, and progress is monitored and evaluated throughout the cycle.
And, to apply this to coaching roles outside of education, the coaching cycle offers the opportunity to involve your clients in each step of the goal-setting and achievement process, creating more buy-in and, potentially, increasing their ability to cultivate skills that lead to long term, sustainable success. This is something often referred to as “client-centered coaching,” and refers to a coaching style that empowers coaches to take the position of a “guide” to their clients success, rather than an authoritarian who simply tells them what to do—as is the case in more “traditional coaching.”
Overall, the coaching cycle is a more comprehensive and collaborative approach to coaching that can lead to sustained professional learning, growth and improvement. While a more traditional approach to instructional coaching can be useful, it often lacks the structure and support necessary to help teachers achieve their goals and improve their practice. The coaching cycle, on the other hand, provides a clear roadmap for growth and improvement, along with ongoing support and feedback to help teachers achieve their goals and improve their practice over time.
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