Instructional Coaching

4 Tips for Instructional Coaches

Help new and veteran teachers improve their practice by implementing a few simple strategies.

August 23, 2019
asiseeit / iStock

As a coach, I have worked with teachers to help them become better educators, but I have also coached coaches to become better facilitators so that they can, in turn, better coach their teachers. A wall hanging behind my desk outlines the following key strategies that can help coaches improve their work: 

Go Slow to Go Fast

As coaches, we must go slow to go fast. Coaches come across dozens of strategies in books and social media. I tend to bookmark the ones I find interesting with teachers in mind who might want to use them, but these methods are effective only if they align with the school culture. Learning the culture of a school includes not only learning about its teachers, but learning from its teachers. Doing our homework on the past tried practices of a district gives insight into what might be effective in the future. 

Offering ideas is valuable, but relationship building must come first. It takes time to build trust. In my first year coaching, a teacher was visibly upset and stated that he felt overwhelmed by too many initiatives and should just retire. I asked him to identify the area in which he felt most comfortable, and he immediately responded, “Technology.” We set aside other new initiatives and focused on technology until his comfort level reached a place where new strategies could be effective. Going slow to go fast means meeting teachers where they are and acknowledging how they feel. 

Listen for the Request in the Complaint

As coaches, we hear complaints from teachers, administrators, students, and other coaches. While a collection of complaints can be disheartening, there are benefits to hearing them because each complaint contains an underlying request.  

One common complaint is "I can't get through all of this curriculum. This is impossible." The underlying request might be that they need more time or planning. Perhaps the teacher is overwhelmed with other tests or assignments. In this instance, I often ask teachers to choose the top three items they would teach right now if they feel short on time. Posing a question about possible solutions can move the teacher toward offering a few of his or her own ideas for what an ideal solution might be for that problem. 

The underlying request of the complaint about the curriculum being overwhelming might be that a teacher needs guidance on planning. A coach who understands the complaint as a request can then facilitate planning by offering a visual aid such as a calendar to break down the curriculum into manageable work. Probing a complaint with tailored questions can help move the conversation to a productive opportunity for growth. 

Assume Positive Intentions

What we tell ourselves may matter as much as the conversations we have with each other. Our negative thoughts about a meeting or someone before we even meet them can influence the outcome. Tap into your own assumptions and try to balance them with a more positive frame of mind. 

New coaches may assume that veteran teachers won’t want or need their help. Believing instead that every teacher is receptive to coaching is a simple way to establish a framework for success. 

Employ Effective Listening

I have long admired this quote from Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard: “It seems so simple... to be able to deeply listen to another without trying to fix it... to just be there with them, it is transformational in itself.” When we are able to identify the request in the complaint, we must also remember not to offer solutions immediately but to instead actively listen. 

When people offer a complaint and you meet it with a possible solution, they may signal that they are not yet ready for a solution by repeating the complaint. Determining when to offer solutions and when to just listen is part of the skill of a good coach. 

Teachers may express frustration at the outset if they are given a new directive or responsibility. In that moment, active listening demonstrates an understanding that the information they just received may be overwhelming and frustrating. Offering time to process new information shows teachers that you value what they value. Once you have validated their viewpoint through listening, consider what types of questions might be useful to move toward solutions. 

Active listening is not just for complaints. When a teacher shares a successful moment, avoid piggybacking. For example, if a teacher shares details about an excellent lesson he just delivered, resist the temptation to share your similar experience. Instead, take the opportunity to ask him another question, and listen for more details about what made his experience positive. 

Effective coaching requires active listening, deciphering needs, and then building capacity based on the strengths of teachers. By going slow, listening actively for the request in every complaint, and assuming positive intentions, coaches can better support and engage teachers in their important work.

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