Using activity theory to understand the role of the coach in K–12 curriculum redevelopment

Cecile H. Sam (Department of Educational Services and Leadership, Rowan University College of Education, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA)
Anne E. Caliendo (Department of Scientific Careers Research and Development, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA)

International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education

ISSN: 2046-6854

Publication date: 3 September 2018



The purpose of this paper is to examine school-embedded instructional coaching as a social activity situated within a new initiative. The coaches were in their first year of implementing new standards and curriculum policy in a large urban school district in the USA.


Using activity theory as a conceptual framework, this study was a qualitative inquiry into the experiences of 20 school-embedded coaches. Data were drawn from multiple interviews over the course of a year, with a total of 49 interviews and an end-of-year questionnaire from all participants.


The study found that within the initial year, coaches had to negotiate a variety of relationships that included the overall school context, teachers, principals and their own responsibilities. While negotiating these relationships, coaches utilized a variety of strategies to accomplish their goals.

Research limitations/implications

All data are self-reported, and there is a limited sample size (n=20). While the sample size may limit generalizability, all coaches in the initiative were participants in the study. By including all coaches, this study had a more complete picture of coaching during its initial year.

Practical implications

This study offers some suggestions that help inform the professional development of coaches.


The present study expands upon the literature by exploring the broader relationships of coaching to other stakeholders. Rather than focusing specifically on the approaches or styles of coaching, this paper focuses on the work of coaches as a social endeavor. It resituates the role of coaches within their context and reframes our understanding of the nature of coach work.



Sam, C. and Caliendo, A. (2018), "Using activity theory to understand the role of the coach in K–12 curriculum redevelopment", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 231-247.

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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

With the ever-evolving landscape of education policy reform in the USA public education system spanning kindergarten to high school (K–12), districts and schools have sought various approaches to help teachers bring those changes to the classroom. Scholars and practitioners consider instructional coaching to be a promising practice to support school-level implementation of educational policies and school reform models (Knight, 2007; Marsh et al., 2010; Neufield and Roper, 2003). In fact, US national policies such as No Child Left Behind encouraged the use of coaching, and reform models such as America’s Choice made coaching an essential part of their program (Denton and Hasbrouck, 2009; Marsh et al., 2010; Woulfin, 2014).

In recent years, several states have adopted a new set of education standards in K–12 English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, broadly known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The standards were designed so that states could share a common set of academic content standards (Education First, 2013). To implement the new set of standards, several districts utilized coaching to prepare teachers for upcoming changes (Cristol and Ramsey, 2014). Through coaching, these school districts hoped to familiarize teachers with the new standards and attune them to the changes that differentiate the CCSS from previous standards (Education First, 2013).

There is a growing amount of empirical literature on instructional coaching and its role in policy and program implementation both internationally and in the USA (Jones, 2015; Marsh et al., 2010; Woulfin and Rigby, 2017). This includes studies examining the work of coaches as they implement programs (Anderson et al., 2014; Mudzimiri et al., 2014). However, few studies focus on coaches as they navigate both the school context and learning new curricular content (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013). The initial year is a critical period in two ways. First, it is when coaches begin the social aspect of building relationships with others and advocating for the initiative. Second, with novel initiatives, coaches may also be learning new content. Understanding how coaches approach their work in the first year of implementation can offer insights into future implementation. This study is one of the few studies that examines a coaching initiative in its critical first year.

We utilized a qualitative study to explore the work of coaches in the first year of the initiative as they implemented the CCSS in a large urban school district in the USA. Using activity theory (AT) as a theoretical framework, we examined school-embedded instructional coaching as a social activity to better understand the coaching experience as situated in a new initiative. We used this study to answer the following research questions:


What were the relationships that coaches built within their first year to help accomplish their roles and responsibilities?


How did coaches negotiate these coaching relationships? What strategies did they use?

The answers to these questions contribute to the literature in several ways. First, examining the work of coaches as a social activity resituates the role of coaches within their context and reframes our understanding of the nature of coaches’ work and process. Through a holistic understanding of coaching, we have a better sense of how coaches interconnect with stakeholders, the broader context, and among themselves. Second, reframing our understanding opens other ways to explore and evaluate coaching in future research. Third, coaching is an essential means of professional development (PD) for teachers throughout the world. Having a better understanding of the beginning stages of the work may lead to a deeper understanding of what constitutes and sustains effective coaching practices in USA and international contexts.

In the remainder of this paper, we provide a review of the literature and present our theoretical framework: AT. Next, we describe the methodology. We will then address our research questions, highlighting the relationships between the coaches and their respective communities, individual teachers, and principals. We conclude with a discussion and implications.

Review of the literature

The existing research suggests that coaching can be a successful means of improving student performance (Cornett and Knight, 2009; Joyce and Showers, 1995; Kretlow and Bartholomew, 2010; Marsh et al., 2010; Sailors and Price, 2015; Woulfin and Rigby, 2017), improving curriculum (Joyce and Weil, 1996), and fostering teacher professional growth and learning (Netolicky, 2016.) However, despite the potential benefits of coaching, schools may have difficulty sustaining coaching initiatives (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013).

