Difficult Conversations for Instructional Coaches | Steve Barkley
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Approaches to Difficult Conversations with Teachers for Instructional Coaches

I was triggered to write this blog after listening to a podcast posted by Coach Better. The hosts along with four instructional coaches explored the question: “What are the best approaches to have difficult conversations or give difficult feedback to teachers?” Take a listen and compare their thoughts with yours.

Here is some of my thinking related to difficult conversations.

One of the first questions to consider is: Have you set the expectations that identify that your feedback is appropriate?

Justin Baeder, from The Principal Center, interviewed  Jennifer Abrams to discuss her book, Having Hard Conversations.

She stated, “I think even from the get-go, before one begins to consider having a hard conversation, you need to determine whether you’ve been clear about the expectations that you are working with or under so that there is clarity of expectation from the beginning. Then, the hard conversation has a foundation upon which to even take place. That’s way before (we hope) the hard conversation even occurs.”

One illustration of this process is in establishing expectations and roles from evaluation, supervision, mentoring, and peer coaching activities. What happens in each of these roles? What can a teacher expect and not expect?

Observing Roles Chart

How does the observer’s role change in each of these? What responsibilities does the teacher have in each activity? Many administrators and teacher leaders have different roles at different times. How does a teacher know which role the observer is in at any given time?

An instructional coach (IC) can function as a “peer coach”, responding to a request from the teacher for observation and feedback. On another occasion the IC is more in the role of a mentor or technical coach providing feedback the teacher may not have “requested” on district data or technical feedback related to a building wide professional development effort. In some cases, the IC can have a role very close to supervision. This occurs when an administrator suggests to a struggling teacher that he seek support from the IC.

It’s much easier for the IC, who may be in each of these roles at different times, to build trust when:

  • The staff knows that all three roles are in the IC job description.
  • Everyone knows the responsibilities of the IC, teacher, and principal in each role.
  • Teachers know which role the IC is in when working with her.

Abrams establishes that identifying the expectations at the onset of a relationship paves the way for holding difficult conversations when needed. I would add a component which is getting a commitment to the expectations.

In a peer coaching scenario, the pre-conference with the teacher should clearly establish the type of feedback the teacher is expecting and has committed to receive. A teacher wondering about the use of cooperative groups, agrees in the pre-conference that the coach will record student talk observed in groups when the teacher isn’t present. Should this talk be mostly “off task” the door for difficult feedback is open.

In more of a mentoring scenario during a school-wide workshop on morning meetings, the coach presents an observation tool that will be used to provide feedback to teachers as they implement the process in their classrooms. Teachers are asked to schedule an observation in the next month. Some teachers may ask the coach to model a meeting in their classrooms. Best case scenario, the coach has the teacher observe the modeling with the same observation tool the coach will use later. This establishes expectation and commitment.

two people conferencing

Even in the more difficult scenario where the administration has “pushed” the teacher to work with a coach, upfront conversations should establish expectations and commitments. I suggest these questions are part of that conversation:

“I understand the principal wants us to work together. What does she want you to do?” (If the teacher suggests she doesn’t know, the answer to that question must be found before proceeding.)

The next question, “Are you planning to work on the changes she wants?” Even a begrudgingly positive response here establishes the opportunity to build an expectation and commitment for feedback which is informative not evaluative.

One last element that makes these difficult conversations more comfortable (never easy) is if a history has been established that conferences with a coach are conversational, a dialogue, not a report. This means coaches are most often asking open, inquiry type questions that engage the teacher in reflection and deeper thinking. The coach often paraphrases the teacher’s response encouraging more teacher talk. It is easier for the teacher to hear what might be discouraging feedback in a conversation (versus a report) where the coach can be empathetic, encouraging and supportive in moving to a more successful outcome.

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