Tensions in teacher choice and professional development 

Tough day at school! Cute child near the blackboard indoors. Kid is learning in class. Complex math, arithmetic and examples. Numbers written with chalk on board.


Giving teachers complete control over whether and how they receive coaching may limit the effectiveness of coaching as a vehicle for professional growth. 


According to some scholars, effective professional development must allow teachers to determine what they will learn (Knight, 2007; Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2008). Failure to meet this criterion could detract from teachers’ sense of professionalism (Knight, 2007). In response, many U.S. school districts now encourage instructional coaches to tailor professional development to individual teacher needs as part of a coaching structure resembling what Jim Knight (2007) refers to as a “Choice Partnership,” in which “teachers have a great deal of choice in what and how they learn” (p. 25). In theory, the benefit of such a structure is that teachers get to call the shots when it comes to their own professional learning, which positions them as competent professionals and likely increases their investment in working with the coach to improve their instruction. However, the partnership coaching structure also comes with a host of challenges, some of which were unearthed in our recent coaching study. 

Our study took place in Middleton District (a pseudonym, like all names in this article), which had just adopted a coaching structure they called Teacher’s Choice. As the district adopted this structure, three unanticipated challenges arose that limited the instructional coaches’ ability to assist teachers to the degree intended. Awareness of these potential challenges can help administrators plan ahead as they decide which coaching structure to adopt in their school or district. 

Many teachers perceived that the instructional coaches were administrators (which they were not) and feared that they would be evaluated, which, understandably, made them reluctant to ask for coaching. 

Studying coaching at Middleton 

Middleton is a mid-size, Midwestern urban district with a diverse enrollment of more than 10,000 students (35% Black, 11% Latinx, 37% White/non-Latinx, and 7% other), with 55% eligible for subsidized lunch. We partnered with two instructional coaches (Meg and Claire) in two different elementary schools to examine their use of the one-on-one coaching practices of modeling and co-teaching. We conducted a conversational analysis, focusing on five elementary teachers, to better understand what opportunities these coaching practices afforded (Saclarides, 2018; Saclarides & Lubienski, 2018). In addition, we observed 11 planning meetings, 23 modeled or co-taught lessons, and four reflection conversations; and we conducted 27 semi-structured interviews with the coaches, teachers, and administrators.  

During this process, the influence of the district’s choice-based coaching structure on the coaches’ ability to effectively engage in their work emerged as a significant theme. This led us to further analyze our data to better understand the effects of the model and whether and why certain coach-teacher pairs faced more challenges than others.  

Within the Teacher’s Choice coaching structure at Middleton, coaches cannot initiate individual coaching with teachers, but instead must wait for teachers to approach them to ask for one-on-one professional development. Further, it is up to the teachers to decide what they want to focus on (implementing number talks, differentiating instruction, developing literacy centers, etc.), as well as the specific coaching activities (modeling, co-teaching, co-planning, etc.) to be used. Grounded in current thinking about the importance of teacher professionalism and autonomy (Knight, 2007), this type of coaching structure is quite widespread in U.S. elementary schools. 

According to Patti, the district-level administrator in charge of supporting Middleton’s instructional coaches, a primary advantage of this coaching structure is that it does not force teachers to participate in coaching cycles; therefore, coaches’ time is not wasted working with teachers who do not want their help. Instead, coaches work only with teachers who truly want to improve their instruction, which is not only a better use of the coaches’ time but also increases the likelihood that the teachers will make lasting changes to their instruction.  

Challenges of the choice-based model 

Despite these intended benefits, our instructional coaches experienced three unanticipated challenges as they modeled and co-taught lessons.  

Difficulty accessing teachers’ classrooms 

Prior coaching studies point to challenges associated with coaches getting access to teachers’ classrooms (Camburn, Kimball, & Lowenhaupt, 2008; Mangin, 2005; Matsumura et al., 2009). This was the case in the current study as well. In fact, the Teacher’s Choice structure seemed to make access especially difficult because the coaches had to wait to be approached by teachers for help. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that many teachers perceived that the instructional coaches were administrators (which they were not) and feared that they would be evaluated, which, understandably, made them reluctant to ask for coaching. Coach Meg said she practically had to beg teachers to let her support them (and she feared that this diminished her status in the teachers’ eyes). 

To overcome these two hurdles to classroom access, coaches Meg and Claire engaged in nonthreatening leadership (Mangin, 2005), choosing to (1) position themselves as trustworthy peers and (2) avoid engaging in direct and difficult conversations with teachers. However, their use of these two strategies led to the two other challenges that surfaced with the Teacher’s Choice coaching structure.  

Coaches’ positioning as trustworthy peers  

To help alleviate teachers’ concerns about being secretly evaluated, and to encourage teachers to approach them for help, the coaches tried to build trusting, nonthreatening relationships with the teachers. During interviews, both of the coaches and nearly all of the teachers and administrators described this attitude as necessary to bring about positive and productive coaching cycles.  

For at least one reason, however, it can be problematic for coaches to focus on forming trusting relationships with teachers. For example, previous research (Mangin, 2005) suggests that this can undermine the perception that teacher leaders are experts with important knowledge to share. Hence, it is possible that Meg and Claire’s efforts to build trust with teachers came at a great cost, detracting from their efforts to establish their professional status and authority. As a result, teachers may have become even less motivated to seek help from them, further limiting the coaches’ capacity to influence instruction. In turn, this leads to the third and final challenge.  