One of the impediments to a sustained coaching effort is finding a balance between working with teachers while meeting the agenda of administration within the broader school context (Hargreaves and Skelton, 2012; Lofthouse and Leat, 2013). Studies indicate that because coaches occupy the space between teacher and administrator, they must figure out how to simultaneously provide “pressure and support” in their role (Fullan, 2007, p. 61). However, rather than looking at how coaches try to find this balance, the empirical literature has tended to focus on either working with teachers or within the school context, with a heavy emphasis on the former. For example, a large body of research is dedicated to effective instructional coaching strategies such as adaptive coaching methodologies (Lipton and Wellman, 2007), coaching cycles (Bean, 2009; Gibbons and Cobb, 2016; L’Allier et al., 2010) or leadership capacity building (L’Allier et al., 2010; York-Barr and Duke, 2004).

The research on coaches working with teachers also includes the quality of interpersonal connections and explores how coaches can improve that relationship. Researchers emphasized that promoting trust and building relationships were key to the coaching process (Gigante and Firestone, 2008; Lord et al., 2008; O’Broin and Palmer, 2010). For example, Gallant and Gilham (2014) found that teachers benefited from differentiated coaching and individualized attainable goals, and by being responsive to those various needs, coaches can create a positive coaching culture. McGatha (2008) examined the different levels of coach engagement with teachers, noting that teachers found coaching to be most effective when coaches engaged in a more consulting and collaborating capacity.

There are fewer empirical works that focus on how coaches work with administrators and within the larger school context. One of the larger gaps in the literature indicates that further research is needed to understand coaching from a larger systemic perspective and to explore how coaches motivate and persuade educators in different roles (Anderson et al., 2014; Woulfin, 2014).

In those studies that examined coaching from a broader perspective, the coach–teacher interactions were still the primary focus. Mudzimiri et al. (2014) sought to understand science coaches’ day-to-day work through interactions with teachers and “within a larger school setting” (p. 6). They found that coaches used “relational strategies” to build a personal connection with teachers, such as promoting trust, goal setting, and reflective questioning (Mudzimiri et al., 2014, p. 18). Mudzimiri and colleagues also found that coaches themselves took on different roles (e.g. administrative, instructional, support) within a school. Lowenhaupt et al. (2014) examined how coaches “negotiated the everyday roles and responsibilities in their position” (p. 4), and found that taking into consideration the culture of the school and staff helped strengthen relationships with teachers. Ippolito (2010) examined how coaches balanced their work with teachers and the priorities of the administration. Ippolito (2010) found that sharing leadership goals was a means to align teacher and principal priorities, and that coaches tried to set their priorities within those of the school culture. The study also focused on the ways coaches found balance through their specific interactions with teachers. Both found that maintaining relationships overall was critical to the coaches, but they did not go further in their findings.

The present study expanded upon the two facets of coaching: the coach–teacher relationship; and how coaches work with the broader school context with other educators. By focusing on how coaches negotiate different school-based relationships and contexts, we help fill the gaps in the literature by presenting a larger systemic perspective on coaching. We understand how coaches motivate and persuade educators in different roles. Understanding coaching as a social activity allows one to gain a broader, holistic perspective on the work of coaching altogether.

Theoretical framework

To guide this exploration of coaching as a social process, we employed AT as a theoretical framework. AT is useful for understanding simultaneously the actions of people on an individual and societal level (Kuutti, 1996). It uses the “activity” as the unit of analysis. An activity is defined as a conscious action directed at a goal, which includes contextual factors such as tools, people or history (Engerström, 1999). We chose AT as our theoretical framework for two reasons. First, AT puts an emphasis on the activity of coaching and the context in which the activity is taking place, especially connections with other stakeholders, the school community, school culture and resources and curriculum. This aligns with our research questions, which examined the relationships coaches built to accomplish their goal (i.e. improving teacher skills and building knowledge). Second, AT provides the framework for our coding and analysis by allowing us to highlight the broader categories that stem from the model itself.

In AT, each activity consists of interacting components and their relationships to one another: subject, object (motive), community, means, rules, the division of labor and outcomes. The relationship is often visualized as an activity triangle (Engerström, 1999) seen in Figure 1. Connecting lines indicate a possible interaction between and among all the components: a system of activity. When applied to the research of coaches in our sample, Engerström’s activity triangle provided a framework for interpreting the interrelationship and interactions of multiple factors. The following section describes the components of the activity triangle and applies those terms specifically to the coaching process.


The subjects are the primary agents in the model, and for this study, the subjects were the coaches. The object is the focus of the activity that gives the activity direction or its “motivation” (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013; Nardi, 1996). The objects of this study were anchored on the three objectives of the district coaching initiative to bring CCSS into the classroom: providing resources; leading PD in mathematics or ELA; and supporting the daily work of teachers. Since school-based coaching occurs in context, it is important to understand the other components of the activity triangle and their relationship to the subject and object.

