Why Teacher Coaching Can Fail

© Julie Boyd 2011

When I wrote the paper ‘Coaching In Context’ to start the statewide coaching program in Victoria, and the Literacy and Numeracy Coaches Program in South Australia, I warned of two key issues:

1.      Coaching is not for everyone, and it is expensive.

2.      Coaching is only one form of professional reflective practice

Coaching is a highly sophisticated form of reflective practice. When done well, it can transform a person’s professional, and often personal, life, and provides many benefits to the employer in sustaining high performance and morale. The question is, however, whether it’s the coaching itself that produces the results, or if it’s down to an enlightened management team, which believes in people’s development and so encourages coaching, which in turn produces results. When coaching is done badly, though, it has the power to decimate a person’s sense of professional worth for years into the future and to incur substantial cost while returning no benefits, or worse, significant professional damage. Leadership can become cynical about the coaching process.  Money is wasted.  Time and attention are frittered away.  Ineffective coaching is counterproductive and should be stopped as soon as it is recognized.

So why does it fail, how do we prevent that happening, and what are the alternatives?

While there are many reasons why coaching can fail in an individual case, there are some broad commonalities that can indicate failure early in the process.  It is important for the stewards of the organisation’s resources to understand these major themes and feel comfortable taking steps to address them.  Below are several major, recurring themes that run through many failed coaching situations.

  • Coaching is seen as an ‘add-on’ to teacher’s workloads and is not accepted as an integral component of on-going professional improvement.
  • The coach lacks the skills, experience, or perspective to effectively provide the necessary support for a successful outcome.
  • The person being coached resists efforts to change.
  • People resist change that they see as imposed upon them.
  • The coach engages in pseudo-positivity
  • The coach lacks the skills, experience, or perspective to effectively provide the necessary support
  • The organisation/school is not a safe place to admit to one’s vulnerabilities.
  • Characteristics that look promising at first can actually be aspects of a deeper personality disorder which are quite resistant to modification. A coach cannot manage such a situation.
  • The person being coached is looking for an easy solution rather than building the skills necessary for success in the future.
  • Leaders are looking for a way to ‘fix’ poor behaviour in individuals
  • The process is sabotaged by either peers or leaders
  • The organisational culture is unsuitable for using coaching as an appropriate strategy
  • There is a two-tier culture in the organisation where the presenting culture and underlying cultures are inconsistent.
  • At the beginning of the coaching process it is seldom possible to predict a successful outcome.  However, it can be easy to recognize when it isn’t going to work.

First, if the conditions at the school are not conducive to coaching it will not work. The culture needs to support reflective practice in a broad range of forms – not just coaching (see addendum)

Second, it is difficult for an adult to change his or her behaviour.  It takes work and the desire to actively alter the assumptions and patterns that support the ineffective behaviours in the first place.  If the person isn’t actively trying to practice and build new behaviours, change won’t happen.  If the person expects the coach to drive the change, it won’t work.  Successful efforts to change have to come from within.  If the person isn’t seeking feedback and asking for support, it won’t work.  If you don’t see the sweat, you can be sure that the effort will fail.

Third, coaching is about relationships as well as skill and competency building (both cognitive and emotional intelligence), yet many “coaches” are not trained in such fields as clinical or counselling psychology, psychiatry, or clinical social work. Coaching doesn’t work if the issue in not clearly identified as intellectual, technical or functional. It doesn’t necessarily make bad lawyers good lawyers, or bad engineers good engineers or bad teachers into good teachers without the right intent of the individuals involved.

Fourth, many people have the erroneous idea that coaching is an informative process.  It typically is not.  People aren’t performing badly because no one told them to act differently.  Indeed, coaching often comes only after a person has been told repeatedly to change.  Just telling them to be different doesn’t work; if it did you would never get to the point of calling in a coach.  Change comes when a person develops new skills to cope with the old situations.  Skill building doesn’t occur as a result of lectures or reading self-help books.  It comes from continued practice, learning from failures, and the willingness to try new things.  . Successful change takes more than a once-a-week commitment. The truly effective helping approaches map out specific things to do every day. If you don’t see efforts to practice and develop new skills they won’t miraculously appear.

