Coaching as Helping | Steve Barkley

Coaching as Helping

A recent conversation with an instructional coach raised the issue of coaches using the word “help.” In my coaching, it is a word I tend to consciously avoid unless the teacher uses the word first. So, I tend not to ask, “How can I help?” If a teacher approaches me and says, ”I was hoping you might be able to help me with this” my conscious avoidance of “help” diminishes.

In Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction, Jim Knight identifies truths about “helping.” Here are his five truths along with my thinking on each:

1. People often do not know that they need help.

In my work, I label these folks unconsciously unskilled. They don’t know that they don’t know. All of us are unaware of some skill set that we are missing. Coaches create awareness. This could be done with data, video clips, modeling, observations notes, student work, etc. When we cause those whom we are coaching to become aware, we often produce discomfort. That discomfort can be the motivation for change. (A stack of photos led to my decision to start and maintain a weight plan!)
Many leaders find it difficult to bring the discomfort of consciousness to staff members who are doing a “good” job. Being aware that my students could achieve more can make me uncomfortable with continuing my current practice and thus start my exploration of alternatives. The push to virtual teaching during the quarantine forced many of us to deal with the discomfort of being unsuccessful in our early tech approaches and left with no option but to “plow through” new learning that some of us had been avoiding.

2. If people feel “one down” they will resist help.

Knight states that skillful coaches create equality between themselves and their collaborating teachers. That was my learning early in coaching. If I ask, “How can I help” it can appear that I am on a step above, offering a hand down to the teacher. I really like the idea of side-by-side colleagues working together to achieve an agreed-upon goal such as increased student perseverance in math problem-solving. I can have knowledge and insight that I share with the teacher. She has knowledge and insight (often about the students and past experiences) that she shares with me. Together we form a hypothesis about teacher action that might bring about student learning behaviors that lead to our goal of student learning. Implementation of our strategy decision builds teacher empowerment and openness to continued growth and coaching.

I have advised administrators who are hiring instructional coaches to look for candidates who are more excited about what they can learn by coaching than excited about sharing what they know. In “Learning The Art of Helping: Building Blocks and Techniques” Mark Young states that, “effective helpers make reflection and personal growth part of their lifestyles.”

3. Criticism is taken personally.

When you suggest that a person changes what one is doing, there is an inherent tug on the ego (“I’m not good enough”). In my pre-conferences, I focus on identifying traits and values that are important to the teacher. I look for those items during the observation and share them during the post-conference to build teacher ego. This often sets the stage for the teachers to be vulnerable enough to do the thinking necessary for self-discovery. Effective coaches get an assignment from a teacher in a pre-conference to collect observation data that often leads the teacher a decision to seek a change to a greater teaching/learning impact. (This is why I see the pre-conference as the most critical step in the coaching process)

“The effective helper is both creative and intellectually competent. A renaissance person who appreciates both the science and the art of helping. The effective helper has specialized knowledge of human relationships, human motivation, and human development and understands how to create change. They have an insatiable curiosity to learn and grow in their skills and knowledge.”

– Mark Young, Learning The Art of Helping: Building Blocks and Techniques

4. If someone else does the thinking for them, people will resist.

I use “who is doing the thinking” as an indicator of the difference between evaluation/supervision and coaching conferences. Evaluators/supervisors observe, identify, analyze, problem-solve, and suggest while the teacher listens. Coaches observe, question, paraphrase, ask “Why?”, and “What do you think?” Thinking is empowering…asking me to think is uplifting.

5. People aren’t motivated by other people’s goals.

Ideally, coaches stop outside the door of the classroom, take off and hang up their agendas, put on the teacher’s agenda, and enter. Understanding the agenda of the teacher in pre-conference conversations allows the coach to look at the classroom through the teacher’s lens. For example, the secondary literacy coach avoids stating to the math teacher, ”All teachers are teachers of reading ” (coach’s agenda). She instead identifies the difficult vocabulary that the math text uses, allows the math teacher to describe how students struggle with word problems and to share a desire to find strategies to increase student success (teacher’s goal). The reading coach’s goal surfaced as a connection to the math teacher’s goals. A partnership!

Podcast: Five Characteristics of Effective Helpers

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