Community and division of labor

AT defines community as “the larger environment, other activity systems, and people that share the same object” (Sam, 2012, p. 85). In this study, community involves other instructional stakeholders involved at the school and district level: teachers, principals and district leadership. It also takes into consideration the current context and the history of the schools and district. For example, several schools simultaneously implemented other reforms with the coaching initiative. The division of labor is how coaches distribute work among either themselves or others to achieve the desired outcome (Sam, 2012).

Means and rules

Means are the ways in which the subject and object interact; often, the literature also uses the term “tools” (Vygotsky, 1978). In this study, means are the resources, curriculum and heuristic structures that coaches use when working with teachers. Finally, rules are those guiding influences that limit or expand the interactions among the other components. Rules can be explicit (e.g. standard operating procedures or laws); they can also be implicit (e.g. cultural norms) (Sam, 2012). For example, explicit rules can come from the policies found in the employee handbook, while implicit norms can be the ways teachers privately ask one another for help covering classes.

AT has been used previously as a theoretical framework to examine coaching. Lofthouse and Leat (2013) used it to explore the reasons why peer coaching was not successful in schools in England. Their study suggests that further research is needed to explore how coaches work within school cultures, especially those cultures that may hinder professional learning. Aspects of a negative culture include rigid hierarchy, harsh accountability standards, lack of trust and resistance, among others (Lofthouse and Leat, 2013). This study builds upon their work to examine the strategies that coaches use to navigate their roles within a school in relation to the components of the AT framework. Through its application, AT enables researchers to evaluate the dynamic interrelationships that may influence the success of coaching.


The data presented here draws upon interviews and open-ended questionnaires from 20 school-embedded coaches. The evaluation focused on the relationships, responsibilities and expectations associated with their coach role. By understanding this perspective, both the research and practitioner communities can better understand how to facilitate successful coaching and anticipate potential barriers.

Site and initiative

We conducted this study in a Midwest urban school district in the USA where over 80 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the school year (SY) 2012 to 2013. At the time of the study, the district was demographically diverse with 56.1 percent of students identifying as African American, 23.1 percent identifying as Hispanic, 15 percent identifying as white or bi-racial (language used by the district), 5 percent identifying as Asian and 0.8 percent identifying as Native American.

In Fall 2012, with external grant support, the district implemented a Model Schools program in 10 of their 190 schools. These ten schools served as laboratory schools to test new instructional practices before a scale-up to the entire district. The initiative provided intensive mathematics and ELA support to ten district elementary and middle schools, of which school-based instructional coaching was a primary component. The instructional coaching program included one full-time mathematics and one full-time ELA coach per school, scheduled time for teacher collaboration with coaches, and monthly PD sessions for instructional staff and school leaders.

This study received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the higher education institution conducting the study, per the US mandate for human subject research. In addition, the study received separate district IRB approval to conduct the study. All participants provided consent and could remove themselves from the study if they wished. Caution was taken to protect coaches’ data from school and district staff. All participants remained in the study for the entire duration.


Our study included all 20 coaches in the Model Schools initiative (ten ELA and ten mathematics). Though the coaches themselves were once teachers, they were now in a quasi-administrative role within their schools. Even though their role was non-evaluative, coaches were formally classified as administrators. For this initiative, coaches were under the purview of a central office in the district, instead of the principal at their respective schools.

Based on the district criteria to be a coach, all the coaches had certifications, letters of recommendation from peers and administration, and exhibited exemplary practice in their respective subjects. All the coaches had taught in the school district. Their length of service ranged from four to ten years, with the majority of coaches having an average of five years of experience. There was only one male coach. Four coaches had been in another coaching position prior to the study, and none longer than two years. To protect confidentiality, we assigned random identification codes to respondents and changed gender-specific pronouns. In the findings, we added a numeric indicator to identify which participant interview (first, second or third) was referenced.

Data collection


We conducted 49 interviews. Two rounds of in-depth semi-structured interviews (Merriam, 1988) were conducted with all 20 model schools’ coaches during the first year of implementation, resulting in 40 interviews. We chose semi-structured interviews to obtain reliable comparable data from all the participants, but also allowed some freedom to follow topics that may not have been in the original protocol (Merriam, 1988). Those newer topics were included in the next stage of interviews. Fall interviews focused on obtaining a general understanding of the model schools initiative, the different school contexts and initial coaching experiences. Early spring interviews focused on progress, coach–teacher relationships, and supports and challenges associated with the coaching process. In the late spring, we randomly selected nine coaches for a third interview to further explore emerging themes. These interviews focused on the entire coaching experience, work with classroom teachers, and reflections on the past year.

Open-ended questionnaires

We administered web-based open-ended questionnaires to all coaches in late spring. Open-ended questionnaires (Patton, 2002) were used as a means to collect data about the culmination of their first-year coaching experience. Participants were asked to reflect on the past year, focusing on three questions. First, it asked participants to describe any benefits or any positive aspects they had experienced. Second, it asked participants to describe any challenges to their work. Third, it asked coaches to share any additional information they felt was significant for us to understand the nature of their work. The response rate for the questionnaire was 100 percent and contained substantive written responses.

