• Cal Wysocki

Establishing a Productive Coaching Relationship (Or: How to Avoid Common Beginning-of-Year Mistakes)

The school year has undeniably begun! The weather is cooling. Weekends are consumed with football. Pumpkin-flavored everything is everywhere. And teachers’ excitement from the first few days of school is settling in for the long haul.

Much of how that excitement settles will revolve around how well teachers believe they will be supported this school year. Start the year of on a strong note and the first week highs can drive teacher morale throughout the year. Make a misstep and you’ve got disgruntled teachers chattering in the teachers’ lounge before October rolls around – not to mention stagnant teacher growth and an uphill battle to improve student learning.

Here are few a principles to follow when establishing a productive coaching relationship with teachers early in the year so you can ride that wave to sustained development and professional growth throughout the year:

1. Get the order right.

Repeat after me:

I work for my teachers; they don’t work for me.

I work for my teachers; they don’t work for me.

I work for my teachers; they don’t work for me.

This is the order you need to get right. If you don’t believe this and see your teachers as minions to do your bidding in their classrooms, you’ve misunderstood your role and the importance of it. Teachers drive student learning, not you. You drive teacher development so that they can drive student learning. This is true even if (especially if!) you are a full-time administrator and have direct managerial authority over your teachers. It’s never not true in this relationship. (See principle #2 for more on this.)

Believing this will lead you to take really different actions with the teachers you coach. Not only will this mindset help you form a strong working relationship with your teachers by building trust and respect, but it will help you understand what it really means to “manage through layers” to drive results.

It also sets you up to…

2. Find the Goldilocks Zone.

There’s a happy medium that characterizes strong instructional coaching: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Clearly I’m not referring to porridge here. The happy medium lies on the mentor–boss spectrum.

As an instructional coach, you are more than a “mentor” to your teachers. You don’t just offer advice or suggestions, providing solace in times of need; you provide tangible, constructive actions that teachers must take to improve their practice.

Simultaneously, you are less than a “boss” to them. Depending on your actual position in the school (like whether or not you are a full-time administrator, carry a partial teaching load, or have authority to make high-stakes personnel decisions), you may not even wield boss authority – but even if you can, you shouldn’t. (At least not as a primary coaching strategy!) Teachers need to implement changes in their classroom because of the benefits it will inevitably result in for their students’ learning, not because you gave them a directive. (See principle #4 for more on this.)

Productive coaching relationships aren’t built on authority. They’re built on trust, respect, and honesty. Being clear with your teachers that you work for them, they don’t work for you is a good start to establishing this trust. But so is being clear that you’ll expect them to grow and improve over the course of the year and that’s why you’ll push them harder than they’ve been pushed before.

The Goldilocks Zone can be really difficult to find, but being aware of where you are on the mentor-boss spectrum can help to adjust your approach. You’ll know you’re there when your teachers come up to you to tell you about a class you didn’t observe and they say, “You’d be disappointed by my teaching today…” (No one ever said THAT to their boss! But no one ever said that to their helpful colleague down the hall either…)

3. Commit. And keep your word.

Teachers want to know what they can expect from you and they expect consistency in meeting those expectations.

If you overpromise, you will quickly become inconsistent; trust and respect break down soon after.

If you under-promise (hoping to over-deliver), teachers won’t see you as a valuable resource because they’re expecting it to go away at any moment, even if you’re providing them with really strong support and development.

Establish clear commitments and hold them sacred. But don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you can’t actually see every teacher every week, don’t say that you can. If you know that tailoring how you communicate your feedback to each teacher’s individual preferences will be impossible (which it will be), don’t say that you can. If you know you won’t be able to maintain sending a weekly summary email with positive shout-outs for various teachers, don’t say that you can.

On the flip side, ambiguity is just as bad. “I hope to get around to every classroom at least twice a month” already sounds like a promise you can’t keep. “I’m here to support and develop you” sounds like you don’t know what your job is either.

