How to Hire an Instructional Coach
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
To Hire Excellent Teachers Without Leadership Skills is a Mistake. Here’s How to Avoid It.
School closures are upending how teachers teach and learners learn. Distance learning is demanding of teachers amplification of certain skills and application of entirely new skills. If there ever was a time they could benefit from coaching and support, this is it. If you are currently hiring coaches, be sure you are hiring those who demonstrate the skills to unlock teacher potential while also leading school-wide improvement. Doing so requires avoiding a classic mistake of hiring coaches. This is a guide to avoiding that mistake, particularly for a role that can be so impactful for student learning.
“Are you coachable?”
This is the first question that leadership coach Bill Campbell reportedly asked all of his prospective clients—taking on only those who answered “yes.” Before entering the private sector and Silicon Valley, Campbell had been a college football coach. He knew well that an individual and a team are only as effective as the individuals on the team were coachable. In football, wins only come through individual and collective improvement.
In the business world, success only comes through individual and collective improvement. That is, it comes through leaders’ willingness to learn and grow and their capacity to lead their people on their own path of learning and growth—to the net effect of improved performance and greater company success.
Campbell, said to be gruff and to-the-point, seemed intimated by no one. Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Dick Costelo (formerly Twitter), Marissa Mayer (formerly Yahoo!)—every last one of them heard Campbell’s same opening question: “Are you coachable?”
In asking prospective clients this question, he was gauging their leadership potential. "The traits that make a person coachable,” he once said, “include honesty and humility, the willingness to persevere and work hard, and a constant openness to learning.” The link between coachability and leadership was clear to him, and rightly so.
Instructional Coaches: Leaders First, Coaches Second
When school leaders are interviewing instructional coaching candidates, I always encourage them to ask Campbell’s favorite question. Doing so will shine a light on what is most often misunderstood about coaches—that they must function first as leaders. Content knowledge and a broad and deep instructional toolkit are a must; but they are not enough, as coaches do far more than transfer knowledge and skills. They are leading teachers and the school down the vulnerable path of change, improvement, and growth. The coach’s own coachability is an indication of her leadership potential. And leadership skills are a non-negotiable for effective coaches who bring forth meaningful individual and school-wide growth.
It’s not uncommon for school leaders to tap the strongest teachers to serve as instructional coaches to their colleagues. There’s a certain logic to this, despite it being mistaken. It stands to reason that if a teacher is excellent at teaching, say, math, then she should also be excellent at coaching teachers towards improving their practice.
Tapping excellent teachers to be coaches without first assessing their leadership potential is a disservice to them and to the teachers they would coach. In so many unfortunate cases, these teachers discover they are beyond their depth when it comes to coaching. If the school leader recognizes that the coach is in need of her own leadership coaching, she may very well grow into an excellent coach. If not, the school leader will look to replace her and likely make the same hiring mistake again.
Interview Questions to Spot Leadership Potential
To optimize the potential of coaching (read: teacher learning and growth and, ultimately, improved student outcomes) in your school, hire educators who show strong leadership potential or have a track record of leadership successes. To do this, I suggest asking questions that underscore a candidate’s strengths and knowledge relative to the broader skillset that allows coaches to function as leaders.
In Coaching Redefined, I list the nine real values that are the constant in a coach’s practice, concepts that ground the coach in principles and ongoing growth and leadership amid constant change. In the book, I encourage all coaches to put time and effort into improving in each value. In my experience, it is these values that often make the difference between a good coach and a great coach.
They can also be flipped around and used as a framework for interviewing and assessing coaching candidates.
A list of interview questions follows, along with how they align to the real values in Coaching Redefined, and what to look for in candidates’ responses to them.
1. Are you coachable?
This question seeks to determine a candidate’s humility, openness to improvement, and overall leadership potential (real value #2). There are two additional and valuable features of this question. First, it forces accountability; the candidate you hire will answer this with a “yes”; and in doing so, she has set herself up to make good on this answer or risk losing credibility. Second, now that the coach is accountable to her own ongoing growth, she will also model coachability to her teachers.
2. What do you do to support your own ongoing learning? Do you regularly
reflect on your coaching practice, if it is or is not helping teachers meet goals
and what you could do to improve it? If so, what is your reflection process?