Data analysis

Each interview was audio recorded and transcribed in preparation for analysis. After the Fall interviews, we familiarized ourselves with the data and using a substantive approach (Ritchie et al., 2014) created memos. These memos informed the development of a descriptive coding framework of coaching practices, influences on the coaching experience, and coaching outcomes (Saldaña, 2016). These descriptive codes were the initial stage of organizing the data to look for any potential emerging trends.

When examining the data, we began to see that though initial codes included coaching activities (e.g. modeling, one-on-one consults and co-teaching), the data also included codes that focused on relationship-building activities such as earning trust, getting familiar with context and being visible. At this stage of the analysis, we applied the components of AT as a framework to guide our coding. AT provided a flexible interpretive framework to consider contextual linkages (Ravitch and Riggan, 2012; Ritchie et al., 2014) that emerged from the descriptive, coded data. We then utilized abductive coding (Saldaña, 2016) to apply the AT framework to the coded data, along with parent codes and child codes (i.e. codes and sub-codes). Table I provides an example of that application. The authors then applied this coding framework to fall and spring interview transcripts and questionnaire responses.

AT can accommodate a multiplicity of coaching experiences and settings, which is important to account for when attempting to design, implement and sustain scalable instructional coaching programs. Because we focused on coaches’ perspectives on the implementation of instructional coaching, it was important to retain and situate coaches’ voices within the structures, systems and norms associated with the implementation of an initiative like the CCSS.

Limitations and trustworthiness

While this study was based on an extensive amount of in-depth data collection over the course of nine months, all data were self-reported. The opinions and perceptions of participants influenced their behaviors and gave us insight into their experience of working within their schools; thus, the data are still valid and useful. Having more observational data would have been beneficial for further comparison and validation purposes.

To ensure trustworthiness of our analysis, we took several steps. First, we triangulated our findings, using the open-ended questionnaires and interviews. We also utilized a log, where coaches were asked to record their comments and daily activities to confirm information relayed in the other methods. The log itself was not used as a data source for this paper specifically. Second, through the independent and collaborative coding of a subset of transcripts, we addressed differing interpretations to promote a shared understanding of the data and coding framework and to adjust code application accordingly (Saldaña, 2016). Throughout the project, a random subset of 15 transcripts was also double coded to assess the level of drift from our original application of codes (Saldaña, 2016). Finally, we utilized member checks by making the preliminary findings from our study available to participants to solicit their feedback.


Using AT as our conceptual framework to guide analysis, we found that coaches negotiated their role within three distinct components of AT: rules, community and divisions of labor. As coaches worked in their schools, they had to begin building relationships with different stakeholders within the school, while trying to meet the goals of the initiative.

Rules: understanding and working with school norms

At the start of the initiative, the district assigned coaches to their respective schools one week before the onset of the SY. Placed in a new environment with no established relationships, coaches had to think about building rapport from the ground up, as illustrated by one coach:

I think this year it’s a little bit harder too, because we’re all in new schools. It’s not like working with people you’ve worked with for years. You have to, first of all, build some trust and you have to know a little bit about the person and what they’ve been doing in their rooms and their style of teaching and functioning

(Coach J1).

Understanding the general context of their placement school appeared to be a priority for the coaches early in the initiative. In total, 12 coaches reported taking a slow approach to introducing themselves into the school environment. Of those coaches, eight noted that they took the time to be passive participants: observing the daily activities of the school, learning the norms of faculty interactions and gauging the school’s needs and strengths.

High visibility

Many coaches mentioned that they wanted a visible but unobtrusive presence in the early months. For example, one coach noted, “I try to make a point of going and eating my lunch every day during the teacher lunch hour when a lot of them are in there” (Coach M2). Coaches reported attending events like community nights, staff dinners, and school performances. They used this strategy to send a message to teachers that coaches were not there to only “tell them what to do,” but to support and understand teachers’ work. As the SY progressed, some teachers initiated conversations with coaches to talk about the CCSS. The coach who sat with the teachers during lunch realized that soon teachers were asking her questions and saw her as “not so bad after all” and that “Maybe she’s a good resource” (Coach M2).

Coach as a resource

Building on the previous example, coaches were careful to present coaching as a resource rather than a drain on the school. Coaches appeared mindful of how teachers and principals perceived their role. Many coaches (n=13) believed that the teachers and principal “have to believe that you have something to offer them” (Coach J1). Several of those coaches included being dependable as part of that perception: “I think it’s just all about your integrity. If you say you’re going to do something you follow through and you do it so that you start building that trust” (Coach H2). They spoke of needing to be seen as a contributing member of the community. To do so, coaches also occasionally took on responsibilities that went beyond their purview (e.g. lunch or dismissal duties, making copies or substituting for a class period). However, this strategy also had some negative consequences for those coaches who found these extra responsibilities took time away from their coaching.

