One topic that often comes up with coaches, especially those new to coaching or new to a school, is how to engage teachers in the coaching process.
Some schools have clearly defined and communicated coaching processes with expectations for coaches and teachers regarding their interactions and outcomes and a strong coaching culture. This can be especially true for schools with literacy, math, and instructional coaches where student data and curricular goals provide a focus for the teachers and coaches to collaborate.
However, what if a coach is in a school where their work with teachers is more loosely defined and the expectations for working with a coach are more relaxed? For those new to coaching or new to a school with this environment, coaches first questions might be “Who do I work with?”, “How do I initiate coaching conversations?”, “What do we focus on?”, etc.
One of the main pieces of advice shared for this situation is to start by “working with the willing”. This is basically a strategy for coaches to communicate their roles with the staff, discuss areas to focus on with team leaders and administrators, share resources and ideas, offer voluntary professional learning opportunities, build relationships, and from there cultivate coaching opportunities with teachers and teams that are interested. This is all part of building trust and confidence in how the coach can provide productive and meaningful support to teachers and help develop a coaching culture.
Often the approach of “working with the willing” can be very effective in getting coaching working in a school but coaches should not stay in this mode indefinitely. Eventually they need to move beyond the comfort and ease that can develop when working with the same people and teams that are open to the support.
One of my go-to coaching resources is Coaching Matters by Joellen Killion, Chris Bryan, and Heather Clifton. In their chapter on Teacher-coach relationships, they address the topic of teacher readiness for coaching and how some teachers are reluctant to engage in coaching for a variety of reasons including previous negative experiences, a gap in their perception and the reality of what a coaches role is at their school, being self-conscious about perceived deficiencies, being reluctant to share about their practice, even lack of time or capacity to collaborate with a coach. (On a side note, please be very careful about using terms like “resistant” when referring to teachers who may not be ready for coaching.)
For a coach, it would be easy to avoid engaging with teachers who don’t seem ready to work with a coach. The key word is “seem”. If a coach avoids trying to engage with a teacher based on assumptions about readiness for coaching, it can convey to others that the coach is not willing to support all teachers or is only interested in working with teachers and teams who have similar interests and goals.
According to the authors of Coaching Matters, coaches should be supported to “develop an understanding of the causes of reluctance to coaching on the part of teachers so that they can better understand and meet teachers where they are and provide support and encouragement when needed.”
How can we address “teacher readiness for coaching” with those who appear to be reluctant?
Here are four strategies to consider when moving beyond ‘working with the willing’…
This could start with simply being cordial and friendly. Work on building relationships. Also, ask for advice, input, and even feedback. This could be with an individual, a team, or even a department or school-wide survey. It is imperative that these engagements are authentic and in context.
Take advantage of any opportunity to listen deeply and ask clarifying or probing questions to help you build your understanding of the teacher’s experience, values, perspectives, priorities, and interests. This could uncover areas of concern around ability, confidence, or capacity that can help inform you how to move forward and potentially lead to action with this teacher.
Do your research in what content areas and curricular units the teacher will be covering and look for potential ‘entry points’ for inquiry and discussion regarding teaching and learning. As some teachers may not be sure where to even start working with a coach, being proactive can alleviate some the anxiety about choosing a focus themselves.
As coaches, we can be hard on ourselves about getting all teachers engaged in a coaching experience. Just like with students, we don’t always see the results of our efforts right away. We have to balance our efforts with engaging teachers and with respecting them as professionals. If we push too hard, if we are not authentic in our efforts, their readiness will decline even more.
“Working with the willing” is an effective strategy for teachers to build a culture of coaching in a school but it has its limitations. Coaches must take the initiative to step out of their comfort zone and engage teachers who may need support in stepping out of theirs. This involves coaches being reflective on their own practice and taking steps to differentiate their approach and interactions with teachers. It will take some effort but the potential growth for both the teacher and the coach will be worth it.
Please share your questions, comments, ideas and resource recommendations regarding teacher-coach relationships in the comments below or via Twitter @edurolearning and #coachbetter.
Watch the 5 Min Fri Episode
- Coaching Matters (2nd Edition) by Joellen Killion, Chris Bryan, & Heather Clifton
- Teacher-coach relationships: An excerpt from Coaching Matters by Joellen Killion, Cindy Harrison, Chris Bryan, and Heather Clifton
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