Fifth, coaching doesn’t work if the person has been written off by the organisation’s leadership. To insist on a fake coaching process, which is not really about development; but is a thinly disguised seek and destroy activity is unreasonable for everyone and is used to document failure, under the guise of “We did everything we could to help this person! We even provided a coach.”



Like any tool, coaching can be effective.  However, it is a process that is relatively easy to do badly.  Many things can impede its effectiveness.   Problems with the impact of coaching can be the fault of the coach, the coachee, or the organisation’s culture. The after effects of poor coaching can be no change in behaviour, change that evaporates over time or under stress, cynicism, a belief that behaviour can’t change, or people trying to disguise their habitual behaviours better so that they don’t “get caught.”

It is difficult to predict when coaching will be successful, but the signs that it will fail can be seen early.  If the person being coached resents what s/he sees as efforts to change her, or if the only reason to change is that someone else wants it, then the process won’t work.  If the person is looking for a quick fix rather than carefully building skills through practice and rehearsal, coaching won’t work.  If the cause of the person’s workplace inadequacies stems from a deep personality disorder then the coaching process at work is unlikely to change those dynamics.  It the coach lacks the personal skills and the business savvy to nurture success in the work environment, then the process won’t work.  Finally, if the work environment is a damaging place for people to work, psychologically speaking, if trust is absent and vulnerabilities are exploited, then change won’t occur.  In these circumstances, it is best to stop the coaching process quickly and to employ more appropriate tactics to address those underlying issues that make using a coach a non-productive strategy.

New research by Dr Marshall Goldsmith shows that: If people pick something important to improve, develop relationships with their co-workers and follow-up on a regular basis through an Intentional Change Process, they improve. If they don’t, they don’t.

Coaching can be a very valuable process when the clients issues are behavioural, they are motivated to change and when they are given a fair chance. Both coaches and organizations need to look beneath the surface and make sure that these conditions really exist – before even beginning the coaching process. Change comes from a willingness to see oneself accurately, stripped of excuses and arising from honest self-reflection.  If there isn’t evidence an effort to honestly understand oneself, to take personal responsibility, and abandon excuses any change will be superficial and fleeting at best.

If coaching is not working what needs to happen is a reversion to another form of reflective practice. A menu was provided in Coaching In Context, adapted from Collaborative

Approaches to Professional Learning and Reflection” Boyd and Cooper 1994for the use of Principals who wish to mandate professional reflection without requiring those for whom coaching is unsuitable.


1. Individual Reflection Methods

A. Self-Contracting

B. Portfolios

C. Journal-Writing;

D. Case Study Writing

E. Professional Reading and Writing

F. Study Formal and Informal


2. Partner Reflection and Reflection


A. Learning Buddies

B. Mentoring

C. Appraisal,Interviews

D. Peer Coaching

3. Small Group Reflection and Assessment Practices

A. Action Research

B. Study Groups

C. Peer Support Groups

D. Professional Dialogue Groups

E. Electronic Networks

F. Labsites (Collegial Learning in



4. Large Group Reflection and

Assessment Practices

A. Assessment Centres

B. Exhibitions and Panels

C. Presentations

D. Professional Development Schools

E. Teacher Centres

F. Teacher Institutes

G. Partnerships

For more see www.julieboyd.com.au


  1. I’ve been coaching teachers for over ten years, and have found that a successful coaching experience depends on the teacher’s “coachability” and the coach’s ability (which includes substance and style). Read my article, The Coach Approach, for a few success stories: http://ginsburgcoaching.com/uploads/David_Ginsburg-The_Coach_Approach.pdf