Reluctance to engage in uncomfortable conversations  

Because of their desire to seem approachable and nonthreatening, Meg and Claire sometimes avoided engaging in difficult conversations with teachers. This underscores findings from a previous study that found teacher leaders avoided giving “hard feedback” when working one-on-one with teachers: 

In order to preserve trust and strengthen relationships with their clients, teacher leaders often avoid giving hard feedback. Instead, they opt for less direct, tactful commentary that, while easier and less threatening to deliver, may leave difficult issues unaddressed and unresolved. (Lord, Cress, & Miller, 2008, p. 72) 

For example, when observing Meg’s modeled lessons, the teachers often engaged in off-task behaviors such as cleaning and organizing their classrooms and using their laptops and cell phones for purposes unrelated to the modeled lessons. Instead of directly addressing the teachers’ off-task behaviors, Meg came up with indirect ways to get the teachers on task, such as asking them to work with some students one-on-one. And during her modeling cycle with one particular teacher — Michelle — Meg became concerned that Michelle would not continue to implement Calendar Math after the modeling cycle ended. Again, Meg decided to go with an indirect approach to resolve her concerns, making surprise visits to the classroom to see if there was new student work in the Calendar Math space or talking with Michelle’s students in the hallway about what they were learning in Calendar Math.  

Coach Claire also struggled to engage in challenging conversations with teachers. For example, Claire told us that when co-teaching with a teacher named Cecilia, she struggled to keep Cecilia focused on lesson planning during their planning meetings. This was consistent with our own observations that, in comparison to Claire’s planning meetings with other teachers, the planning meetings involving Cecilia had the highest percentage of off-topic conversation (see Saclarides & Lubienski, 2018). Claire said that she didn’t want to come off as too demanding or uncompromising, which is why she only rarely asked Cecilia to stay focused on the work. 

Because of their desire to seem approachable and nonthreatening, Meg and Claire sometimes avoided engaging in difficult conversations with teachers. 

This led us to wonder whether the coaches’ avoidance of difficult conversations might also be associated with an overall lack of depth in those conversations. As part of our study (Saclarides & Lubienski, 2018), we analyzed all transcripts of coach-teacher talk during the modeling and co-teaching cycles to better understand teachers’ opportunities to learn about complex topics (Coburn & Russell, 2008), such as underlying pedagogical principles, the nature of mathematics, and the ways in which students learn mathematics. We found that the teachers and coaches primarily engaged in shallow conversations (63-92%) about the materials, curriculum, behavior management, and assessment logistics, while deeper discussions (1-6%) very rarely took place. It occurs to us (and it may be worth exploring this hypothesis in further research) that the coaches’ desire to maintain access to teachers explains not just their reluctance to pursue uncomfortable discussions but also their reluctance to probe teachers’ understandings at any depth. 

Choice with direction 

We acknowledge the potential benefits of a choice-based coaching structure in which teachers are empowered to select what and how they learn. In our study, however, we found that this structure created serious challenges for coaches. First, it heightened their difficulties getting access to teachers’ classrooms. In turn, that led them to focus on building trusting relationships, mainly by positioning themselves as the teachers’ peers, rather than as instructional leaders with important knowledge to share. To be sure, no coaching structure is perfect, but our study raises concerns about the extent to which the Teacher’s Choice model allows for coaches to establish their status, draw upon their expertise, and initiate complex, potentially difficult conversations about academic content and instruction. 

So what type of coaching structure should school districts adopt? Given the potential benefits of giving teachers choices, we do not recommend that school districts completely abandon that approach. Rather, we advise districts to adopt a blended approach where teachers have the opportunity to select the topics they would like to focus on, and coaches have the freedom to initiate professional development with teachers and more actively shape their learning opportunities. A recent literacy coaching study found that both teachers and students benefited from such a hybrid coaching model that allowed the coaches to be both responsive and directive (Sailors & Price, 2015). Our hope is that by adopting such a blended coaching structure, teachers and coaches can both be positioned as competent professionals.


Camburn, E.M., Kimball, S.M., & Lowenhaupt, R. (2008). Going to scale with teacher leadership: Lessons learned from a districtwide literacy coach initiative. In M.M. Mangin & S.R. Stoelinga (Eds.), Effective teacher leadership: Using research to inform and reform (pp. 23-44). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Coburn, C.E. & Russell, J.L. (2008). District policy and teachers’ social networks. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30 (3), 203-235. 

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 

Lieberman, A. & Pointer Mace, D.H. (2008). Teacher learning: The key to educational reform. Journal of Teacher Education, 59 (3), 226-234. 

Lord, B., Cress, K., & Miller, B. (2008). Teacher leadership in support of large-scale mathematics and science education reform. In M.M. Mangin & S.R. Stoelinga (Eds.), Effective teacher leadership: Using research to inform and reform (pp. 55-76). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Mangin, M.M. (2005). Distributed leadership and the culture of schools: Teacher leaders’ strategies for gaining access to classrooms. Journal of School Leadership, 15 (4), 456. 

Matsumura, L.C., Sartoris, M., Bickel, D.D., & Garnier, H.E. (2009). Leadership for literacy coaching: The principal’s role in launching a new coaching program. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45 (5), 655-693. 

Saclarides, E. S. (2018). Co-teaching and modeling: The work of coaches and teachers as they engage in one-on-one mathematics professional development (Doctoral dissertation). University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

Saclarides, E.S. & Lubienski, S.T. (2018, April). Exploring the content and depth of coach-teacher talk during modeling and co-teaching. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY. 

Sailors, M. & Price, L. (2015). Support for the Improvement of Practices through Intensive Coaching (SIPIC): A model of coaching for improving reading instruction and reading achievement. Teaching and Teacher Education, 45, 115-127.


Citation: Saclarides, E.S. & Lubienski, S.T. (2018). Tensions in teacher choice and professional development. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 55-58. 


EVTHOKIA STEPHANIE SACLARIDES (essaclarides@ua.edu) is an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
SARAH THEULE LUBIENSKI (stlubien@iu.edu) is a professor of mathematics education at Indiana University in Bloomington. 

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