Instructional Coaching

How Instructional Specialists Can Build Meaningful Relationships Across Schools

These strategies can help educational specialists become allies and form supportive relationships with teachers, even across multiple campuses

June 21, 2024
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Being an educational specialist involves supporting multiple schools and being part of a district team. This can be a challenging dichotomy: You’re both in and out, one proverbial foot in a school while the other is elsewhere. 

Whether you’re supporting teachers as an instructional technology specialist, seeing small groups as an intervention specialist, or otherwise have “specialist” in your title, you’re juggling many necessary duties, usually without one designated learning community to call your own. To navigate this dynamic and connect the dots across tasks and schools, here are a few ways to engage with your campus(es). 

Engaging with Administrators

Principals have so many decisions and to-dos that it’s hard to add one more thing to their list. But connecting with the principal can make or break a specialist assignment. To ease their burden, do the heavy lifting before asking to meet. Find out the school’s goals, sometimes found on their website, and what they’re focused on for the year. Investigate initiatives they’re promoting, like student discourse, small group rotation, or new flat panels or projectors. Knowing this information before meeting with the principal shows your intentionality and thoughtfulness and can quickly move the conversation forward, toward your main objective. 

When meeting with the principal, clarify what they expect of you. Specifically, ask what your time there should or could look like, as well as details about your role. For example, if you’re an instructional technology specialist, what does integrating technology look like to this principal? What would they like to see? You’re a bridge between district plans and initiatives, and your partner is the principal. 

Together, pick one or two focus points at the beginning of the school year. Make it a priority for yourself to articulate your plan, progress, and upcoming action steps anytime you get to spend a moment with the principal, even when you’re walking with them down the hall. Wrap up your meetings with an email laying out your discussion. Clear and concise communication keeps work on track. 

You might also find out what the school’s theme is for the year and reference that theme (or include imagery/icons depicting it) in your initial correspondence, showing that you’re paying attention to details.

Building Meaningful Relationships

Getting to know staff members doesn’t mean telling them about you or your abilities. It means asking questions—many! As you meet new colleagues, ask what went well for them when they worked with the former specialist. Ask them what their ideal support would look like. Specialist positions can morph each school year, but asking these questions can help you dissect teachers’ expectations and make plans aligned with their goals. 

To make the most of teachers’ time, break down ideas/projects/initiatives into chunks. In the same way that cognitive load matters for students, we shouldn’t pile tons of information onto teachers, who already have very full plates. Instead, work beside them as a coach, whether or not that word is in your title. Rather than directing or giving advice, consider how to lend a hand; we’re all professionals working together. 

The Advice Trap, by Michael Bungay Stanier, speaks to this idea and is an excellent resource for anyone in a teacher support position. Even with the best intentions, advice can feel condescending. Connect your work to teachers’ initiatives and evaluation tools. What are they working on already that you can support? 

Building relationships is an authentic act. Look for connections. Be more interested in who teachers are than in what you can do for them or what they can do for you. 

Managing Multiple Locations

As a specialist, I’ve been assigned anywhere from three to eight schools. Currently, I visit three schools throughout the week. Because physical space is an important facilitator of connection, it’s important to think carefully about it when cycling through multiple locations.

Meet with the principal and discuss how your visibility is imperative to connecting with teachers. You’ll most likely be in classrooms and meeting with teachers for part of your day, but when you’re at your computer, be in the spaces where teachers can see and find you consistently, like the library, the professional learning community (PLC) meeting room, or the teacher workroom. Last year, in one school that I supported, I was assigned a classroom at the end of the hall, all alone. This year, I requested a seat in the PLC room. The difference has been astounding. So many conversations and plans have happened due to proximity. 

You might also invest in a work bag and supplies that you enjoy. Since you don’t have a space that is all yours, create a mobile space just for you. 

Celebrating Wins

Any time the teachers you’re supporting implement new strategies or notice a shift in data or engagement based on your discussions, celebrate them. Share a post on X (formerly Twitter), send a note, or shout them out to their leaders. I email the school’s leadership team monthly with updates about action steps. I include mini-certificates that highlight teachers’ progress. For example, I added a certificate for the “I say I’m not techy, but I’ve been using technology to engage my students” teacher! Spreading positivity about progress boosts morale.

Across buildings, a specialist can help connect the dots—not because teachers can’t connect the dots themselves, but because teachers are asked to connect so many. As specialists, let’s support them in a way that celebrates teachers as professionals and that saves them time and reduces their cognitive load. Connect your work to theirs in ways that move you both forward.

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