A wise person once told me that if you lose a teacher’s trust, it’s nearly impossible to regain it. Without trust, an instructional coach has very little influence over the professional growth of a teacher, and ultimately, student achievement. The majority of coaches, including myself, do not possess the “power of the pen,” meaning that our advice is not enforced by consequences (like being written up or getting dinged on evaluations). When a coach works with a teacher, and the teacher accepts feedback and recommendations, it’s because they want to improve their practice.
Instructional coaching is one of those positions within a system of schools that is complex — not complex in terms of being difficult, but complex because of the nature of the relationships that exist between coaches and teachers. There is a balancing act between providing relevant and honest feedback and supporting the school’s bottom line. How does trust fit into this act?
Trust can mean the difference between promoting a growth mindset and worthless time spent between two adults who have no intention of sharing meaningful discourse about the classroom. I have come to realize that there are three essential trust anchors that have to exist between teachers and coaches:
Respect of Privacy
Privacy continues to be one of the biggest topics in instructional coaching. How private should the feedback and observations be, and how should the school building leaders be involved in this process? As a coach, I make it clear to teachers and school leaders that my intent is to support teachers and help them. It is understood from the beginning that I do not assume the role of a tattletale. It takes courage to allow someone into your classroom and see its inner workings, knowing that you will receive honest feedback about your professional performance.
The worst imaginable scenario for a teacher is for an observer to publicly blast him or her in front of colleagues and administrators, especially when this person is supposed to support growth. Do not fall into the trap of teachers’ lounge gossip circles — keep information about the classroom between you and the teacher. Involve an administrator in certain circumstances, such as when teachers are on an official assistance plan.
Refrain from Judgment
One of the biggest pitfalls in observing the work of others is to unfairly judge them because what they’re doing is not exactly what you would have done in the same situation. We all have expectations of what the “perfect” classroom looks like, and when we see a scenario that doesn’t match these expectations, it’s hard not to be biased and judge the teacher. Teachers who work with me know that I am well aware of the goings-on in classrooms. I recount to them the days that didn’t go as planned and they know immediately that I feel the pangs of teaching. As coaches, we need to understand that teachers have the right to teach without fear of a coach saying that what they’re doing is wrong.
Whether the judgmental tendencies are based on the delivery of the instruction or how he or she interacts with students, get more information from the teacher and ask for the rationale behind his or her actions before jumping to conclusions. There may be a perfectly reasonable reason for the teacher’s actions and, as a coach, asking questions allows you to see if the teacher has misconceptions about content or instructional strategies.
Honor Shared Decision Making
Instructional coaches support teachers in their professional growth, and one of the most effective ways of ensuring sustained growth is to include them in the decisions made for his or her classroom. Teachers know their students best, and should be supported in making instruction pop without following a rigid checklist written by someone else.
This is where effective professional questioning can elicit reasonable and sound responses. For example, if a teacher is struggling with managing procedures in the classroom, a coach can ask the teacher “what routines may help students retrieve materials more efficiently?” And after you ask these types of questions, wait for the teacher to answer. Most usually start coming up with ideas on their own and they take ownership of those ideas. The coach can also provide teachers with a variety of possible solutions and allow the teacher to choose which will work best.
Assume good intent, and trust that teachers can and do make important decisions based on the needs of their students. Trust me — trust is the foundation of a beautiful relationship between teachers and instructional coaches. Think about the people who’ve helped you grow, and chances are high that these people earned and sustained your trust. Establishing trust may take time, but it’s time well spent when you’re building teacher capacity and promoting growth.