Role Play & Real-Time Feedback: Proven Coaching Techniques from Practiced BES Coaches

By Paul Adler and Stephanie Patton


A coach, as defined by Webster, is a person who teaches and trains an athlete or performer. Over the last number of years, the term coach has been increasingly used in the field of education.  When an athlete is coached, they practice discrete skills repetitively until they have mastered and perfected all aspects of that skill. They then put together discrete skills in order to build out a play or sequence of plays that allow them to reach their goal – be it a drive down the court or field to score points, or to increase precision and speed as they swim from one end of a pool to another. In education, coaching has become a buzzword used by many to describe any and all work taking place between a teacher and their supervisor, mentor, or ‘coach’ – much of which is not coaching. True coaching involves training and practice and can be one of the most effective tools to grow and develop leaders in schools.

BES believes in the power of coaching leaders for a number of reasons. First, it sets a model for the leader on how to be an effective coach. Second, growing the skillset of a leader supports the work of an entire school. If a leader is coached well on even one skill, she leverages that to grow 20+ teachers in the building who, in turn, impact 400+ students.

What does coaching look like on the ground?

  • A first year principal is struggling to invest his/her team in a new school-wide guided reading program. The principal videotapes the opening five minutes of his professional development session. The coach helps the principal reflect on the way he engages (or does not engage) his audience. The principal then practices the opening again, with live feedback from the coach.
  • An experienced Dean of Students is managing a grade level that has five extremely high need students who are disrupting multiple classrooms. The coach and Dean watch videos of the five students in class, and observe their interactions with the teacher. The coach then helps the Dean diagnose the root causes of the misbehavior and then create a plan to reinvest the students in the school and train teachers on consistent responses to behaviors.
  • An Academic Dean is trying to improve a teacher’s ability to increase the level of student responses in his class.  The coach and dean discuss what real-time feedback in the classroom would sound like to help the teacher better respond to low-level student answers. The dean practices this in her office with the coach. The dean and coach then go to the classroom and the coach gives real time feedback on the academic dean’s ability to real time coach the teacher.

What do these coaching moments have in common? First, they simulate what the leader will need to do, in their current context, to realize the vision they have for their school (i.e. – identify the discrete skill). Second, they push deep reflection and ownership on the part of leader so that they create their own solutions to the challenges they face. Simulated practice, deep reflection –this is what coaching activities most resemble at BES. The actual exercises range from real time coaching, to role playing, to video analysis, to co-planning systems and action plans, to document review. In the videos below, Stephanie and I each discuss one technique that we use frequently with our leaders.

One of the biggest challenges I see facing new leaders is creating a healthy adult culture through strategic one-on-one conversations with staff. Specifically, I see leaders struggle in how to invest staff members in team commitments and then have difficult conversations with adults when they don’t uphold these expectations. When working with a leader on these moments, we often use role play as a way to rapidly build skill. As I role play the adult they are speaking with, I strive to become a mirror for the leader, pausing the conversation multiple times and relaying the impact they are having on me through their facial expressions, their tone, and their words.
This year, I am supporting a variety of newer leaders – from Executive Directors to Principals, DCI’s to Grade level leads. One of the challenges that they have all encountered has been shifting their focus and approach from working with students to working with teachers and other leaders in their buildings. It is a natural move for almost anyone to focus on students when they walk into a school classroom. If there is a student who needs help, most leaders go over to fix the student. It is critical as a leader to get the teacher to see what you are seeing, and equip them with the tools to act.Live or real-time coaching has been one of the most effective tools for this coaching.