Make a list of what you can commit to. Run them past your principal and ask for help in maintaining them so he or she can hold you accountable to meeting them (and insulate you from other fires that may pop up and jeopardize what you’ve committed to). Once you’ve got the assurance that you can honor your commitments, share them with your teachers.

And don’t break them…

4. Coach for the 98% of the time you’re not there.

The simple fact of the matter is that your teachers are in their classrooms 100% of the time, and your presence in their classroom barely even shows up on the radar. If you’re very lucky, you may see somewhere between 5-10% of each teacher’s instructional time, but you’re probably more in the neighborhood of 2-3%.

Whatever the break down is, you’re barely there compared to them. As soon as you internalize what this time discrepancy actually means, your actions begin to change.

Take, for example, this common coaching phrase:

Coach: The next time I’m in your classroom, I’d like to see you [implement this exact thing that we just discussed].

Everything hinges on you being in their classroom to verify that the change has been implemented. But even if you observe whatever action being correctly implemented, that doesn’t mean that it’s being implemented consistently or that this teacher has developed. Did they just do it because you were in the room? Or did they fundamentally improve their instruction by incorporating this practice to drive student learning and not just because it’s what you wanted to see?

Coaching for the 98% of time might sounds like this:

Coach: If you [implement this exact thing that we just discussed] well, how will we see that in your students’ actions and learning?

Teacher: [Some observable link between the correctly implemented practice and its effect on students.]

Coach: Exactly. That’s what we’re after here. Look for that when you [implement this exact thing that we just discussed] because that’s its larger purpose. I’ll be looking for [the observable link between the correctly implemented practice and its effect on students].

What’s this teacher going to do the next time they’re teaching their kids? Implement the change to see if it’s producing the desired effect. Monitor the quality of that implementation by constantly looking for its impact. Come racing up to you after school saying, “I did it and it totally worked! Thank you! I can’t wait for you to see it in action!” or “I tried it and I don’t think I did it very well because… Can you come see me quickly tomorrow for like 5-10 minutes?”

Give your teachers the lens they need to monitor their own development – that way they always feel like you’re in their room with them. You’ve just extended your coaching reach by a factor of 50.

5. Win the championship, not the game.

Can you imagine a Major League Baseball team going undefeated en route to winning the World Series? 162 regular season wins plus another 11 wins in the post season. That’s preposterous! In fact, the best regular season ever belongs to the 1906 Chicago Cubs with a 116-36 record…and they LOST the World Series!

Routinely, teams win the World Series with under 90 wins during the regular season. That’s a win percentage hovering right around 55%. The year is long and the variables are many. Sound like something else we’re all familiar with? Like a school year perhaps?

Now, I’m not advocating that we should be content “losing” just under half of the days in our classrooms and ignore how many “wins” we’re accumulating. Lots of “wins” are needed across a year! But I am suggesting that we get comfortable with the idea that losses happen and we need to coach to win the championship and not every single game.

At the start of the year in establishing a coaching relationship with your teachers, they need to know that you expect that “loses” will happen and it doesn’t signal the end of the world or the imminent doom of the children we’ve failed that day. Like the manager of a World Series champion baseball team (who, symbolically enough, also wear the same uniforms as their players on the field), set up the relationship with the notion that it’s not your role to jump into the game and win it for them if you sense a loss coming. That’s is a sure-fire way to have a small number of teachers monopolize ALL of your time and burn you out in ways you’ve never been burned out before. It’s not your job to win every game for all of your teachers.

Your role is to coach, analyze player performance and the causes behind wins and losses, make strategic adjustments, set up the conditions to produce more wins and a championship season. Losses will happen and are to be learned from, not shamed.

These principles should continue to guide your coaching relationships throughout the year, but they are especially important to establish early on with your teachers. The trust, respect, and follow-through that results when you set up your work in this way will pay huge dividends in teacher development and increased student learning. (And buy you some leeway for later in the year when you miss something… No one’s perfect!)

Good luck with the start of the school year!

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