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March 5, 2021

The Three Tenets of Difficult Conversations

Oh the dreaded difficult conversation! The thought of engaging in one makes even the most vocal of coaches cringe. The conversation could be needed because a teacher is not implementing a strategy with fidelity, or lacks enthusiasm and energy for the profession. Perhaps a teacher is not pulling his or her weight at work. Even heavier are situations where students are not being treated fairly, or a teacher’s behavior becomes borderline unethical. It’s easy for coaches to overthink the “what-ifs?” of the difficult conversation. What if the teacher loses trust in me? What if someone reacts angrily towards me? What if this person quits? However, the biggest “what if” with which to contend is this: what if I stand idly by and do nothing while students don’t get what they need?

While we do not necessarily like them, difficult conversations have to happen if we are truly working in the best interests of the students. Change rarely happens without a catalyst, and these conversations can be the igniting factor. The teacher on the other end of the conversation may be unaware of his or her actions until they are brought to light by a trusted colleague. Remaining true to the following three tenets of difficult conversations may elicit a non-threatening and productive experience for both the coach and the teacher.

#1: Be Prepared

Before the conversation even begins, think about how you’re going to support your claims. Have artifacts relevant to the situation, or an accurate, non-biased account of actions that were observed readily available in the event that you need to provide concrete evidence to the teacher. If the basis of the conversation is instruction, then have observation or evaluation notes ready to share. If the pitfall lies in assessments, then have copies of the teacher’s tests ready. If you are addressing a situation and need to recount a sequence of events, be as accurate as possible and do your best to make sure that what you say is actually what you observed. Your goal is to conduct an objective and realistic conversation that will lead to actionable steps for both parties. Being prepared with factual information can make or break the difficult conversation!

#2 Don’t Get Personal

The optimist in me wants to believe that teachers will always accept and process the information knowing that this isn’t personal. However, things can go astray rather quickly if the difficult conversation feels like a personal attack. As the coach, your role is to be objective and professional. Remain calm and resist any urge to sound condescending or emotional. The blame game has no winners, and the second you play it, the conversation becomes more of a personal attack and less of an opportunity for growth. As a neutral party, state what has occurred and what you observed, not why you think a teacher did something. Let the facts lead the conversation, and don’t be afraid to state them. Lastly, in situations that involve more than one party, avoid taking sides and make resolution the end goal. Playing favorites is a huge no-no, and makes a situation even more stressful.

#3 Listen More than You Talk

For this conversation to be productive, you need to put your active listening skills to work. Restate information that was said in an effort to ensure that you understand the situation with accuracy. Simply saying, “So what I hear you saying is _____. Am I correct?” promotes communication between you and the teacher and reduces misunderstandings. It’s easy to make assumptions about a person’s motives, and in the end you want to be in a position to support the teacher, not make silent or audible accusations. Rather than always front loading suggestions and prescriptions, ask the teacher what he or she thinks needs to be done to rectify the situation. A coach’s role is not only to lay out a plan, but also to empower teachers to take command of their instruction. Let the person with whom you are conversing know that you value him or her as a professional, and professionals respect and hear what the other person has to say. An added bonus to listening is that you may be able to identify misconceptions and additional areas where the teacher may need support.

Confronting brutal facts with colleagues isn’t the most anticipated part of an instructional coach’s job, but it is necessary for promoting professional growth. The conversation doesn’t have to be a burden on the coach as long as he or she is prepared, objective, and ready to listen. Turn the conversation into an opportunity for improvement, and support that teacher in his or her efforts to address the problem, and you can make this a win-win situation for both of you.


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