Navigating the Maze: Attempting to unravel the concept of a coaching culture in education.

This is a guest blog written by Lucy Wood

Lucy is an experienced primary practitioner and has had the privilege of teaching, learning and leading across a diverse range of settings in the UK, Japan and the Netherlands. Following the recent arrival of baby number 3, Lucy has chosen to extend her time out of school life until Autumn 2024, when she will be taking up a senior leadership post in the international school sector. She is currently pursuing an MA in Education, which she is finding energising, enjoyable and challenging in equal measure.

You can find Lucy on Twitter (X): @lucyhwood

This blog was edited by Gemma Molyneux. Find out more about Gemma on this page

In the intricate tapestry of educational discourse, the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘culture’ often lack the clarity we might hope for in a field dedicated to fostering deep thinking. ‘Coaching’ is a nebulous concept and the term ‘culture’, even divorced from its coaching descriptor, is tricky to define with any helpful precision. Yet, despite this ambiguity, the term ‘coaching culture’ continues to gain popularity in educational settings, weaving its way into the fabric of school improvement strategies.

Traversing ambiguity

In a dizzying linguistic loop, the expanding usage of the term ‘coaching culture’ in schools can cause further confusion through numerous interpretations and applications. Originating primarily from the corporate world, prevailing definitions often emphasise integrating coaching approaches with the strategic intention to enhance organisational performance.

Applying a generic approach without considering the unique characteristics of each school’s culture and context may have unintended consequences. Rigid interpretations of a pre-packaged coaching framework may get in the way of successful growth for both individuals and the school, overlooking coaching’s transformative potential to challenge assumptions and navigate deep-rooted problems.

Context as key

Acknowledging the context-dependent nature of building an effective school-based coaching culture seems paramount. Effective coaching experiences are those that align with their setting and make meaningful contributions to their broader context.

While flexibility allows for tailored approaches to each school’s unique environment, misuse of coaching-related language—albeit unintentional—could obscure clarity. This, in turn, may create a murky opaqueness where high-stakes accountability language is able to take hold, stifling coaching’s catalysing potential for reframing perspectives.

For example, a coaching experience aimed at how a teacher can improve their students’ experience may become framed around strategies related to performance in standardised testing, with implicit value being placed on achieving high scores over holistic development. Allowing a performative discourse to weave unchallenged into coaching discussions may limit the scope, or even impede, the professional learning opportunities that are possible.

A tentative definition

For the purposes of this blog, I tentatively propose a working definition of a school-based coaching culture (comments and challenges on which I welcome) as involving:

i) Deliberate allocation and investment of appropriate resources, including time, personnel, and finances, towards coaching initiatives and experiences

ii) Focused, formative coaching interactions that emphasise opportunities for reflexivity and are not necessarily driven by areas for development or targeted at specific goals

iii) Use of diverse coaching techniques tailored to the needs and preferences of individuals

iv) Facilitation of learning that promotes sustainable, meaningful, and desirable change

v) Benefits for the coachee and potentially others in the school community

This definition draws substantial inspiration from Bachkirova, Cox and Clutterbuck (2018), who further assert that coaching can support staff across various stages in their careers, with school leaders playing a crucial role in endorsing the coaching culture through their own attitudes, language, and behaviours.

Empowering teachers: The heart of a coaching culture

Teachers are the most significant in-school factor influencing student outcomes. Empirical studies highlight the potential effectiveness of coaching in enhancing teachers’ practices, leading to improved student achievement. Additionally, an effective coaching culture can strengthen the sense of belonging and well-being among school staff, empowering them to navigate the density of challenges in education and foster productive collegial relationships.

In light of these potential positive outcomes, school leaders may acknowledge organisational-level challenges while weighing them up as acceptable collateral. They may prioritise the benefits that could result from cultivating an effective school-based coaching culture not only for individuals within their setting but also for the entire school community.

Navigating practical barriers

The realisation of an effective school-based coaching culture is not without its practical hurdles. Financial constraints, time limitations, competing priorities, and quite frankly, energy levels, all present significant challenges. Difficult compromises seem inescapable. Striking a balance between resource efficiency, efficacy at scale, and equitable access to coaching pose delicate dilemmas.

Innovative solutions, like implementing peer coaching programs or virtual coaching platforms, may need to be considered. These options could enable a school to capitalise on its current strengths and enhance the effectiveness of coaching initiatives, all while working within the stark reality of budgetary limitations and available resources.

What’s more, in a coaching culture that enhances self-efficacy, there may be tension-inducing divergence between the agendas of the individual and the school. A coaching culture may offer formative opportunities for critical thinking, where individuals can examine distinctions between what they actually feel and value, and what they perceive they should feel and value.

Whilst these introspective reflections could prompt a shift in frames of reference that benefits both the individual teacher and the school, alternatively they may result in a realisation that optimal next steps lie beyond the confines of the school community or even the educational profession.

The thorny question of coaching dynamics

While internal coaches, possessing valuable tacit knowledge of a school’s inner workings, may seem like a practical and appealing option, they also bring with them the risk of role conflicts and concerns surrounding trust and confidentiality. Moreover, the entanglement of coaching with monitoring procedures can exacerbate tensions.

Consider a scenario in which a teacher assumes the dual role of coach and line manager for their colleagues. This situation may give rise to conflicts of interest and confusion regarding whose interests take precedence. The effectiveness of coaching experiences may be compromised from the outset if colleagues feel unable to express themselves openly due to concerns about their coach’s role, especially if they also serve as their performance appraiser.

A thoughtful step towards empowerment

In the face of the many challenges of our current educational landscape, establishing a coaching culture remains a powerful step for school leaders aiming to empower staff. Achieving this involves careful consideration of the sustainability of practical implementation, balancing resource capacity with ethical notions of equity and equality of access. Leaders must prioritise creating conditions that encourage emotional engagement, respecting expressions of soul, seeking new perspectives, and welcoming diversity of thought.

While hardly a panacea for all educational challenges, a coaching culture, when thoughtfully implemented, holds the potential to foster transformative learning, empowering individuals to question normative assumptions, have opportunities for deep reflexivity and think critically about current practices.


Bachkirova, T., Cox,E. and Clutterbuck, D (2018) ‘Introduction’, in T. Bachkirova, E. Cox and D. Clutterbuck (eds) The Complete Handbook of Coaching, (3rd edn),London: Sage reference. pp. xxix – xlviii.

Blazar, D. and Kraft, M. (2017) ‘Teacher and Teaching Effects on Students’ Attitudes and Behaviors’, Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 39(1), pp. 146–170. Available at:

Hattie, J. (2012), Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, Routledge, Abingdon- on-Thames.

Hollweck, T. (2019) ‘ “I love this stuff!”: a Canadian case study of mentor-coach well-being’, International Journal for Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(4), pp. 325-344. Available at: DOI:10.1108/IJMCE-02-2019-0036

Lofthouse, R. (2019) ‘Coaching in education: a professional development process in formation’, Professional Development in Education, 45(1), pp. 33-45. Available at: DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2018.1529611 

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