Leveraging momentum and recognizing limits

Part of navigating the norms of the school was for the coach to have a familiarity with the overall culture of the school and its mission and goals. Even though every school that participated in the model schools initiative had to show evidence of teacher buy-in (75 percent of teachers in the school had to approve of participation), each school varied differently in temperament, mission and goals. One coach recognized that at her school, “The schools around them are high achieving and they [the teachers and principal] want to outdo that. They want to be one of those good, achieving schools, so they’re really on board with moving their students” (Coach R3). She leveraged that drive to garner support for her coaching.

Similarly, coaches attempted to find ways to incorporate or align model schools activities and goals with other pre-existing initiatives. In at least six schools, staff were involved in numerous programs, such as after-school tutoring that competed with teachers’ participation in the model schools initiative. One coach noted, “Having a million programs here really bothers me and I think it overwhelms [the teachers], and I wish that there was a way that we could say ‘We’re going to focus on the Common Core’” (Coach S3). Regarding the school calendar, coaches (n=7) gauged how much to ask of teachers when there were numerous school-wide events occurring, such as testing or a science fair. During those times, the coaches reported that they deviated from their coaching roles by offering to help during those activities.

Coaches adopted strategies to gradually assimilate themselves. They recognized that a top-down or outsider approach would not be accepted. They considered their school’s particular culture to help solidify their coaching relationships within their school. From the examples and data provided by the participants, coaches anticipated that being perceived as a community member who shared in the responsibility and goals of the school would be important for successful coaching.

Community: managing teacher relationships

Even as coaches made inroads within the broader school community, there still was the work of developing good relationships with individual teachers. These actions differed from those used in navigating the school context because they focused more specifically on coaching interactions between coach and teacher. These actions were not exclusive of one another, coaches (n=12) mentioned having one or more of these insights. It is important to note that by mid Fall, the district instructed coaches to focus the bulk of their effort on those teachers who the coaches believed showed the most promise to build capacity at their school, based on their personal judgment and interactions with teachers.

Recognizing receptiveness and resistance

In early interviews, coaches spoke about the initial receptiveness or resistance among the different teachers. Some coaches (n=8) recognized situations when teachers were excited to work with them. A coach explained that some “people want[ed] to really improve and try new things and [they’d ask me], ‘Am I doing this right?’ and ‘Can we talk about this?’” (Coach A1). Other coaches (n=5) recognized that some teachers were initially resistant to the initiative. One coach reflected, “When we came in October and [the other coach] and I did a whole staff meeting, and people had their arms crossed. We did not feel welcome at all” (Coach B2). By recognizing receptiveness or resistance from teachers, coaches gained a better understanding of the groundwork that needed to be done at their respective schools. Those coaches with receptive teachers began sooner with more direct coaching activities.

Modulating tone and approaches

When working with teachers, coaches were familiar with the current teaching climate in the district. As former teachers themselves, many of the coaches (n=15) in our study explained how they tried to adjust the tone of their feedback away from directives. They also wanted teachers to see them in a “non-evaluative” role. One way coaches modulated their approach was through a collaborative feedback method, where teachers and coaches have a dialogue about the work. One coach mentioned framing feedback in the form of “suggestions” or “questions” so that teachers would not perceive it as a criticism. Another coach spoke about looking at work together with a teacher:

I try to ask, “What is something in particular that you really liked, that you think worked well, that you’ve been doing a while or that you’ve tweaked or you feel like you’ve finally perfected?” Start with that. Let them start the talking instead of me just getting in and diving into the feedback

(Coach M3).

At times, a non-evaluative stance increased the difficulty of giving feedback for some coaches, resulting in teachers not getting the information they needed to improve their performance. In fact, some coaches (n=5) decided not to give feedback to some of their teachers because of how it could have been perceived. For example, one coach wanted a teacher to improve her daily lesson plans, but she felt the suggestion would overstep her role. The coach explained that providing more critical feedback was difficult, “Because I want to be a coach and not evaluative. It’s very hard for me […] and I want that relationship with them, so I can come in [their classroom] and [work]” (Coach S3). Other coaches found themselves tempering their approach. Another coach said she “would be hesitant to offer too many suggestions” to teachers because they may be perceived as criticisms (Coach N3).

Knowing when to let go

Despite some of the best efforts of coaches, at least two coaches reported having a subset of teachers who continued to resist their support at every school. One coach reflected, “Some teachers are still very resistant to the Common Core itself and then to coaches” (Coach N3). Another coach expressed frustration over the lack of buy-in from a teacher team, saying that the grade level was “not accepting this year […] I was modeling to a wall” (Coach H3). These teachers participated less during PD sessions or had “closed their classroom door” to the coaches. Rather than continuing to push in those directions, the coaches chose to work with other teachers who were more willing. Being a school-embedded coach means that ideally, coaches would have more opportunities to focus their attention on the needs of the school, as compared to district coaches or outside consultants working with other schools. However, even school-embedded coaches have finite time and resources. To better allocate their efforts, they had to determine which teachers they would work with and which teachers they would try to approach again next year.

