Instructional Coaching: Reflective Relationships between Theory and Practice

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Columns
By Kari Pawl

Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.” These words by philosopher Immanuel Kant explain the connection between theory and practice. In other words, though practitioners may implement strategies and are limited in their ability to provide a researched–based rationale or theory to justify their instructional decisions, researchers without practical-application experience are ineffectual. Basically, without the strong practice-to-theory connection, teachers play with what they know without knowing why they are actually teaching the concepts. By the same token, researchers without a theory-to-practice connection have no strong basis for their theory. In order to enhance the learning of both practitioners and their students, a coach or mentor can provide educators with the information they need to understand what they are planning and teaching why they are planning and teaching.

The role of an instructional coach has been defined in different ways. Although there is not a universal definition, common attributes of coaching described by Wolpert-Gawron (2016) include the following: mentoring, facilitating professional development, researching and curating, publicizing, supporting, being a change agent and solution finder. This article is a reflective piece that will explain how a Center for Literacy instructional coach guided and supported Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation (CLEF) teachers and administrators to understand and build a repertoire of strategies and to effectively increase their knowledge about literacy instructional practices.

Parallels of Coaching and Professional Development

Sharon Walpole and Michael McKenna (2015) wrote a chapter in the book, Best Practices in Literacy Instruction titled “Best Practices for Improving Literacy Instruction in Schools”. They argue, “The key to effective PD (professional development) is the specificity of its target. Unless PD is designed for immediate application in instruction, with particular students and instructional materials in mind, it will not work” (p. 415). The goal is to provide professional development that brings about changes in instructional practices. Teacher input and participation are essential as this cultivates a purpose for learning the information so that it can be implemented with students.

Therefore, it is the instructional coach’s responsiibility to motivate teachers to become active participants in the learning process rather than passive receivers of information. A primary goal in coaching is to provide high-quality professional development that leads to increased teacher knowledge, which then results in improved instruction. Teachers internalize the information, plan how they will use the strategy, scaffold instruction and engage the students in learning the concepts. The following are the experiences of the author’s literacy-coaching site visits to explain how mentoring and support were provided to meet the teachers’ learning needs, which would enhance their teaching and the quality of their interactions with students.

Coaching Visits

My role as an instructional coach was multifaceted and carefully planned. Getting to know the teachers was a top priority and this was accomplished in different ways at each of the schools I served. Introductions were conducted via a tour of the school and classrooms, which allowed for brief exchanges or invitations to join staff meetings, which led to instantly feeling part of the team. Another effective approach was scheduling time to meet with each teacher for approximately 20-30 minutes to talk about successes and challenges, and to set goals for the year. Each one of these situations provided opportunities for coaches to put faces with names and actions to plans. Dedicating time for these important initial meetings paved the road for a productive working partnership. Establishing a community of learners was essential in developing a productive learning environment, which included dedicating time for building trusting relationships.

With the guidance of school administrators, ample time was devoted for classroom observations. This allowed me to know the teachers, students, and curriculum better. Observations were generally followed with debriefing conversations that were strategically scheduled on the same day to allow time for authentic feedback, decision-making, and goal-setting. My time was also spent in the classroom interacting with students, administering assessments, modeling lessons, and co-teaching new units of study. For example, I modeled differentiated guided reading lessons in kindergarten, facilitated interactive word-study lessons in fourth grade and demonstrated how to use critical thinking skills when reading informational texts with six, seventh, and eighth graders.

As an instructional coach, I also dedicated time to research resources and create units of study that aligned with the curricular goals of the schools. And, at the end of each day, I would reflect on the learning that transpired and record insights on student learning, teacher questions, and my favorite, plan for next steps. Just as teachers differentiate instruction for their students, literacy coaches do the same for teachers. A “one size fits all” approach for coaching does not exist, especially in regard to facilitating professional development. During each school visit, I found myself providing on-the-spot professional development for teachers at different grade levels. The topics and approaches to instruction were carefully designed to meet each teacher’s needs.

