Permission to Coach Heavy

Collaboration Montage

Joseph Kanke, statewide coaching coordinator in Wisconsin, shares both the benefits of coaching "heavy" and the potential pitfalls with remaining in "light" coaching for too long.


he lines from the French poet, Guilaume Apollinaire, best sum up the type of coaching partnership that must exist for coaches to begin truly doing transformational work:

"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew."

Yes, we must spend time building relationships and trust because they're key to moving into the deeper work. But what is the cost of lingering too long in the shallow waters? Sure the water is tepid, but what will happen if our partner—the coachee—is pushed into the deep end and hasn't learned how to tread water.

Coaching Types: "Light vs Heavy"

Joellen Killion often refers to coaching as heavy or light. When coaching light, we are focused on the practice and support of the teacher. An individual coaching conversation may contain phrases such as, "How do you feel your lesson went today? Do you think students met their objective? I noticed you were using a randomization strategy to call on students—it was great." Similarly, coaching light on teams may focus on team morale and building relationships.

When we shift into a coaching heavy stance, we begin to focus on student learning and systems change. A coaching cycle may then shift to an analysis of student data, deep reflection, and discussions on the removal of barriers. Coaching heavy will lean in on the goals set during the coaching conversations. For example, we may say: "Let's review the action steps we outlined last time and talk about where we would like to go next." While coaching light has its place when first entering into a partnership, remaining there too long can prove perilous.

The Dangers of Coaching "Light"

In their text, "Challenging Coaching," Ian Day and John Blakey speak to three dangers of remaining in the light zone of coaching.


Collusion refers to always being very supportive by spending too much time listening to and affirming your partner's thinking. The risk of maintaining this stance is that coaches will never present challenges or opportunities for growth.


Irrelevance is when a coach blindly supports a goal without consideration of district, building, or state vision. This reminds me of when I was co-planning a drama unit with a freshman English teacher and they wanted to focus on costume design. I supported her in creating a robust set of lessons full of history, research, and writing which was well-received by the students. We did this all despite the fact that there were no standards connected to costume design. Had I been coaching heavy, I may have leaned into taking a deeper look at the standards.


Self-obsession is one I fell into often as a new coach. Here, a coach chooses to focus on content they enjoy. During my first year coaching, I worked mostly with new teachers focused on classroom management. While the partnerships were strong, and many teachers experienced growth, had I spent time looking at the data I would have seen better leverage points for effecting student outcomes.

The Benefits of Coaching "Heavy"

Coaching heavy brings the conversations to a critical focus on student outcomes and systems change without being directive or pushy. It's about taking the results—data and outcomes—and pushing into them with an ultra-curious lens. Here are three key takeaways I have found replicated in my and other coaches' experiences with coaching heavy.


Coaching is one of those careers where the better you become, the less you are needed—essentially coaching yourself out of a job! The coachee of a light partnership will feel safe to stretch their own practice because they understand their coach is there to support them. The coachee will adapt and implement a new strategy knowing their coach is there throughout the process to observe, model, and provide feedback. Going deeper honors the coachee's ability to examine theory and research until they lean back on their own expertise.


Coaching light may be sufficient for getting a coachee to adapt a new strategy. A strategy is often attempted and refined before an educator decides if it was effective or not, prior to adding it to their toolkit. Sometimes true change requires questioning assumptions; this is where deep coaching can be transformative. For example, in Wisconsin, the disproportionality data shows that students of color are not achieving at the same level as their white peers. Changing these student outcomes takes more than modeling a strategy, it requires a change of mindset.

Sustainable and Replicable

The data tells us that teachers are the number one influence on student outcomes, so it is obvious that coaches enter into partnerships with them. Coaching heavy calls on coaches to do this work in tandem with systems work. Without considering the system of coaching, what will happen to the capacity if the coachee or coach change positions or move districts?

Final Thought

We must begin to consider how our coaching actions are (or are not) contributing to lasting change; it's only matter of time before an educator will find themselves in a sink or swim situation. There is no shortage of endorsements for coaching light since it has its place, but if you’re waiting for permission to coach heavy, look at student outcomes and systems—the permission is written into it.

About our Guest Blogger

Joseph is in his second year as Wisconsin's statewide coaching coordinator. Prior to this position he worked as a coach for an educational service center in Austin, TX and as a campus-based instructional coach. His mission is to act as a liaison between the field and the state with the intention of creating a statewide system of coaching supports for regions, districts and schools to access as they develop their own coaching programs. He is also passionate about equity and how coaches can hold this at the center of their work. 

Be sure to check out Joseph's blog, Coaching Roots, and connect with him on Twitter @j_kanke!

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Topics: Guest Blogger, Your Coaching Toolbox, Coaching Meetings, Coaching Methodologies, Coaching Heavy

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