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Virtual Coaching Cycles

In my last post, I started the conversation with tips to coach virtually. I drew from my six years of experience as a virtual coach for teachers and instructional coaches. I provided a few ideas on how to connect with teachers, how to stay organized, and shared a few of my favorite tools. Today I want to give some ideas on how to conduct virtual/remote coaching cycles. I apologize for the length. I wanted to provide info on all parts of a coaching cycle so you’d have the information as you go back to school. Please reach out for additional information. My goal is to help you COACH with CONFIDENCE.

The start of the 2020-2021 school year is like no other we have experienced. We are all trying to adhere to the safety restrictions. For many, that means the start of the year will either be in completely remote or a hybrid model. If you are an instructional coach, you are probably wondering what adaptations you’ll need to make when partnering with teachers through coaching cycles. Of course, each school’s coaching culture is unique, and you’ll need to find what works best for you and the teachers.

I’m a big fan of Jim Knight’s IMPACT CYCLE and Diane Sweeney’s STUDENT-CENTERED COACHING models. Both utilize the general features of goal setting, co-planning/co-teaching, monitoring progress, and reflective conversations. As coaches, you may be used to doing cycles face-to-face, yet with a few adaptations, you can conduct virtually.

It’s a given you will need some form of a virtual communication platform. I have used Zoom for most of my work, but Skype, Google Meet, Teams, FaceTime, and even audio phone calls work as well. I suggest having a Plan B in case you encounter technical difficulties. My plan B is typically a phone call. If we can’t get the audio to work on the virtual platform, we’ve even muted the sound and used our phones as audio, since we often rely on screen sharing as we work within a cycle.

Coaching vs Support

As a coach and a coach of instructional coaches, I weave in and out of actual coaching cycles and providing support. As we embark on this unique, new school year, educators will need varied assistance. There will be new teaching techniques to experiment with and learn. Different resources for both teachers and students may be required. Instructional coaches can help provide that support as well as help set up ways for more peer collaboration. Asking teachers to indicate what they need to be successful can be the first step.

While this support is critical, so is the actual work inside a coaching cycle. Providing resources can often set us up to go a mile wide and inch deep. Coaching cycles can provide opportunities for us to go a mile deep and an inch wide. So let’s get started!

Goal Setting

In the beginning, teachers may not know what their actual goals are, especially when it comes to teaching remotely. It will be our job as coaches to listen to their thoughts, ideas, and past experiences. We are all navigating through this new landscape.

Teachers have likely experienced some form of remote or virtual teaching since most onsite school days ended in mid-March 2020. Have a few questions handy to ask teachers about that experience. Frame the conversation with the positive. Taking them down the negative or challenge path can often go astray. Teachers are probably overwhelmed right now – and so are you. We want to focus on what we CAN do, not what we can’t. Please do not limit yourself to these questions. They are merely examples.

  • Tell me about your experiences with virtual or remote teaching at the end of last year?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What successes did students encounter?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What do your students need to be successful?

Using questions like these will lead you down a path to forming a strong partnership as their goal is probably going to be something you will need to learn as well. Goal setting may come in two stages. For example, a teacher may first learn a new tool or redesign a lesson to be more effective in a remote environment, followed by determining student progress.

If the first goal a teacher wants to work seems small, that’s okay. Go with what the teacher needs at the moment and strive to build them up in the best way possible. The success they experience is going to get your foot in the door for many more coaching opportunities.

Collecting Some Base Line Data

Baseline data does not have to be on a grand scale. Together the coach and teacher can determine the best form of data to collect that will help meet the goal. Screeners and other types of data have their place, but these data sets can often be too large to pinpoint an immediate goal.

Baseline data gives the coach and teacher a way to monitor progress. They can co-create the observables. I often help teachers (and coaches) collect two forms of data.

  1. Gather some form of student data, such as a short formative assessment in the chosen content area. The data doesn’t need to focus on student deficits. Instead, think of a pre-assessment on a unit to determine what students already know, misconceptions they have, and gaps in learning. Open-ended prompts work well here.
  2. Some form of classroom environment data. When face to face, this was typically a classroom observation with an agreed-upon “look for,” such as a way to collect student engagement. In the virtual world, this could be a recording of a lesson with again, an agreed-upon “look for.”

Once the initial baseline data is collected, find a time to meet with the teacher (virtually if needed) to co-analyze the two sets of data, and look for trends, highlights, and challenges.

