America loves a good coaching story. Before Ted Lasso and Roy Kent captured our hearts, we idolized Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Coach Boone in Remember the Titans and Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own. The story that someone believes in our potential and can help us become better versions of ourselves is one we desperately want to believe in (and pay for repeatedly at the virtual box office).
Perhaps that’s why districts across the nation have popularized the “academic coach” position. Often hired by districts to help support core subjects like reading or math, academic or instructional coaches function as side-line cheerleaders. Sans the evaluatory power of an administrator, the coach position is designed to be a nonthreatening means to positive change in teacher mindset and classroom practices.
The good news for education leaders is that evidence shows a coaching model in schools CAN affect change in instructional practice, at least more so than traditional, cafeteria-style professional development. A recent meta-study and framework for high-quality professional development by The Council of Great City Schools indicates that “personalized coaching and support” is one of four essential features of an effective program.
“Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is more often helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”
Whether on the field or in the classroom, coaching is about unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s not about telling them. It’s not about even providing them with information and resources. Instead, it is about building a relationship that helps them unlock their own potential — to be the best they can be in whatever they are endeavoring.
I challenge you to think about a coach in your own life that has helped you unlock your own potential, whether in sports or professional life experience. If you reflect on that, you’ll recognize that what they did was help you be your best self by helping you do that MIND work on your own. Not just telling you, but having you go through the process of exploring, reflecting, and then identifying places you can move forward.
If you are an academic coach, there are three main components to your job:
As you build this relationship with the folks that you’re coaching, it is critical to maintain confidentiality and not be judgmental about wherever they are in their process.
There’s a continuum to growth and learning. Teachers often begin using a new curriculum or method in parts and pieces before moving to deep understanding and implementation. Meeting them where they are without judgment builds a positive coaching relationship foundation.
Additionally, one of the most important characteristics of a leader is trustworthiness. Earning trust starts with a confidential relationship. Each building and department are its own small community. Be aware of that and keep yourself in check. Reassure the people you are coaching that each conversation is between you and your coachee only, and they can be sure what is said will not be repeated down the hall.
The stronger your partnership with your coachee, the more effective your coaching is going to be. You can do four things on this coaching journey that help build the relationship and establish that trust and rapport that is so important.
When you’re in conversation with your coachee, focus on listening. Be mindful and intentional when they are talking with you. Ask for details with questions like, “Could you tell me more…” and “Tell me what you mean by…” Asking for details and encouraging them to tell you their stories is a terrific way to establish trust and gain respect.
The second thing you can do to be more effective as a coach is to ask questions. This is the heart of the coaching conversation. The process of inquiry that you take your coachee on helps them begin to imagine what is possible. Ask questions that lead your coachee down that path of exploring and uncovering their potential such as, “What might happen if…” or “Would you like more information on…” Help them reflect and get to that place where they have those ‘aha’ moments, just like we want for our students. Asking the right questions can also help you get to their core need, understand their barriers to meeting that need, and discover the best way to support them.
Third, express empathy! Recognizing and validating teacher experiences (again, without judgment) is critical to a healthy coaching relationship. You can communicate the desire to understand by restating for clarification, saying things such as “Let me make sure I understand…” and “It sounds like…” It’s also important at that moment where they are sharing something difficult to be comfortable with silence. Empathy will help to make sure your coachee feels heard and respected.
The last step on the coaching journey is to take action. Help teachers to identify, design, and activate the changes they want to make. This can happen by brainstorming ideas in a co-creative process. Then, select an idea or two to move forward with. Develop a goal and create a plan. Instead of handing them a to-do list, though, be sure to make it a collaborative process. You can make suggestions such as, “Others have tried…” or “Tell me your next steps…” or even “What new ways of being are you willing to try?”
The four processes of listening, asking questions, providing empathy, and taking action do not happen in isolation. They are all happening at the same time as you have coaching conversations. Remember, at the end of the day, you can have all the knowledge and pedagogy as a coach, but if you don’t have the relationship, you cannot reach the teacher you are trying to influence.
An inspiring printable to pin on your office corkboard.
Joan was a teacher and district administrator for over 30 years. After retirement, she wanted to continue in education as a leadership coach. She works in districts throughout Southern California, coaching administrators and teachers in supporting programs and implementation. Her passion is to make sure we are providing the best for students and teachers in classrooms.