Because the bulk of coaching interactions focused on the relationship between coach and teacher, understanding how to navigate those relationships played a role in the success of standards implementation in the classroom. Coaches may have been the CCSS expert in residence for the schools, but ultimately it was up to teachers who would or would not incorporate them into their instruction. Even with full teacher support, coaches still had to work with others to ensure that school resources and support remained available to teachers.

Community: principal relationships

Even though principals applied to participate in the Model Schools program, our data indicated that coaches had varying experiences of principal support and interactions. Some coaches (n=4) felt that their principal was “extremely supportive and very much honor[ed] our time and our work and our professionalism” (Coach P2). Other coaches (n=3) noted that at their school, “the staff has more buy-in than the principal” (Coach H1). Almost all the coaches recognized the importance of having principal support. They noted that principals could help garner buy-in and legitimacy for the initiative, protect valuable school-wide PD time and encourage teachers. Though coaches were technically under the purview of the district, yet working within the schools, many coaches reported that they had to be mindful of their relationship with principals. Coaches wanted principal support, but they also wanted to be able to have the professional autonomy to carry out their coaching responsibilities.

Continuing to make the initiative explicit

To prevent any misunderstandings about the coach role within the school, some coaches tried to communicate the goals and expectations of the initiative to principals. Since the district embedded coaches in pairs, all the coaches arranged a joint meeting with their respective principals before the SY began. During this session, they hoped to be able to make sure that the principal had a clear understanding of both the district initiative and the role of coaches in that initiative. For some coaches (n=3), familiarizing principals with the initiative was a process that took time:

In the beginning, I think the administration felt it still necessary to follow district mandates and this was giving the teachers a mixed message. Now [the principal] seems to understand better; so that’s good! Also, it took a long time for the administration to understand that we are not the “fixers” of teachers. [The principal] often wanted us to go into classrooms with teachers who needed “fixing” and that wasn’t a valid use of our time

(Survey Coach G).

Even with numerous meetings and attempts to make the initiatives clear to principals, this approach was not always successful. For example, one coach noted that the absence of a clear understanding of the initiative led to mixed communication: “Some of [the principal’s] messages are completely contradictory to the message we’re given. So, I think it puts teachers then in a strange spot” (Coach P2). Other coaches (n=5) reported that when it seemed like the goals of the initiatives were unclear, principals wanted coaches to take on tasks that went beyond their responsibilities.

Dovetailing the initiative with existing leadership goals

Twelve coaches reported that it would be easier to work with principals who had a clear and consistent vision for their faculty, staff, and students. This vision made it easier for the coaches to align CCSS implementation with that vision. One coach noted that her principal was “pretty explicit [with] expectations,” which enabled the coaches also to be “really explicit” when working with the principal (Coach A1). This alignment fostered collaboration with principals to meet mutual goals. For example, in the few cases where the principals were instructional leaders, coaches invited them to lead workshops that focused on linking data-driven instruction to outcomes for students’ learning. At one school, the initiative aligned so well with the principal’s goals that the principal provided the school-wide PD on the CCSS (Coach R1).

Taking initiative on the initiative

With the numerous responsibilities principals had, several coaches (n=7) mentioned taking a more pro-active approach at their schools. These coaches recognized when a principal had a less “hands-on” approach than others:

If we present [the principal] with an idea or [the principal] asks us to do something [they] will leave the details up to us and trust that it will get done. And so that is, it’s empowering in some ways, and it just feels good that you have that kind of positive, effective relationship with [the principal]

(Coach Q2).

As coaches found ways to work within their respective schools, they were mindful of the influence that principals can have on the success of the initiative. Most coaches reported having supportive principals, even though some may not have been as active as others. For those coaches who had a principal who was consistently unsupportive of their work, they took it upon themselves to continue the work without bringing undue attention to themselves by being less visible, promoting fewer school-wide initiatives, or meeting with another administrative leader at the school.

Maintaining confidentiality for teachers while keeping principals informed

A few coaches (n=3) spoke about having to navigate the delicate balance of keeping principals updated and informed while preserving a level of confidentiality for their teachers. Though most coaches noted that principals were “respectful” of the relationship between coach and teacher (Coach M3), there were instances where principals wanted more detailed information. In those cases, coaches would couch the language in “broad terms,” like referencing grade bands in larger schools or say “in general” so as not to highlight a teacher:

So, I feel like I have to spend quite a bit of time gently explaining what good [CCSS instruction] looks like in a classroom without being a tattletale, kind of like we also have union issues as far as what we’re able to share with principals

(Coach K3).

Despite these limitations, coaches made a concerted effort to keep principals informed of the coaching activities happening in the school. One coach explained that once a month she set up a meeting with a principal where “I report all data to the principal as an aggregate group because we can’t report on individual teachers” (Coach J3). Furthermore, the coaches said they often had principals participate in PD and observe the work that they did, with the teacher’s permission. Also, coaches sought teachers’ permission for principals to observe and participate in PD.