Next, it is time to fine-tune the initial goal. One way to frame goals is to think about the following. What will the teacher, the students, and the teacher/coach partnership be able to do by the end of the cycle?

  • I (teacher) will be able to –
  • My students will be able to –
  • Together we (teacher and coach) will be able to –

So now, you have an end goal and a starting point. Setting small goals along the way will allow you to have several celebration points. It will be essential to note these to keep the momentum in the coaching cycle.

Co-Planning and Co-Teaching

The emphasis here is the CO as in a PARTNERSHIP! Having a WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER mindset will be essential. I think this will leverage instructional coaching in the long run. The role of an instructional coach is often misunderstood. The more we work together with teachers, the more they will come to understand the role and that your main focus is them (and their students).

I see co-planning possibly taking a more substantial role within coaching cycles this year. Teaching remotely, using a hybrid model, or even face-to-face teaching will look and feel different. Both teachers and instructional coaches are going to need to learn together, plan together, and implement together.

Co-planning virtually might feel a lot like it did before. A key will be to have resources handy. Student data can be scanned so that both the teacher and coach have access to it. Planning templates could be housed in a cloud storage system like Google docs. Screen sharing can also be utilized, so both the teacher and coach have access to materials.

Co-teaching can happen remotely, too. Co-teaching is different from just observing or modeling. In co-teaching, the instructional coach joins the virtual meeting space and has a role in the lesson delivery alongside the teacher. Having two instructors in the virtual classroom can help put the teacher at ease. Teaching together levels the playing field. It will give you, the coach, a much more in-depth view of the actual remote learning experience rather than being a casual observer. You are both LEARNERS! If there is a specific tool a teacher wants to learn, perhaps this is an area you can offer to model during the lesson you co-teach. I know, as a coach, I missed teaching the most. Now is the time to interact with students!

Monitoring Progress

Monitoring progress will feel a bit different in the virtual world. As a virtual coach, I rely heavily on video. My experience has been that the teacher is teaching in his/her classroom. They take videos and upload a portion that is reflective of their specific goal. Teachers reflect on this piece of data. I offer question prompts along the way.

In the case of all virtual, lessons could also be recorded. In either case, please only use a secure platform. Recorded lessons should never be uploaded to YouTube or other non-secure sites. One idea is that when a specific lesson is to recorded for coaching purposes, students could turn the video off and rename themselves with only their first name – therefore not recording their faces. Check out this resource on Recording with Purpose from Sibme.

Progress monitoring doesn’t have to just come from just “classroom” footage. Various pieces of student work and progress monitoring prompts can help us determine where to go next in a lesson or unit of study (just as it did when we were on site.)


This process of co-planning, co-teaching, and monitoring progress leads to co-reflecting. Since you, the coach, also had a planning and teaching role in the lesson to reflect on becomes common ground. I find reflecting virtually to be quite the same as in person.

There are many reflections prompts available. The aim should be to keep the process simple and focused on the specific goal(s). Early in my career as a consultant and instructional coach, I learned of 4 questions stems from Emily Calhoun (IA Department of Education Every Child Reads, 1994). I wrote about them here. These (or other questions) could be added to a shared document to record your thoughts along the way. In the case of analyzing work together, the first three questions are from the original set from Dr. Calhoun, and the fourth question is my own that could lead you into the next steps of co-planning and co-teaching.

  1. What do you notice when you look at these data? (In the case of lesson delivery, the lesson and the artifacts collected are the data.)
  2. What additional questions do these data generate? (This question allows for questions to be asked. Be careful that questions are about the data and not external factors.)
  3. What do these data indicate students need to work on? Based on these data, what can we infer teachers need to work on? (Keep in mind that both of you – teacher and coach – is inferred here as teachers.)
  4. What are our next steps towards our goals? (not from the original set of Calhoun’s questions)

In closing

Coaching cycles are not meant to be linear. You will move in and out of the various components until goals are met. In later posts, we will look at scheduling, inviting teachers to the coaching process, and much more.

In my six years as a virtual coach, I’ve been a part of many effective virtual coaching cycles, both with teachers and instructional coaches. I’ve found them to be effective and efficient ways to move through the stages of the coaching cycle. I have every bit of faith that you can take what you know about good coaching and transfer it to virtual settings if you need to.

This year our big picture is a bit blurry. Even if you can’t see the full big picture, you can still break your goals into bite-size pieces. I believe in you and want you to COACH with CONFIDENCE! Click here to submit a question or idea for possible upcoming blog posts or virtual training.


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