George Lucas Educational Foundation
Instructional Coaching

5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches

Building strong ties with teachers is key to being able to support them in improving student outcomes. Hint: Keep some chocolate handy.

June 5, 2019
Teachers having an upbeat meeting
Courtney Hale / istock

A classroom teacher makes a dozen decisions a minute, keeps lists of to-dos that reach the double digits, and—as a result of all that work—rarely purposefully takes time to develop relationships with other teachers. This is why many of us who step into the role of instructional coach struggle to find that familiar productive feeling at first: We know that building relationships with teachers is essential, but we’re so accustomed to crossing 17 items off our to-do lists before 8 a.m. that a chat in the teachers’ lounge over a doughnut seems indulgent.

But the truth of the matter is, we can’t get anywhere with teachers unless they trust us and know we’re down-to-earth humans whose true goal is to support them and their students. So I have a few items to add to your list of tasks that will help you build the relationships you need to begin to impact teacher decisions and student growth.

5 Vital To-Dos for Instructional Coaches

1. Be vocal about the good you see: Teachers rarely get focused feedback on the practices they devote so much of their time to improving. Be constantly on the lookout for small moves your teachers are making that shift students, efforts that go above and beyond expectations, or relationships that are making the difference for students.

Highlight these positive moments for those teachers via face-to-face conversations, written notes, or emails—or, even better, emails on which you copy administrators. You might even make a goal for yourself to send two or three positive emails each week.

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2. Keep students at the center: This one sounds obvious, but some intentionality is needed to make this happen. At a workshop I attended last spring, education expert Rick Wormeli constantly reiterated that people only change if there is a moral imperative to change.

Therefore, if we see a place where we want to encourage change in our teachers, we coaches must make it all about the students. Teachers are motivated when they know that they’re impacting students in ways that matter.

What does this look like? Help teachers set specific, measurable goals. Are they looking to guide their students to persevere? Ask effective questions? After establishing the goal, follow up by asking what the goal might look like and sound like in the classroom. Constantly refer back to the goal and ask “What does that look like?” or “What does that sound like?” Use the answers to those questions in your coaching log. Be sure to keep bringing it back to the students to create a sense of urgency.

3. Eat lunch in the staff lounge: This might seem simple, but it can make a big impact on your relationships with teachers. As a coach with a flexible schedule, you may be tempted to work through lunch. You may feel guilty if you’re not dealing with 28 academic needs at every minute of the day, but lunch is not a time to put your head down in your office.

Lunch in the lounge is a time when you can hear about teachers’ personal lives and be seen as a regular human being with similar needs and issues in your life outside of school. It can also be a time when you talk shop if a teacher is expressing a desire to try something new or to problem-solve around an issue. You might also check in on how something you developed with a teacher is unfolding for students.

4. Keep a stock of chocolate in your office: If you’re stepping into an instructional coach role, you’ve probably been in education for a few years and know the power chocolate has to help stressed-out teachers regain their calm. If you keep a jar stocked, teachers will see your office as a refuge—a place to reflect, problem-solve, and recharge when needed.

Trust is built over time, and conversations over chocolate are a great way to start. Advertise this free chocolate in your newsletters—I guarantee you’ll get takers.

5. Ask for and respect end times: Saying that teachers are pressed for time is the understatement of the year. When you start any meeting, ask the teacher when they want to wrap up the conversation. Set the alarm on your phone for two minutes prior to the time your teacher has chosen. This allows both you and the teacher to take your minds off the clock and commit to focusing on the conversation. You may go over the allotted time on occasion—if you and the teacher both agree to do so—but the message that you respect teachers’ time will not be lost.

If you work to intentionally make these moves part of your routine, you’ll likely find that teachers become more open to having conversations about their practice and might even start to carve out more of their precious (and so very limited) time to meet with you. So start filling up your to-do list and feel productive about the important work you’re doing.

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