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November 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 3

"But I Don't Need a Coach!"

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Strategies for developing coaching partnerships with reluctant teachers.

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Professional Learning
When Miranda accepted a position as an educational coach, she eagerly envisioned the work she would do, thinking with excitement about partnering with teachers and assisting them in becoming even more successful in their classrooms. While most of Miranda’s partnerships were just what she envisioned, she did have a few that surprised her. One teacher repeatedly agreed to meet with Miranda but then failed to show up. Another teacher asked Miranda to make copies and engage in other clerical duties but didn’t connect in any other way.
And a third teacher came right out and said, “I don’t want anything to do with you!” As in this example, most coaches, whether new or experienced, do encounter at least one reluctant teacher in the course of their work. On those occasions in my coaching work when teachers have expressed hesitation or even hostility toward a coaching partnership with me, I have engaged in several practices, some reflective and some action-oriented. Often the way I approach a reluctant teacher depends on the reasons for the teacher’s reluctance. Let’s take a closer look at some of these reasons, how the power of language can help, and the challenges of time in developing a good coaching relationship.

Checking My Own Perspectives

I have noticed that it is human nature to reject those who reject our efforts. If my husband disagrees with my plans for our vacation, I might think that he just doesn’t know the benefits of good time management. Or if my colleague finds my research proposal flawed, I may decide she doesn’t understand research. While these claims might be true, the impulse to turn automatically to what is wrong with others’ perspectives is problematic in that it focuses on blaming and fails to lead to productive action.
By the same token, when I disagree with others’ initiatives, it is usually because I am honoring my own beliefs, values, or perspectives. For instance, if I tell my husband that this isn’t the year to purchase a boat, I am honoring my belief in managing our personal finances responsibly. When I reject a particular instructional approach, it is because it contradicts my theories about learning or my understanding of my students. It’s not that I am lazy, uncaring, or out of touch, but rather that I am trying to make decisions or judgements based on my beliefs, values, and perspectives, even if that means I have to turn down someone else’s ideas.
In the same way, people who do not want to collaborate in a coaching partnership likely are honoring their own beliefs, values, and perspectives. They are not lazy or difficult; they are dedicated educators who have other things on their minds, see coaching as a low priority, lack time, or in some other reasonable way think that coaching is not for them.
In these cases, there are actions that coaches can take to connect more positively with teachers. For starters, it is essential that they listen and learn about teachers’ reasons for avoiding coaching. In addition, savvy coaches avoid judging teachers, bearing in mind that teachers have good reasons for their reluctance, even though the coach may wish otherwise. And coaches should continue to appreciate and respect their colleagues, whether they are coaching partners or not. A helpful perspective in this regard is provided by Zander and Zander (2002), who suggest “giving an A” to others by recognizing their positive qualities and perceiving struggles as obstacles to others’ ability to show those strengths, not internal flaws. Coaches can give reluctant teachers an A by assuring themselves that the teachers are high-quality educators for whom something is getting in the way of their interest in coaching.

Consider Why Teachers Are Reluctant

Why might committed, intelligent, hard working teachers not want to partner with a coach? One aspect of teachers’ reluctance may be that they don’t understand the process of coaching and, in fact, may have made some inaccurate assumptions about it. They may think the coach will act as their boss or as a reformer, someone whose job is to determine what is wrong with teachers and then fix them. Margaret Donaldson and her colleagues did a study of the challenges faced by teachers who leave their own classrooms to serve in other capacities (2008). Not all teachers in the study were coaches, but those who were reported they were challenged by their colleagues at times because they were viewed as violating three norms of the profession: autonomy (teachers’ perception that they should work independently from others), seniority (teachers’ beliefs that only senior teachers should be in leadership roles), and egalitarianism (teachers’ understanding that educators are equal and therefore no one teacher should be superior to others).
Of course, positioning these norms in relation to coaching reflects views of coaches as having a top-down mentality, controlling teachers’ work, and feeling superior on a hierarchy of value. None of these should be the case with good coaches, but nonetheless, misperceptions such as these often influence teachers to hesitate when invited to collaborate with a coach.
Here’s what coaches can do to curb these misperceptions:
  • Be clear about what coaching is and isn’t. Speak with teachers about the purpose of coaching, the roles of coaches and teachers, and the process that will be used in coaching partnerships.
  • Speak with administrators to ensure that their understanding about coaching is in sync with the coaches’ understanding, so that teachers hear from administrators the same thing they hear from coaches.
  • Avoid any implication that you are “in charge” of teachers or their work. Invite teachers to meet—don’t tell teachers you need to meet. Request permission to share their ideas or successes. Speak of partnering to enhance their work, not to create success.
  • Practice humility. Resist the temptation to show what you know; rather, support teachers in showing their successes. After partnering with you, teachers should think, “Hey, I’m pretty good!” not, “Hey, that coach is pretty good!”
Another reason that teachers may hesitate to partner with coaches is anxiety. There can be many reasons for this anxiety. A few are: Teachers may have worked with coaches before and it did not go well. Teachers might be self-conscious about their own challenges or their students’ lack of success. Or teachers might worry that the coach may judge them.
If you have a reluctant teacher and you suspect anxiety is the cause of this reluctance, you can:
  • Listen carefully to teachers when they talk about their reluctance to partner, and believe them. When coaches believe what teachers say, they strengthen their trustworthiness, because their body language, tone of voice, and subsequent questions convey to teachers that they are being treated with respect.
  • Seek less anxiety-producing ways to partner. For instance, a teacher may not feel comfortable in a one-to-one coaching situation, but may accept an offer to be part of a book study group.
  • Make clear to the teacher that coaching is a confidential matter and coaches will not report about teachers to supervisors.
  • Give the teacher the opportunity to choose the focus of the coaching partnership, so she can start with something comfortable to her. (Coaches are often surprised by how quickly teachers do move to matters that are less comfortable, but perhaps more significant, as their trust grows.)
  • Create a comfortable environment in which to do the hard work of thinking about one’s teaching and growing one’s capacity. Allocate plenty of time for each coach-teacher meeting. Engage in coaching conversations in quiet spaces where there will be no intrusions. Demonstrate strong listening skills.

