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October 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 2

The Power of Virtual Coaching

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Through virtual technology, a coach in a remote location can guide and support a struggling teacher as a lesson unfolds.

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Teacher effectiveness is a hot topic. Amid budget cuts in U.S. public schools, the spotlight is on educational accountability and on how to make less effective teachers more effective—fast. We believe that virtual coaching, in which a coach interacts electronically with a teacher as a lesson unfolds, is a promising route to this goal.
Virtual coaching uses advanced online and mobile technology (termed bug-in-ear technology) to allow an instructional leader located remotely (down the hall or across the country) to observe a teacher's lesson while offering discreet feedback heard only by the teacher, through an earpiece the teacher wears (Giebelhaus & Cruz, 1994; Scheeler, McAfee, Ruhl, & Lee, 2006). Since 2007, we have effectively used such coaching to improve teachers' performance. We've carried out more than 800 real-time bug-in-ear coaching sessions with 29 practicing teachers who were involved in a federally funded personnel development project. We served as key members of the research and development team or worked as virtual coaches ourselves.

"Bug-in-Ear" in Action

To explain how virtual coaching works and why it promotes strong teaching, let's look at an actual coaching session, drawn from our work. It's Friday morning, and virtual coach Leslie Burrows sees that she has one more session scheduled, with Annie, a middle school language arts teacher with whom Leslie's team has been working. The familiar Skype ring tone sounds. Clicking on the call receiver icon, Leslie establishes the connection; she can now see and hear Annie's classroom on her computer screen. Annie (but not the students) can hear Leslie's comments to her through her earpiece.
Leslie: Hi, Annie. I'm delighted to see you and your students. How are you today?
Annie: Good morning, I'm good. We just came in, so I'm going to get started. Leslie: OK, great.
After a brief introduction, Annie jump-starts the lesson with a quick write, instructing students to write down everything they have learned so far about prewriting. All students engage in the task. The virtual coach praises Annie for activating students' prior knowledge, providing clear instructions, and establishing a positive classroom climate. Three minutes later, Annie conducts a brief question-and-answer review of three prewriting strategies with the whole class. She uses a think-aloud to model the brainstorming strategy.
Leslie: Wonderful job using the teacher think-aloud strategy to model brainstorming for the class.
Thirty-eight minutes later, Annie is still modeling brainstorming as a prewriting strategy. The coach has offered an occasional encouraging remark about Annie's questioning style and a few reminders that the objective of the lesson was actually to teach students how to use a rubric to evaluate their writing. But Annie seems lost in the details of her brainstorming. Her 28 6th graders have been sitting patiently, but they're starting to show signs of bewilderment. Annie doesn't seem to notice the time or pick up on the fact that most students are now passively disengaged. The virtual coach decides it is time to redirect the focus.
Leslie: Oh dear, Annie. I think we've lost them with too many details. They look confused and no longer seem interested in the lesson. Let's switch gears.
Annie: OK.
Leslie: Remember that your objective was to teach students how to use a rubric to evaluate their writing. Let's wrap this up with you pointing out how what you did was an illustration of how not to use prewriting. Be sure they understand that if they spent too much time on prewriting, as you did, they wouldn't have enough time to actually write.
Annie: Got it.
Leslie: Great! I know you'll do a terrific job with that. You have such a wonderful rapport with the kids.
Annie switches course as Leslie recommends, and the lesson proceeds more successfully.
This example shows how a virtual coach can support and strengthen a struggling teacher in mid-lesson, becoming what we fondly call an educational engineer-in-the-ear. In an interactive videoconference debriefing afterward, Leslie explained to Annie that to use the think-aloud strategy well, she'd need to manage the time she allotted to it. One way of doing so would be to jot down her brainstorming ideas and rehearse the demonstration a few times before the lesson.
Leslie guided Annie to reflect on this lesson, identify what went well and what didn't, analyze why the coach's prompt was effective, and decide what she hoped to improve for the next coaching session. (For more case descriptions of virtual coaching, see Rock et al., 2009.)