These questions seek to understand not only how much a candidate grasps that ongoing learning is the imperative of a leader and a coach (real value #2); they are also meant to reveal if the coach is a deep and critical thinker (real value #3). Without deep thinking, her coaching and feedback to teachers—and thereby, her growth—will remain shallow.
3. What would you do when there is a breakdown in communication at work?
How do you prefer to build rapport with others? Describe your communication
and listening skills.
With these questions, you want to look for clues that a candidate knows how to listen actively; that is, to listen to learn, not listen to respond (real value #1). You also want to ascertain if she knows how to communicate diplomatically with teachers on the sensitive topic of growth and improvement areas. Great coaches know how to offer constructive and supportive feedback simultaneously (real value #4).
4. Have you been in a situation where you had to admit your mistakes to your
fellow colleagues, and how did you go about it? Describe a time when you
were discouraged with your progress towards meeting a goal that involved
others. What did you do to persevere, and how did you motivate others to do
If a coach is a leader, her answers to these questions will demonstrate an understanding that leadership requires honesty and courage (real value #5). Look for clues that she will admit mistakes and courageously persist amid setbacks. She will not let fear hold her back from the difficult decisions she knows are necessary to, ultimately, improve student outcomes.
5. How would you go about explaining a complex idea or concept to a
teacher who was already frustrated? Describe a time when you had to be
careful discussing sensitive feedback or a difficult issue with a teacher. How
did you do it?
The coaches who elicit the most growth from teachers know when to be compassionate (real value #7). Look for assurances that the candidate will not berate coaches for mistakes or who are struggling; instead, they will offer empathy and reframe the conversation to focus on what the teacher is doing well and leverage that as a starting point for growth.
6. Do you believe all teachers are capable of growth, why or why not? How do
you support them when they doubt themselves?
Leaders know that everyone has potential and can reach it with the right supports. In the candidate’s answers, confirm that she believes in all educators and knows to express her belief to them and encourage them when they are frustrated in order to boost their self-efficacy (real value #6).
7. For candidates who are currently teachers at the school: How do you
anticipate your relationship with your colleagues will change once you start
Since coaches are leaders, coaches must shift in their dynamic with the teachers they coach to maintain the necessary level of professionalism (real value #8). There is no room for gossip in the coach-teacher relationship; nor is there room for a coach to begin treating teachers with superiority. Look for clues that the candidate is willing to evolve her relationship with teachers once she becomes a coach.
8. How important is it to you to remain updated on the latest instructional
strategies, tools, philosophies, and learning science? How do you stay on top
of these areas?
The coaching cycle is ultimately building towards recommending or coaching a teacher on instructional strategies and tools (real value #9). If the coach doesn’t know how to apply these things for high levels of rigor, relevance, and engagement, then the coach won’t be able to lead the teacher to this understanding, which is imperative to student success.
9. How comfortable are you with data, and how do you use it to improve your
coaching practice and outcomes?
Data—both quantitative and qualitative—brings objectivity (both in improvement needs and indications of improvements) to coaching (real value #9). Data, then, supports the trust that is so fundamental to a strong coach-teacher relationship.
10. What is your ultimate goal with your teachers? How do you intend to help
them lead their own ongoing learning? How do you intend also to support
them in creating systems to learn from and with each other, especially if you
are no longer coaching them directly?
The best coaches—and the kind you want to hire—do not want to coach the same teachers indefinitely (real value #9). Their hope is to lead them to a point of leading their own learning; this allows the coach to support additional teachers. When candidates answer these questions, you want to look for clues that they understand what a learning organization is, i.e., one where ongoing learning capacity no longer relies on the coach alone but rather a selection of teacher leaders who coordinate and collaborate to support all teachers. Central to this is a candidate’s ability to identify potential teacher leaders, build a team of them, and coach them to guide other teachers in various professional learning teams or exercises.
As you use these questions to interview candidates, it’s OK if no one demonstrates competency across all nine real values. More important is that the candidate you hire shows a strong understanding that to be a coach is to be a leader. And to be a leader is to never stop learning.
How can I help you?
Please connect with me so we can learn about instructional coaching together.
Website: Reflective Learning, LLC
Facebook: Sherry St Clair