George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I'm currently writing a book on instructional coaching teams, and although it'll be available in about a year, one coach recently emailed me with this plea: "I'm excited to hear [about your book], but I need it now! I'm really struggling with the teams I'm coaching. Can you throw me a few tidbits?" Yes, I can, and here they are.

It all boils down to trust. I know this is big and nebulous and can feel daunting, but you've got to pay attention to levels of trust and you've got to intentionally build it. It can be very, very, painfully slow to build trust in a group of adults -- but it can be done, and you as the facilitator have to believe it can be done.

When I first coached teams and heard that I needed to build trust, I thought, but how? How is this done? Trust grows in tiny little ways when people are open and authentic, when they ask real questions and listen to each other, when they share their stories and others hold space for those stories, and when they do things together and those things go well. So create space for speaking and listening, ensure that everyone is participating, and then give them something to do.

There are so many tasks that teachers can engage in together -- just make sure it's structured, purposeful, relevant, and doable. When we do things together that are new and challenging (but within our zone of proximal development), our brains actually produce hormones that make us feel good and feel closer to each other. We see each other's strengths, skills, and competence. That's trust growing. Do whatever you can to pave the path for trust to flourish and then be patient. It takes time.

Return to purpose. I'm almost ready to declare (without hard data) that the majority of teams struggle because they aren't clear on why they exist or what they're charged to do. As a facilitator, it's our job to clarify purpose and raise it, integrate it, and reference it all the time. Now, it can be really hard to identify why a team exists or what it's supposed to do. That might take some research and conversation with others. But when we don't know what we're doing together (except for sitting through meetings) or we have different understandings and beliefs about what we're doing together, there's going to be conflict or disengagement or just a lack of direction.

Purpose needs to be connected to a school's mission, vision, and goals. When there isn't alignment and correlation, again, we can get lost. Because when we're sitting in meetings, even if we trust and like each other, we need to know why we're there. We need to know how our work or learning or conversation will connect to something bigger, greater, beyond the immediate. That "thing" that we need to connect with (but which we may not recognize) is the school's mission or vision or goals: the big things that we are hopefully all on board with.

You have a lot of power. You, the facilitator or coach, can have a tremendous impact on what happens in a team. A couple years ago, I wrote this blog which describes some of the skills and strategies that a facilitator needs. This skill set is extensive; it's really hard work to facilitate groups of adult learners -- and it's also that which most of us never have had training in. I know of very few coaches or facilitators who have ever received professional development in facilitation. I say this to point out that while you can have a lot of power in a team, you may not have had the skill development to do so. But these are skills you can learn and practice and refine.

Don't give up. I have been working with a group that was presenting some unique and new challenges for me. My internal critic yelled at me: "How can you write a book about coaching teams when you can't even coach this one?" I told her to be quiet and that I wasn't giving up. Over and over, I showed up to work with this group and charged on with our learning and work together, modifying it so that I could get everyone's buy-in, shifting the responsibility onto them, inviting them to be vulnerable and take risks, to share their stories, to explore new ideas. And then it happened! They opened up and started sharing their fears and concerns, they asked meaningful questions, and they started learning together.

And to be honest, it happened sooner than I thought it would. I was prepared for the long haul; I thought it could take a year. But it didn't. And I think that was in part because I knew they could do it -- and I knew that I could facilitate a meaningful, collaborative learning space. In the past I might have given up -- I might have started mentally and emotionally checking out (that's what I do when I'm frustrated and stumped by my lack of skills) but not this time.

This time I remembered what I'd learned in the past and remembered that people can change and that they want to connect and they want to learn. And that's what happened. So even if you're coaching a team that feels stuck and if you're feeling frustrated, don't give up. Forge onward, ever onward.

I hope those tidbits help a little. I've got another 85,000 words to say on this topic, so hold on and I'll share those soon. In the meantime, readers, please post your tips for coaching teams in the comments section below.

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Rachael Toy's picture
Rachael Toy
8th Grade math and physical science teacher

I love this article. I especially connected with your reflection of not having the skills when you needed them. So the question is- Besides my own reflection and experiences, where do I go to continue to get PD and become well educated in my coaching skills.

Garrett Munro's picture
Garrett Munro
Teacher, trainer, student, gad fly

Perfect! I love this topic and you offer a really useful and needed perspective on coaching teachers and building community. Can't wait for the book!

I just returned from Shanghai were I ran a workshop on building team culture with staff and students, drawing from many similar ideas and principles, and applying some different theories:

check it:

screen-cast of an first time run through:

Shanell Lee's picture
Shanell Lee
2nd grade teacher from Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Great article. I can't wait for the book.

Sean_Birmingham's picture

There are countless points made in this article that apply to my team. I am a Special Education teacher and I would love if my team could be granted more time to collaborate. I certainly agree about the point made about adults having all the power in a collaborative environment. It can be difficult to reflect with colleagues if we as colleagues are not willing to take the perspective of others into account. At times, it can be difficult to avoid a power struggle. Thus, the more experience teaching teams have with collaboration, the more effective they will become. The points you made about reflecting upon purpose are particularly insightful to me. Reflecting upon purpose can help educational teams to move past their differences and potential power struggles in order to establish a unified goal for themselves and the greater good of their students.

Cynthia Banks-Obinabo's picture

Good article.Three things I would like to say about professional development. First keeping in mind that teachers don't have much time to devote to irrelevant topics,the need for the presenter/facilitator to be specific and get to the point quickly. So I recommend groups with common needs and interests for maximum participation. For example, all first grade teachers have common goals.In a meeting with first grade teachers the topic should be directly related to the current needs of the first grade teacher. Teachers learn best from small discussion groups and then a communal sharing of ideas at the end.
2. The workshop or seminars should not try to cover many topics but cover the topic at hand very well. Teachers love to make things that they can teach their students to help them learn better. So without any 'hands on' activity the teacher will feel that he/she did not learn anything new. Role playing can be used even in showing teachers how to effectively incorporate technology in the classroom.Teachers left with a list of websites and handouts on how to do things are seldom going to have time to read and follow through. So an effective workshop is one where the teacher actually learns by doing and practicing the skill she is required to implement in her classroom.
3. At the beginning of each workshop, each teacher should be given a chance to explain in a short paragraph what he/she already knows and does with the topic and then if he or she has already mastered the topic the facilitator is presenting, he/she can be utilized in being a group leader. If not those teachers will become frustrated and think 'What a waste of my time'. Not that the presenter was inefficient or the topic was not important but that he or she could have utilized that time in a better way. Remember 'time' is of the essence. The presenter should not take the teacher's lack of enthusiasm personal.
In conclusion, for growth ,mutual respect and trust, facilitators should keep in mind that the teachers are mentally assessing each work shop based on 'how much did I learn,that will be of use to me in my class in the time I spent away from my class?.

LWTaylor's picture

I especially appreciate the point regarding "inviting constructive dialogue and dissent." I have participated in many high-priority teams where individuals are too fearful of disagreement. When a team member tries to offer a different opinion, the other team members become uncomfortable and look to bring everyone back to agreement, rather than recognizing differing opinions and ideas as opportunities to learn from one another and build a stronger, more knowledgeable perspective. To my mind, true innovation and positive change does not come from agreement, they are a consequence of sharing differing opinions and the careful consideration and assimilation of diverse perspectives and knowledge.

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