Virtual Coaching and Shared Leadership

Annie is a real teacher with whom we have worked. Like many novice teachers, she struggled to put into everyday classroom practice what she had learned through her teacher preparation. Her virtual coach wondered why teaching was so difficult for her. Was she not putting forth enough effort? Did she lack commitment? Annie herself wasn't sure what she needed to do to improve.
Many leaders puzzle about how to help struggling teachers. Does a not-quite-effective teacher need someone looking over her shoulder, giving critical feedback and whipping her into shape—the "Big Brother" treatment? Or does she need someone to nag her with constant reminders of what she should and shouldn't be doing? Drawing from our accumulated professional knowledge and experience, we think neither approach works.
What Annie needs is a coach, and virtual coaching may be the best way to get her one. We like to think of a virtual coach as an "important other" rather than a Big Brother or nagging mother. Virtual coaching is not a form of spyware, a game of "gotcha." Its purpose is not to accumulate evidence that can be used to terminate a teacher or undermine her self-confidence, nor is it to nag her into using correct techniques. Rather, a virtual coach is a supportive companion (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007) who inspires and builds up teachers.
In the nearly 30 years that coaching has been around the education scene, we've learned that successful coaches don't focus time and energy on a teacher's deficits. Rather, the coach and the teacher come together in supportive, shared leadership. They see lesson planning and delivery as joint endeavors, co-constructed in the moment. Interactive virtual coaching sessions build a teacher's situational awareness of students' responses and shift the attention of both coach and teacher toward improved outcomes.
During Annie's wandering prewriting lesson, for instance, her coach did not reprimand Annie for getting off track; instead, she offered support. When Annie followed Leslie's prompt, the students began to respond differently and seemed to "get it." Annie learned something about the need to keep better track of how much time teacher-modeled activities are taking and to notice when students tune out.
Shared leadership focuses on facilitating a teacher's autonomy, self-management, empowerment, and cooperation—and is a perfect fit for virtual coaching. Because the leader and the teacher jointly pursue the goal of increased student achievement, virtual coaching provides social support for both parties, leading to enhanced emotional and psychological strength. It improves working relationships (Blackman, 2010). Equally important, it creates the opportunity for a common cognitive understanding to emerge, enabling teacher and coach to hear each other's voices in new and different ways. As Annie notes, "[The coach] has really helped me change the way I think while I'm in the middle of doing something, even when she is not in my ear."

From the Sidelines to Online

Traditional coaching formats rely on face-to-face or side-by-side interactions in which an instructional leader, acting as coach, joins the teacher in the classroom. Virtual coaching is a different ball game. It's legitimate to ask why schools should take on this virtual option when a growing body of evidence supports the efficacy of traditional coaching (Kretlow & Bartholomew, 2010). The answer lies in the unique benefits derived from a virtual coach.
The immediate feedback, which enables a teacher to make better decisions, rescue a shaky lesson, and learn as he or she teaches, is one important advantage of virtual coaching (Scheeler, McAfee, & Ruhl, 2004). Other benefits include savings in time, money, and travel. For instance, central office administrative specialists could conduct virtual coaching sessions with teachers in several schools without accruing travel costs or time. Professional experts in one district or state could virtually coach teachers or principals in another, to meet a particular need.
The technology and equipment our team uses for virtual coaching is not overly complicated or expensive, if a school already has relatively powerful computers. Both coach and teacher need a computer, either a Mac or a PC, with a 1 GHz Intel processor and access to a high-speed broadband connection. Depending on the participants' computers, either coach or teacher may need several other pieces of equipment (see fig. 1). Although this may sound complicated, it isn't. We provided the teachers with whom we worked only three pages of installation instructions, and they were all able to get the virtual bug-in-ear technology up and running.

Figure 1. Technology We Used for Virtual Coaching


The following technology components can be installed on most Mac or PC computers. For each component, we've listed in parentheses one product we used (of many available) and the price we paid, to give readers a sense of costs; however, this is not an endorsement of any products. Educators should consult with their information technology personnel.

Teachers to be coached will need

  • A wide-angle webcam (Creative Live Web Cam Live! Ultra; $44.66)

  • A Bluetooth adapter (IOGEAR's Bluetooth USB Adapter with Enhanced Data Rate; $18.48)

  • A Bluetooth headset (Plantronics Voyerager 520 Bluetooth Headset; $49.99)

Coaches will need

  • An external hard drive (External Drive Maxtor OneTouch 4 1TB; $179.99)

  • A headset with microphone (Plantronics Audio 400 DSP Foldable USB Headset; $49.95)

  • A webcam and microphone, if these are not built into the coach's computer. We have used the Creative Live Web Cam Live! ($44.66) and Plantronics. Audio 400 DSP foldable headset ($79.95).


