Instructional Coaching

Navigating Challenging Communication as an Instructional Coach

Coaching requires clear, honest, and respectful communication in order to catalyze change in the classroom.

October 4, 2023
SolStock / iStock

As an external school consultant, I have the mission to hasten school improvement by providing an outside perspective on what may be happening within the walls of a school and to offer suggestions for growth related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In-house instructional coaches play a similar role.

However, teachers sometimes have legitimate reasons for resisting advice from others, particularly if that advice feels harsh or judgmental. If a coach comes across as all-knowing or lacks interest and curiosity, their affect will lead teachers to become even more resistant to change. Coaching should never be about assigning right and/or wrong to a situation; instead, teacher and coach should work collaboratively to adopt instructional best practices.  

But doing so can present challenges. Sometimes, hard truths do need to surface in order to make change. Given that most coaches serve in a nonevaluative capacity, how can they share hard truths with those they’re advising—and have that feedback be taken seriously? 

I use the following strategies to navigate these tensions while maintaining rapport with teachers. 

First, Be Curious—Then Clear and Concise

Before stepping into any classroom, I often gather the full team of teachers whom I’ll be coaching and ask them, in small groups, to write down their questions, hopes, and fears regarding our work. Then I have them walk around the room and review others’ thoughts, placing a sticker near anything that resonates.

This activity helps me see where there is genuine interest in improving an element of practice, what concerns manifest, and where I can align my support. Rather than impose directives, I also invite teachers to brainstorm next steps. Difficult news is often received better when it’s about something we ourselves are passionate about improving, and this exercise helps to foster a sense of camaraderie that can carry over into potentially challenging conversations.

During my recent Have a Life Teaching podcast episode with Ryan Burke, senior partner at Leadership and Design, we discussed making sure one’s feedback is framed as an observation, not a judgment. For example, if you observe sleeping students and assume they’re disengaged, ask the teacher if they notice the situation, and what they think about it, before assuming disengagement. Who’s to say that you, as coach, are correct in your assumptions?

Give-and-take conversations grounded in inquiry can enhance interpersonal relationships between teachers and coaches that, in turn, promote common understandings and increase teachers’ openness to having difficult conversations down the line. 

You might also base your reflections and feedback around the Danielson Framework for Teaching and/or other quality rubrics; this will further ensure that coaching feedback is based on performance data and is clear and graspable for teachers.

Be Empathetic and Solutions Driven

Teaching is hard; we must continually reinvent our teaching practices to meet the needs of the students we serve. Sometimes, educators need an acknowledgment of this fact in order to move forward. Coaches can improve their relationships with teachers by sharing their own challenges and struggles that they faced in the classroom. By sharing personal defeat-to-victory stories, instructional coaches can not only demonstrate empathy but model how to stay the course in the face of challenge. 

To facilitate this exchange, I often use the STAR method, a common interviewing technique, when laying out how I responded to similar situations. The framework encompasses a situation, task, action, and result. I describe the scenario, then mention specific tools that I used to reach the desired outcome. For example, after sharing about my struggles sustainably differentiating instruction for the varied student groupings in my class, I supply teachers with the student achievement chart that my student teachers and I use at Brooklyn College when we co-plan and evaluate differentiated lessons.

Instructional coaches can draw upon the resources and tools they’ve used in planning, delivering, and evaluating their own instruction to further fuel teachers’ practice. 

Be Professional, Honest, and Credible

Recently, a teacher asked me—in a public group setting—why he should listen to me. Instructional coaches, be forewarned: This will happen to you, so you should consider how you will hone your communication skills to address teachers’ varied responses to hard truths. 

Because instructional coaches can anticipate pushback, coaches should consider how they will respond professionally but honestly in advance of these confrontations. I say to my critics that they should not listen to me personally but consider the research behind what I might be saying. I avoid qualifying language like “in my opinion” or “I’m not your boss, but,” as it can signal uncertainty. Instead, I back up my assertions with research and evidence to establish credibility. And I remind those I coach about our common goals: improving teaching and learning for all through collaborative, meaningful engagement.

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  • Teacher Collaboration

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