Division of labor: balancing coaching responsibilities

Relationships among the major stakeholders in the initiative were not the only components that coaches had to navigate – they also had to frame their own roles and responsibilities within the school. While coaches were trying to build relationships with teachers and principals, they were also trying to learn new information, find available curricula, and work within the confines of limited time and resources. For some coaches, being assigned additional work (e.g. recess/lunch duty, filing reports, after-school dismissal duty, substitute teaching or generating additional documentation) usurped valuable classroom time. One coach explained, “I feel like I’m not doing my job when I’m not in the classroom, but there’s so much other [work], like preparing and gathering resources and communicating” (Coach U3). According to these coaches, being able to balance all the responsibilities was a difficult task.

Utilizing existing school structures

Few coaches (n=6) reported that their Model Schools had already designated time to conduct school-wide CCSS PD sessions. They reported that scheduling PD was easiest in schools that already had a system of embedded PD in place. One coach said, “Even before we came, [the principal] gives our staff two hours of collaborative planning a month” (Coach C1). Coaches used those existing patterns and expectations within a school to incorporate their coaching tasks without having to establish some of the infrastructure necessary. The coaches also utilized existing protocols or standard operating procedures at the school (such as the process for getting copies done) to incorporate a system to meet teachers’ needs. For example, coaches and teachers began to develop systems to streamline the process of developing curricula. This included dividing the labor among a grade-level team or using available blocks of time during the day to incorporate necessary tasks.

Whether the structures for PD existed before the Model Schools initiative, coaches needed administrators to support their schedules. From the data, we found that coaches valued having a consistent PD schedule for the year in an appropriate space. In sites where principals and coaches did not collaborate as well on PD sessions, it resulted in mixed and missed messages about timing and scheduling, general teacher frustration, loss of PD time, and confusion around the initiative and goals. Such outcomes also had the potential to undermine teachers’ confidence in the initiative and decrease commitment.

Collaboration among coaches across the district

The sense of community among all Model Schools coaches was important. Twice a month they convened for their own PD on content knowledge, instruction, and assessment to help them in their work. Though there was some PD that focused on coaching, the majority focused on common core implementation. Most coaches (n=17) reported that they used those days as an opportunity to collaborate with other coaches within and across content areas. They relied on each other to answer questions and provide support as needed. The words of this coach echoed the sentiment of the majority of the coaches:

One of the greatest strengths of our group is that we’re able to call upon one another […] I feel like our team has built this cohesive group, this bond that what one of us doesn’t think of or get, the other one will usually share that out. From there it seems like the pieces are just slowly falling into place and we’re moving in the right direction

(Coach M3).

Collaboration with coaches in different content areas helped them better understand the CCSS. One unanticipated outcome of the study was the collaboration among the coaches and the impact of developing a deeper understanding of the connections between literature and mathematics. In the past, coaches reported that ELA and mathematics teachers did not work in close collaboration together during district-provided PD. The collaboration across content areas enabled them to learn more about content outside of their areas of expertise. One coach said, “They took us through the modules, both in literacy and in math, which I thought was really helpful for us to see, as a whole, what the shifts looked like in both content areas” (Coach Q1).

Relying on coaches within the school

Entering schools as a coaching team helped coaches present a unified message of the initiative. Coaches reported feeling more secure entering with a known colleague. Additionally, the coaches stated that they relied on each other to share resources, generate ideas, and plan. For example, one coach said:

To me it’s ideal, and it’s great to have [a coaching partner]. Every day we try to connect for twenty minutes and eat, and we end up talking and eating and going over what […] went on, and it’s our time to just connect and talk things through

(Coach M2).

The coaches created a support network among themselves, even communicating outside of formal PD sessions, such as meeting at lunch or talking on the phone outside of school hours.

With coaches simultaneously learning new information about the CCSS and supporting schools with implementation, their ability to articulate and carry out their responsibilities became especially important.


We found that the process of coaching was clearly linked to the ways coaches related and interacted with various stakeholders and existing school structures. Spillane et al. (2002) noted that often the literature identifies the coaching process as a didactic relationship between teacher and coach. Coaching as a social activity included broader components that affect how coaches understand their work. This study found that the coaching process encompasses multiple relationships (e.g. community, context and so forth). How well coaches can negotiate their role within the school in relation to those relationships may be a factor when determining how successful a coaching initiative is within a given school.

We utilized this study to answer two research questions:


What were the relationships that coaches built within their first year to help accomplish their roles and responsibilities?

In answer to the first question, we found that coaches built myriad relationships to accomplish their responsibilities. Not only did they connect with the teachers they worked with directly, they also worked to gain the trust of the other teachers and staff within the broader school. Coaches also found ways to work with school administrators. Finally, coaches built relationships with one another.

The second question asked:


How coaches negotiated these coaching relationships. What strategies did they use?