Personal Experiences

My extensive experience as a reading specialist has prepared me for my work as a literacy coach. A study conducted by Bean, Swan and Knaub (2003) looked at characteristics of exemplary reading specialists and the leadership roles they assumed. Their study revealed the following characteristics of an ideal reading specialist:

•   Teaching abilities

•   Knowledge of reading instruction

•   Sensitivity to children with reading difficulties

•   Knowledge of assessments

•   Ability and willingness to fill an advocacy role

•   Ability to work with adults

•   Knowledge of reading research

•   Lifelong learners

•   Ability to provide professional development

•   Ability to articulate reading philosophy

•   Energy (p. 10).

The Concordia University Chicago Center for Literacy provided me with various opportunities to share my expertise with others. In fact, anyone who knows me would agree that reading is my passion, and the spark that ignites my endless desire to teach and learn. Gaining new knowledge and sharing this information with others is fulfilling, and assuming a coaching role with partnering schools is a natural way to do this.

My varied experiences as an educator have also allowed me to flexibly adopt the various roles that have come my way, including classroom teacher, reading specialist, literacy consultant, college professor and most recently, an added position as an instructional coach. It is this variety of experiences that has allowed me to get to know the teachers and determine the best ways to meet their needs.


Embarking on my coaching journey required crossing the infamous bridge. That is, the bridge between theory and practice. As a coinsurer of knowledge, researching theories and best practices come as second nature to me. Discovering the viable connections between what in research works and how these practices are applied in the classroom coupled with their impact on student achievement remains at the forefront of my mind. I always have the question on my mind, is this going to work? This question appears in my teaching of graduate students, working on doctoral committees, and serving as a coach in the CLEF schools.

The following list and acronym tells of the many lessons learned through the experiences as an instructional coach for the teachers as they worked to turn theory into practice and to build practice that could become strong theory.

•   Collaborate with communities of learners

•   Observe to enrich understanding of the culture, climate, and curriculum

•   Advocate for best practices, resources, and using assessment to
            inform instruction

•   Continue to provide support through trials and tribulations

•   Harvest giving authentic feedback

•   Innovative thinking

•   Note-taking, using what happens today to plan for tomorrow

•   Going the extra mile, whatever it takes.

In other words, it was the time for targeted observations, and meaningful collaboration, and developing trusting relationships that made this successful. Unconditional support through trials and tribulations helped the teachers understand how theory informs instruction. With CLEF funds, resources were purchased to enhance instruction and increase teacher capacity to differentiate instruction. Creating a shared vision and goals (short-term and long-term) for each teacher in their particular grade level impacted their planning and work with their students.

Lessons learned are plentiful and heartfelt. One of the most important lessons was being surrounded by passionate and dedicated professionals. The team was comprised amazing leaders in the Center for Literacy, the CLEF organization and coaching team, and of course the talented administrators and teachers at each of the Lutheran schools. But most importantly, I reflect on my faith and prayerful guidance in fulfilling the mission of serving the teachers and administrators. How they understood the information shared and grew as effective educators, as they enhanced their literacy instruction, demonstrates the important connection between theory and practice. It also demonstrates our shared vocation of answering God’s calling to teach children, and for me, to teach their teachers. LEJ


Bean, R.M. (2015). The reading specialist: Leadership and coaching for the classroom, school, and community. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The
Guilford Press.

Gambrell, L.B., & Morrow, L. M. (2015). Best practices in literacy instruction (5th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.       

Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2016). The many roles of an instructional coach.

       Educational Leadership, 73(9). Retrieved from:

Zepeda, S.J. (2013). Professional development: What works (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Dr. Kari Pawl is passionate and committed to supporting literacy instruction for all learners. She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience working as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist in the public school system for several decades. Dr. Pawl is an Associate Professor at Concordia University Chicago and her responsibilities include designing and teaching classes in the masters and doctoral reading, language and literacy programs.