Coach and teacher generally connect through Skype, a free software program that enables people to make phone calls through a computer and lets the speakers see each other. The equipment we used to work with Annie (a wide-angle webcam, Bluetooth USB adapter, and a Bluetooth headset) cost a total of $113. However, the amount for each teacher's virtual bug-in-ear equipment may run as high as $140 depending on where it's purchased and the quantity ordered. We are now piloting mobile bug-in-ear technology using handheld devices, such as smartphones, which could extend the range of virtual coaching beyond the classroom to the playground, school hallways, or cafeteria.
Virtual coaching does take getting used to. We find that teachers need three or four virtual coaching sessions before they are able to simultaneously process the voice of the coach and the voices of students and other noises in the classroom (Korner & Brown, 1952). Our experience has been that students respond favorably to their teacher's use of the technology. At the start of each online coaching session, the coach typically takes a minute to warmly and enthusiastically greet students. Then, to keep from distracting students, the teacher either minimizes the Skype window on the computer screen or turns it away from students' view. Developing a routine around virtual coaching sessions reduces the novelty and helps everyone remain focused.
The advanced online technology poses occasional challenges, but these glitches aren't frequent. In the nine virtual coaching sessions we conducted with Annie between January and April, we encountered an audio technology problem in one session. Drawing on more than 800 virtual coaching sessions conducted over four years, we've experienced some kind of technical interruption about 30 percent of the time, most commonly frozen video capture, muted audio, and dropped calls.

Skills for Virtual Coaching

Any coaching relationship—traditional or virtual—builds on several underlying qualities of both teacher and coach. Chief among them are a willingness to change, a trusting relationship, a high level of initiative, and a personal and organizational commitment to the workplace (Blackman, 2010). Because of the occasional frustrations that result from technological problems, cementing this foundation up front is vital for virtual coaching.
Annie had all these qualities, as well as an amazing rapport with middle school students. As her virtual coach provided Annie with embedded, sustained professional development, both Annie's teaching and her students' work improved.
Through our virtual coaching experiences and our perusal of the literature, we have found that an effective virtual coach has four skills.

Saying More and Saying Less

This phrase refers to the coach's skill of knowing when to be highly directive with a teacher (to say more) and when to step back and let a teacher figure things out on his or her own. How direct a coach should be depends on several factors, such as whether a coach is supporting a beginning, midcareer, or veteran teacher (Horng & Loeb, 2010). However, not all beginning teachers require more intensive approaches.
A good coach will individualize the level of directness (Kerfoot, 2010), judging from a teacher's performance and students' responses how much guidance that educator needs. Some teachers will need explicit information about and instruction in using evidence-based practices. In Annie's case, we perceived an urgent need to "say more" because Annie was a struggling novice who was beginning to lose heart.

Setting and Evaluating Goals

There is consensus among researchers that coaching should be goal based (Blackman, 2010; Kerfoot, 2010). Together, Annie and Leslie decided on three guiding goals: (1) develop a standards-based writing unit aligned with the state course of study by "beginning with the end in mind"; (2) use varied instructional models and differentiate lessons on the basis of the lesson objective, students' unique learning needs, and learner progress; and (3) make "in the lesson" adjustments according to students' responses, and make "out of lesson" instructional and behavioral decisions on the basis of formative and summative assessments. Annie worked on the first goal with a mentor teacher at her grade level and worked on the second and third goals with her virtual coach.

Personalizing Feedback

There is no one-size-fits-all rule on whether the virtual coach should provide feedback on how well each teacher is meeting the chosen goals during each coaching session. The coach should consider the elements of each teaching situation in which that coach interacts and adjust his or her goal-related feedback accordingly. For example, the coach might consider what type of feedback would make the biggest difference in this lesson.
The virtual coach and the teacher need to decide how feedback will be provided. Sometimes a running dialogue, such as Leslie used with Annie, is best; other coaches (Scheeler et al., 2006) use codes. For example, a key word like fact might prompt a teacher to correct a student who responds erroneously to a question, and reinforce might remind her to praise those who answer correctly.