In answer to the second question, this study supports the existing research on the ways coaches work and maintain relationships with teachers. Like Ippolito (2010), we found that teachers engaged in several strategies to navigate the coach–teacher relationship. We found that gaining and maintaining trust, working collaboratively and being responsive to needs continue to be key components to the coaching process (Gallant and Gilham, 2014; McGatha, 2008; O’Broin and Palmer, 2010). Our study also builds upon the existing literature and extends Lowenhaupt et al.’s (2014) and Mudzimiri et al.’s (2014) work on coaching by exploring how coaches work with other educators such as other teachers, support staff and administrators. This study explicitly examined how coaches try to balance their work with teachers with the demands and expectations from others. This study also adds to the existing literature by examining how coaches collaborate and learn from one other in the process of the coaching activity.

By framing coaching within AT, we also extended Lofthouse and Leat’s (2013) work and placed coaching within a broader system. Utilizing Engerström’s (1999) activity triangle, it was possible to map the influential interrelationship of factors on coaches’ work to teacher response to the initiative. One of the key insights is that in addition to managing their work, coaches also manage the perceptions and interactions of stakeholders. The coaching objective – to prepare teachers to implement the CCSS in their classrooms – could not be isolated from other significant elements such as the emotional work of building relationships, trying to learn new information and balancing their own responsibilities. In trying to unbundle the different elements of coaching without acknowledging the interconnectedness of the whole, we may be missing key levers that may contribute to a successful coaching initiative. The research therefore also supports and extends existing literature on using AT to examine the nature of coach work in education.

Implications and recommendations for practice

Regardless of the coaching practices that took place in the individual schools, from providing school-wide PD to individualized coaching plans, this study found that coaches also had to situate themselves within their respective schools and community. We found that coaches reside in a gray area, and they must find the balance between fulfilling their responsibilities by exerting their outside expertise, while not alienating others in the school. We recognize that the strategies found in this study were utilized by most, though not all, coaches. Coaches’ application of these strategies also resulted in varying degrees of success.

In terms of practice, this study identified a series of strategies that coaches may employ when building relationships within a school context. These strategies include:

  • familiarizing oneself with the broader school community before trying to enact change;

  • maintaining high visibility and active participation in school-wide events;

  • building upon existing initiatives and recognizing when a school may have reached its limit;

  • recognizing which teachers are receptive and which are resistant and working with each accordingly;

  • taking a non-evaluative stance when working with teachers and providing feedback;

  • communicating and working with the initiatives of the school principal; and

  • collaborating with other coaches.

There were also different ways that coaches tried to balance the responsibilities of coaching with the goals of the initiative. One further implication for practice in this study is the potential to build personal coaching capacity by working collaboratively with fellow coaches.

This study also has practical implications for schools thinking about implementing a new coaching initiative. We found that there was nothing specific to the CCSS that changed the way coaches approached coaching. Rather, the relative novelty of the CCSS, the fact that pre-existing curriculum and resources were limited, and that the CCSS was so different from existing standards familiar to teachers and coaches shaped their experience. This finding could be relevant to the implementation of any novel policy or program in the USA or internationally. Coaches simultaneously learned new information while trying to implement and share what they learned, which added another layer of complexity to the activity. We also recognize that one challenge to implementation was trying to provide coaches with PD that focused both on new content and strengthening existing coaching skills.

Future research

From this study, there are three potential avenues for future research. First, though we examined coaching from the perspective of coaches, we realized that not all coaches utilized the same strategies with the same results. To better understand the factors that could increase the success of developing a coaching relationship, we would need the perspective of the coach and other stakeholders in the broader system. Second, how coaches learn from one another is an area that has potential. Our study found that although coaches received content knowledge through formal training provided by the district, their “coaching knowledge” also came from their experiences in schools and informally from their fellow coaches. It would be valuable to understand better how coaches use one another as a learning resource. The third direction for future research would be an examination of the relationship between the coaches and the politics of a school and district, especially as they promote initiatives to the teachers. Change is often fraught with tension due to existing school culture and history, and understanding how coaches navigate those spaces would help us also understand coach work from a broader perspective.

As schools and districts continue to use coaching to implement policies or programs and to build capacity within schools, we should continue to see the work as a social activity in addition to an implementation or instructional activity. By emphasizing the connections that coaches try to make with other stakeholders and among themselves, we are reminded of the work that takes place in maintaining those relationships.


Activity triangle

Figure 1

Activity triangle

Sample of AT categories, parent codes and child codes for analysis

Activity theory categories Rules Community Division of labor
Parent codes School norms Teacher relationship Principal relationship Coaching responsibilities
Child codes High visibility Recognizing receptiveness Being explicit Utilizing existing structures
Coach as resource Recognizing resistance Connecting initiative with existing goals Collaboration with other coaches
Leverage momentum Tone and approach Taking initiative Relying on coach partner
Recognize limits Letting go Keeping confidentiality and transparency


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Corresponding author

Cecile H. Sam can be contacted at: