Aligning Instructional Coaching Across Classrooms

April 25, 2023

Jenny Tan

Chief of Schools, KIPP Public Schools Northern California

This profile is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement. Subscribe here.

Executive Summary

After identifying student work exemplars as a high leverage strategy to enhance instruction in the 2022-23 school year, a school system leader implements a coaching model to build the capacity of instructional leaders and coaches. She did this by:

  • Recognizing that school leaders and coaches, not just teachers, needed support to understand and predict student misconceptions—before delivering a lesson,
  • Creating opportunities for principal managers to model and practice how principals and coaches work together to internalize lessons before observing them, and,
  • Working with principals and coaches to build their confidence and skills in providing high-quality, real-time feedback to teachers. 

The Challenge:

A Reluctance to Coach in the Moment 

As chief of schools for KIPP Public Schools Northern California, Jenny Tan introduced a focus on student work exemplars for the 2022-23 school year, arguing that great teachers internalize their lessons by completing the work their students must complete. This process unlocks a deeper understanding of the key lesson outcomes, and improves their ability to deliver content, monitor student learning, and respond to student misconceptions in the moment.  

After identifying three phases to build teacher capacity in making and using student exemplars, Tan planned a staged PD rollout to develop her teachers—and, importantly, school leadership teams. During early observations, she noticed that while teachers and coaches often had exemplars in hand, they struggled to effectively use them in the classroom.  Additionally, coaches were reluctant to intervene in the moment as student work revealed misconceptions the teacher hadn’t anticipated. Says Tan, “The key barrier to real-time coaching has been shyness….We had to think of efficient ways to get all our school leaders invested and help us move it along.

The Solution:

Building Capacity for Real-Time Feedback

To address this challenge, Tan sharpened the focus of how principals and instructional coaches use exemplars. Just as the exemplars were intended to help teachers focus more closely on what students need to do in the classroom, Tan wanted coaches to use them to improve lessons in the moment. 

Tan’s thinking was that if principals and coaches had a sharper vision of what ideal student answers looked like, they would be more confident and prepared to intervene in the classroom to address student misconceptions teachers may have missed or weren’t monitoring. She reflects,

“We will always get imperfect lessons and exemplars, even from the strongest teachers. We needed to push more on what coaches will do in the moment to step in and fix them. We needed to support the coaches’ ability to zoom in on the highest leverage points.”

The Strategy:

‘Internalization Meetings’ to Support Principals and Coaches

Tan introduced a series of staggered “internalization meetings” in which school leader managers first coach principals, who in turn coach the instructional coaches who observe and provide feedback to classroom teachers.

Staggered internalization meetings build capacity at all levels to support real-time coaching in the classroom.

The process, Tan says, focuses on “what’s transferrable in coaching,” with the goal of building capacity and confidence through regular coaching sessions between leaders and coaches over time. She notes: 

“[We made] a very intentional pivot where the coaches were the central part of the internalization, and it was purely for the sake of getting them ready to go in and coach… Leader internalization is powerful for very specific reasons—not just generally supporting the teacher, but providing real-time coaching in very specific ways. The principal is only able to do this work if she internalizes the lesson by identifying key gaps, reviewing the coach’s own pre-work, and thinking about the best way to get the information to the coach.”

Step 1: Principal Leader and Principal

KIPP Heritage Academy Principal Danica Donnelly and Principal Manager Amy Tran discuss a teacher exemplar during an internalization meeting.  

Teachers are expected to develop an exemplar for each lesson, in which they explain in detail how students will answer a classroom exit ticket and what misconceptions might arise. Teachers submit these completed exemplars in advance, providing opportunities for school leaders and coaches to select particular lessons to examine in detail to prepare for classroom observations. 

To build school leaders’ capacity to coach their coaches, principal supervisors regularly meet with them to model what those coaching sessions should look like. During these meetings, the principal leader and principal complete the problem in the teacher exemplar as a student would, and then compare their work with each other and the teacher’s completed exemplar.

The principal leader then coaches the principal through opportunities to surface misconceptions the teacher may have left out of her exemplar and gaps in how the teacher plans to monitor student work during the lesson. The goal is for the principal to internalize these key leverage points before meeting with the coach who will support the teacher.  

For example, in reviewing an 8th grade biology lesson on evolutionary trees at KIPP Heritage Academy in San Jose, school leader manager Amy Tran and principal Danica Donnelly recognize that the teacher’s exemplar question on evolutionary trees isn’t strong enough to reinforce the most important part of the lesson—the close evolutionary relationship between animals that have differences in body structures but common ancestors, such as chimpanzees and whales.

Tran advises Donnelly to work with her coach to identify language for a stronger question and other changes to the lesson. She also urges the principal to help the coach pick the right moment to jump in and provide feedback to the teacher. Says Tran, “We need to make sure we are giving real-time coaching 'at bats' [ like in baseball] and we’re setting people up to do them well…Doing the internalization prep beforehand allows us to do a lot more targeted work around the key moments."

Step 2: Principal and Coach

Content specialist Natalie Blackwood and KIPP Heritage Principal Danica Donnelly discuss opportunities to provide real-time coaching during their own internalization meeting.

The goal of the next meeting is to ensure that the coach internalizes the lesson exemplar well enough to, as Tran puts it, “Understand what in-the-moment adjustments to make to the teacher’s work to increase the rigor.

In this case, Donnelly meets with content specialist Natalie Blackwood, the coach who will be observing the lesson. They go through the same steps as in the earlier internalization meeting—completing and then comparing their own exemplars to each other’s and the teacher’s. As they discuss the differences, Blackwood’s understanding of the subject matter allows her to hone in on the biggest potential gap—not recognizing common ancestors among animals with significant differences in body structures.

So what can you do in the moment to make sure the teacher underscores this?” Donnelly asks. The two identify an opportunity to pause the lesson as students pair and share to ask the teacher to add clarifying language to the exit ticket question. “Let’s find the time to pause her before the kids even see the question,” Donnelly says. Donnelly also suggests that Blackwood jump in and reinforce this key concept as needed and shares a T chart to help her monitor how many students get the question right.

Says Donnelly, “I pushed her a lot on what she would do in the moment and on her preparation, so she would be confident to do so.

Step 3: Coach and Teachers - Through Classroom Observation and Real-Time Coaching

KIPP Heritage Academy content specialist Natalie Blackwood provides real-time classroom feedback.

During the lesson, Blackwood follows the strategies surfaced during the meeting with her principal, coaching the teacher to revise the exit ticket question to include stronger language about evolutionary relationships, similarities, and differences. 

Donnelly, who is also observing the class, takes Blackwood aside to remind her that the lesson should reinforce the concept before students attempt to answer the question. Blackwood jumps in to model, using the whiteboard to ask students a series of questions about how they know different animals have common ancestors before they see the revised question on the exit ticket.

Step 4: Debrief with Principal and Coach

During a brief meeting following the lesson, the principal discusses the impact of these interventions with her coach. “You jumped in, which completely changed the lesson for the kids,” Donnelly told Blackwood.  Donnelly and Blackwood also note that these changes will carry over to subsequent classes later in the day—a multiplier effect to the impact of real-time feedback. “We would not have known the highest-leverage moments without this process,” says Tan. 

‘A Moral Imperative’

KIPP Heritage Academy Principal Danica Donnelly, principal manager Amy Tran, and content specialist Natalie Blackwood review notes during a classroom observation. 

Since the internalization process was introduced earlier this year, teachers have come to expect real-time coaching in their classrooms. Says Tran, “It’s a lot of adults in the classroom, but I think that doing this kind of work is helping build skills across us all.”

As system leader, Tan often participates in meetings and classroom observations to help norm and reinforce the importance of real-time coaching. She also follows the internalization protocol with principal leaders to build their own confidence in coaching leaders. She calls the work a “moral imperative,” saying:

When we have done the mighty, small but powerful [work] before we go in, we typically see no concern around [being] too shy to do this. Instead, it’s how can I not do this? It’s a moral imperative—I have to go in and work with the teacher and the kids.”

Taking it Back to Your School

  • What does a culture of real-time coaching ideally look like in your school(s)? 
  • What would the impact be if your teams closed learning gaps in the moment rather than waiting until later? 
  • What are the leader gaps that have made implementation of real-time coaching challenging? 
  • What action steps can you take to create a culture in which real-time coaching is expected—and appreciated—by teachers? 

Jenny Tan serves as the chief of schools for KIPP Northern California. As the principal of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, Jenny Tan helped the elementary school achieve the highest distinctions awarded by the Nevada Department of Education, such as "Exemplary" and "High Achieving." She became the first chief academic officer for KIPP Colorado, where she supported schools at all levels to become top-performing schools in Denver Public Schools. Tan then joined the KIPP Foundation, and she was most recently the associate dean of the Relay California Leadership Programs. She has a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree and a School Leadership License from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Tan is an alumna of Relay's National Principal Supervisors Academy.


Sign up for our monthly newsletter for more expert insights from school and system leaders.

Thank you! You are now subscribed to Follow the Leaders!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.