Remaining Positive

Unless a teacher places students in harm's way or engages in abusive or inappropriate behavior, it's important for the coach to offer far more encouraging, supporting statements than corrective or instructive ones (Carson et al., 2007). We have been successful using the recommended ratio of four positive statements for every one corrective statement (Sugai & Horner, 2002). Taking a predominantly positive approach creates positive momentum for behavior to change, which makes improvements in teacher performance more sustainable.

Final Thoughts

We recognize that school leaders have more than enough responsibilities on their plates. Why should they add a virtual coaching program? Because improving teacher performance is the plate. That said, we believe dedicating too much time to coaching, whether virtual or face-to-face, is counterproductive. No more than a few hours each week should be dedicated to virtual coaching.
We could have spent an inordinate amount of time coaching Annie, for example, but she was only one of 13 teachers in need of help. So we prioritized. We conducted 10 virtual coaching sessions of 30–60 minutes each with Annie over five weeks. On average, she received two coaching sessions a week.
Virtual coaching must be done in the right spirit. Unless handled with care, the virtual coach's role can quickly deteriorate into a Big Brother or a nagging mother. Monitoring and evaluating teachers' performance may fall under the job description of school leaders, but we caution against using virtual coaching for such purposes. When it's done in the spirit of shared leadership, we've found that virtual coaching is feasible and effective—and teachers love it!
Finally, virtual coaches need to engage in ongoing professional development and receive coaching of their own. Virtual coaches can support one another and help one another remain effective and committed to their role as strengthening companions for struggling teachers.
The lasting benefits of such coaching are immeasurable, not only to the teachers who are coached, but also to their students. Ask Annie. Quantitative and qualitative data confirmed that Annie's instructional effectiveness improved after her coaching sessions. More important, her students' skills increased: After her work with a coach, her students began using far more prewriting strategies and included more main ideas in their writing samples. Best of all, 74 percent of students reported having positive attitudes toward writing, compared with 54 percent before—all through an online relationship with a caring, knowledgeable "important other."

Blackman, A. (2010). Coaching as a leadership development tool for teachers. Professional Development in Education, 36(3), 421–441.

Carson, J. B., Tesluk, P. E., Marrone, J. A. (2007). Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5), 1217–1234.

Giebelhaus, C. R., & Cruz, J. (1994). The mechanical third ear device: An alternative to traditional student teaching supervision strategies. Journal of Teacher Education, 45, 365–373.

Horng, E., & Loeb, S. (2010). New thinking about instructional leadership. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(3), 66–69.

Kerfoot, K. M. (2010). Listening to see: The key to virtual leadership. Nursing Economics, 28(2), 114–118.

Korner, I. N., & Brown, W. H. (1952). The mechanical third ear. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 16, 81–84.

Kretlow, A. G., & Bartholomew, C. G. (2010). Using coaching to improve the fidelity of evidence-based practices: A review of studies. Teacher Education and Special Education, 33(4), 279–299.

Rock, M. L., Gregg, M, L., Thead, B, K., Acker, S, E., Gable, R. A., & Zigmond, N..P. (2009). Can you hear me now? Evaluation of an online wireless technology to provide real-time feedback to special education teachers in training. Teacher Education and Special Education, 32(1), 64–82.

Scheeler, M. C., McAfee, J. K., & Ruhl, K. L. (2004). Providing performance feedback to teachers: A review. Teacher Education and Special Education, 27, 396–407.

Scheeler, M. C., McAfee, J. K., Ruhl, K. L., & Lee, D. L. (2006). Effects of corrective feedback delivered via wireless technology on preservice teacher performance and student behavior. Teacher and Special Education, 29, 12–25.

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2002). The evolution of discipline practices: Schoolwide positive behavior supports. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 24(1–2), 23–50.

Marcia Rock, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). Prior to joining the Spartan community, she was an associate professor at The University of Alabama (UA). Throughout her career, she has dedicated her research, teaching, and service endeavors to working with others in solving real-world problems of educational practice.  For the past 10 years, she has worked closely with state department personnel in North Carolina and Alabama to incorporate real-time coaching through a continuum into state improvement and state personnel development grants.

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