Virtual Coaching for Anytime, Anywhere Teacher Development

Virtual Coaching

Stephanie Affinito, literacy teacher educator at the University at Albany in New York, explains the benefits of a virtual coaching cycle and why those who don't have in-person coaching opportunities should explore online options.

🍿 Only have a few minutes? Watch Stephanie talk about the major takeaways from her article. Then come back later to read the full thing!


rofessional learning of the past looks drastically different than it does today. Rather than sit-and-get professional development confined by the boundaries of geography, technology has broadened what's possible for teacher learning: online learning communities offer connection and support, social media provides new outlets for learning (like Twitter chats and podcast PD), and digital tools create greater opportunities for collaboration. More than ever, teachers head online to transform their teaching and learning.

This same technology is also transforming the landscape for instructional coaching. Traditionally, instructional coaches physically work alongside teachers to observe pedagogy and instruction and then engage in coaching cycles based on specific goals to strengthen teaching and impact student performance. Technology has also broadened what is possible for coaching: video tools support observation and reflection, collaborative documents support co-teaching, and digital tools foster planning and collaboration around instructional practices.

With the help of virtual learning platforms, instructional coaching can be done online and offers educators a deeper level of support for their teaching. While virtual coaching shouldn't replace in-person coaching efforts wholesale and while there are many benefits to working with a coach in person, it can be used to complement current instructional practices or provide a new avenue to coaching when an in-person program or coach isn't available.

The virtual coaching cycle

Virtual coaching is exactly what it sounds like: coaching translated to an online, digital, or virtual platform. Coaching conversations move online, classroom coaching shifts to video, and professional sharing happens digitally instead of in the hallways. Virtual coaching breaks down the walls of our classrooms and connects educators and coaches together in personalized ways unique to each partnership.

The virtual coaching cycle, however, is a little bit different compared to a standard in-person cycle and comes with a few minor considerations to keep in mind when practicing.

Pre-coaching conversations

Modeled after physical coaching cycles in schools, virtual coaching cycles include pre-coaching conferences, classroom observations, and post-coaching reflective conversations, but they're done virtually. How? Pre-coaching conversations help teacher and coach decide on the goal of the cycle and are typically completed using Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, or other video chat or conferencing tools. Collaborative documents are often used to create a vision for the work and create shared lesson plans and documents.

Classroom observation

Next, coaches observe classroom instruction through video recordings that are uploaded to a private platform and shared with the coach. The coach views these videos and gives specific, personal, and time-stamped feedback targeted to the goals of the partnership—often sharing articles, blog posts, and resources to support teaching.

Debrief conversations

The teacher and coach then come back together for another virtual visit. They discuss the recorded classroom instruction, celebrate successes, and go over problem-solve challenges. The coach might share articles, ideas, and other teaching resources to support the conversation and reflection. Often, the collaborative documents created in the pre-coaching conversation are revisited to support instructional reflection and create goals to move the coaching cycle forward.

Benefits of virtual coaching 

Why go virtual, you ask? Virtual coaching offers unique opportunities for coaches and teachers to partner around teaching and learning in the comfort of their own classrooms and homes, still based on their individual goals as educators. There are numerous benefits to virtual coaching!

1) Broadened access to coaching

The most obvious benefit is access: access to instructional coaches that might not be physically present on school grounds and access to coaches with specific expertise that match teachers' professional goals. Schools can choose to contract with virtual coaching services and platforms to create coherent systems of support for teachers. Or, teachers might choose to work with a virtual coach on their own as part of their individual professional learning plans.

2) Teachers get ownership

Virtual coaching puts teachers in control of their own learning. While in-person coaching might be based on common school goals or initiatives, virtual coaching is based purely on teachers' own wishes for their teaching. They choose personalized goals for the coaching cycle, decide how and when to meet with their virtual coach, control what aspects of their teaching they share with their coach and determine their next steps.

For some teachers, inviting a coach into their classroom can feel unsettling, but in virtual coaching, teachers control the instruction they share with their coach, putting them more in control of the coaching process.

3) Removes distractions

School-based instructional coaches are sometimes forced to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, and this can at times chip away at their bandwidth for getting into the classroom. Fortunately, virtual coaching can remove those obstacles and provides a laser-like focus on teaching and learning in the classroom. A virtual coach is specifically engaged to provide feedback on observed lessons and design personalized learning experiences for the teachers they work with and can be a great supplement to on-the-ground work for this reason.

4) Added personalization

Virtual coaching provides teachers with specific and concrete support inextricably connected to their classrooms. Coaches work one-to-one with teachers, ensuring coaching is highly responsive to teachers' individual needs and classrooms. Coaching partnerships might focus broadly on student engagement or might be very specific and explore small group teaching strategies. Regardless of the goal, teachers collaborate with a coach in tailored ways that instantly benefit their classroom teaching.

5) Neutral and confidential

While all coaching relationships are meant to be collegial and non-evaluative, in-person coaching relationships are just that—in-person—and can sometimes be scary or intimidating or create a host of other emotions. With virtual coaching, the coach is not employed by the school system and can come in as an independent or more neutral party, offering someone with whom to share things the teacher may not feel comfortable sharing with a school or district employee.. In more extreme cases, these relationships can even act as lifelines for teachers who may feel the stress of a less-than-optimal school culture.

Wrapping Up

While virtual instructional coaching could never replace the varied ways coaches support teachers as part of their in-person positions, it offers teachers an option for highly personalized coaching. Moreover, since virtual coaching is by necessity online it can add some communication challenges and nuance that is otherwise more easily conveyed in person, and it's important to keep this in mind when working with a teacher electronically. 

By harnessing the power of technology, though, virtual coaching broadens the boundaries of professional learning and offers a promising way to support teachers' pedagogical practice.

Watch Stephanie's video overview

About our Guest Blogger

Stephanie Affinito is a literacy teacher educator in the Department of Literacy Teaching and Learning at the University at Albany in New York. She has a deep love of literacy coaching and supporting teachers' learning through technology and creates spaces for authentic teacher learning that build expertise, spark professional curiosity, and foster intentional reflection to re-imagine teaching and learning for students.

Additionally, she presents regularly at state and national conferences on literacy coaching, teacher collaboration and supporting teachers' reading, writing, and learning through innovative technology.

Be sure to check out her recently published book with Heinemann Publishing titled, Literacy Coaching: Teaching and Learning with Digital Tools and Technology.


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