Watch Your Language

In coaching relationships—as in most relationships in life—your words matter. When teachers are already feeling hesitant about a partnership, they may be hyper-alert to the description of coaching and to the manner in which coaches present themselves. Be careful about your language and your tone: The wrong ones might make teachers even more reluctant.
For instance, when coaches refer to their teacher partners as coachees, the addition of -ee may lead teachers to feel that coaching is something done to them, just as mentee or advisee reflects a relationship in which one person provides assistance to a less experienced or less skilled person. By the same token, sometimes the use of coach as a verb is off-putting, as when coaches say, “I coached her to improve her questioning skills.” This phrasing suggests that coaching was done to the teacher instead of being more of a partnership.
Another term that teachers may find distasteful is use of the plural pronoun we to refer to a single teacher, such as, “We need to use more assessment information when planning instruction.” Many adults see this practice as an attempt to manipulate; after all, it is often used by parents when talking to their young children (“We are going to have some yummy carrots for lunch!”).
In other situations, the problem with language is that it is vague. A principal may announce that all teachers will partner with the coach but be unclear about what it means to do this. Or a coach may invite a team to engage in inquiry without discussing the nature of the investigation: Will inquiry take place via a discussion or via a months-long research project?
When thinking about language around coaching, you might:
  • Develop an “elevator speech,” a brief description to explain coaching, and use it often.
  • List terms that would convey your priorities and values as a coach and identify a few that you would like to emphasize, such as collaboration or enhance success. Then sprinkle your language with them on a regular basis.
  • Refer to your collaborations with teachers as partnerships. You don’t coach teachers; you partner with them. The teachers you work with are not your coachees; they are your teacher partners.

When Time Isn’t on Your Side

A big concern of already overwhelmed and overscheduled teachers is—you guessed it—time. This is especially true of early-career teachers and teachers who are struggling, two groups with which coaches are often eager to partner. Evidence indicates that the most effective coaching involves a significant time commitment (Biancarosa, Bryk, & Dexter, 2010). Without such a commitment, coaching is too often superficial and without significant impact. 
There are some things that coaches can do to create time for meaningful coaching experiences. First, talk to your administrators to ensure that the majority of your time as a coach is available for coaching, with a limited number of other duties. You can also ask school leaders to help ease teachers’ schedules and carve out time for coaching. One way to do this is to have them give “coupons” to each teacher who is collaborating with a coach, redeemable for the administrator to cover the teacher’s classroom one time for 30 minutes while the teacher begins a partnership with a coach. Another way is to request a group of substitute teachers to float from grade to grade or department to department all day, covering for three or four teachers at a time so those teachers may work with the coach for an hour. This works best at the beginning of the school year in order to help teachers to see the benefit of coaching and become familiar with the coach.
For teachers who are absolutely sure they have no time for a partnership, offer to teach for them the equivalent length of their planning time if they will give up their planning time in order to meet with you. (Note: Savvy coaches will offer this arrangement only as a last resort for the occasional teacher to get them started in a coaching partnership. Coaches don’t have enough time to do this often or with all teachers.)

Persistence Pays Off

An old adage says that if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again, and this emphatically applies to coaching and reluctant teachers. Coaches frequently find themselves inviting reluctant teachers to partner on multiple occasions before the teachers accept the offer. Reluctant teachers sometimes need time to consider what they would like to bring to the partnership before they begin. Other reluctant teachers need to hear about their colleagues’ successful experiences with the coach before they begin. And sometimes, teachers open up to coaching after they get to know the coach on a personal level, by visiting at lunch, serving on a school committee, or finding a common interest outside of teaching.
I encourage coaches to check in with reluctant teachers every two to four weeks, to see how they are doing and whether they feel ready to partner. I also encourage coaches to make a special effort to interact with reluctant teachers outside of coaching endeavors, so they can get to know each other. Above all, I encourage coaches not to give up on reluctant teachers.
 There is no uncoachable teacher. Everyone can benefit from a coaching partnership. However, there are teachers who do not yet know or trust their coaches. Wise coaches will persist until a partnership is formed.
References

Biancarosa, G., Bryk, A. S., & Dexter, E. R. (2010). Assessing the value-added effects of Literacy Collaborative professional development on student learning. Elementary School Journal, 111(1), 7–34.

Donaldson, M. L., Johnson, S. M., Kirkpatrick, C. L., Marinell, W. H., Steele, J. L., & Szczesiul, S. A. (2008). Angling for access, bartering for change: How second-stage teachers experience differentiated roles in schools. Teachers College Record, 110(5), 1088–1114.

Zander, R. S., & Zander, B. (2002). The art of possibility: Transforming professional and personal life. New York: Penguin.

Cathy A. Toll, PhD, serves as both a university faculty member and a consultant. As a faculty member, she is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, where she serves as Graduate Program Coordinator in the Department of Leadership, Literacy, and Social Foundations. She teaches graduate courses in educational research, educational coaching, literacy leadership, and literacy instruction and was recently chosen to receive the Edward R. Penson Distinguished Teaching Award.

Cathy's scholarship includes models of teacher professional learning, coaching, and practices for whole-staff coaching, coaching-the-coach, and individual coaching. She has published widely on coaching, school leadership, teacher professional learning, and school change.

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