I frequently work with teachers who serve as heads of departments or team leaders. Sometimes, identified as middle level leaders. Often my focus is on creating a coaching culture among the staff. I propose that these teacher leaders model coaching, first by coaching each other, and then requesting that colleagues in their departments or teams coach them. Teacher leaders should be the “most coached” members of the staff.
As a group of teacher middle leaders in a recent session finished practicing a pre-conference with colleagues, these questions emerged.
One shared that her coaching partner was inviting her to observe a lesson around content that she had no knowledge of. She asked, “Would it be best for us to start coaching experiences within the department so that we have a rich content understanding?”
My Response- While there will be great value in department and PLC colleagues coaching each other, I suggest that’s it best to initiate first coaching experiences outside our areas of expertise. This helps a person new to coaching avoid slipping into “how I would teach this” and stay focused on gathering the observation focus that was agreed to in the pre-conference.
In the video, Do I need to be an expert to be a coach?, Nick Bosk presents a visual for understanding the coach’s role. He describes the client as the person in the driver’s seat of a car and the coach in the passenger’s seat. Coaching too strongly as an expert would be like grabbing the steering wheel. Not an effective approach. The coach may have strategies and information the client can use but the client needs to stay in control of the steering wheel.
If I observe something that the teacher can easily fix, should I point it out?
My response- Middle leaders often have some responsibility to provide mentoring support which differs from peer coaching.
The key to generating trust is to stay in the role that was established. If you completed a pre-conference around an agreed upon coaching focus. Keep the focus. Sometimes, because of an occurrence during the lesson, the teacher may stray from the focus to another issue. The coach may comfortably follow the teacher. Key to peer coaching is the teacher driving the focus. As a general guideline, if you are questioning yourself about raising an issue, don’t. Avoid using an observation from a coaching visit to address an issue in your mentoring role. If there is a concern/problem, it will most likely arise again.
What if you are in a coaching session and the teacher asks, “What would you do?”
My response- Proceed with caution. Anytime that I am responding to a request for a suggestion, I look to find out what the teacher is thinking. That helps me decide the appropriateness of my suggestion. If possible, I prefer to observe in the classroom and better understand what the teacher is dealing with before discussing options. Making suggestions without observation is like trying to coach a baseball player over the phone. The player tells you they keep striking out and you are trying to make suggestions without seeing them swing the bat.
Teaching and learning are complex. At least as complex as baseball. Offering suggestions too quickly dismisses an understanding of that complexity. When coaching, I am most comfortable when an idea for changing a practice or trying a strategy emerges for a coach/coachee conversation.
Another teacher leader reinforced this “suggestion giving” dilemma when she shared, “What do you do when a teacher asks you for a suggestion about a problem they are having and then don’t try your suggestion?”
My response- This reinforces my suggestion to go slow. Look to find out what is behind the teacher’s request. Why are they asking? Sometimes, the teacher doesn’t believe a solution is possible and is asking for suggestions that they can decide won’t work and thus can continue without changing anything.
My approach is to look for a commitment from the teacher to achieve a different outcome prior to offering a suggestion.
Example: Teacher states, “I believe reading aloud is an important component of reading workshop time, but I don’t use it often because the students don’t listen during the reading. They fidget and are seldom able to respond to questions I ask.”
Here are some questions I might respond with to understand and lead to a conversation around possible suggestions.
- What benefits do you believe reading aloud offers?
- Which of these benefits is most important to your students?
- Are these benefits important to all your students or more important to some?
- How much do you want to invest in making read-aloud lessons work effectively? Why?
My coaching goal is to create a partnership with the teacher focused on gaining the student success that she desires.