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June 27, 2023
ASCD Blog

Coaching “Resistant” Teachers

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Rethinking what “resistance” really means can help instructional coaches fuel teacher engagement.
Professional Learning
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When I train instructional coaches, I invariably hear the question: “But what about teachers who resist coaching?” 
While most coaches I meet are confident in their skills because of their own past successes in the classroom, there’s a pretty ubiquitous fear that they will encounter teachers who just don’t buy into the coaching process. Many coaches have expertise in supporting kids in the classroom, but could benefit from additional strategies to support adults and colleagues. 
After hearing this concern from coaches I work with, I added a focus on addressing teacher “resistance” in all my coach training. Here, I’ll share what I’ve found to be most helpful in addressing this concern from coaches. 

How We Think about “Resistance” Matters

My coaching mantra usually leans toward, “Help people change practices before beliefs.” But coaches who don’t unpack what they believe about “resistance” will continue to struggle to get teachers to engage in coaching. How we think about “resistance” is crucial.  
Elena Aguilar hits the nail on the head in this short video clip about teacher resistance: “Don’t see it as resistance. It’s not resistance. See resistance for what it really is: fear, sometimes confusion, sometimes sadness, sometimes anger.” It’s challenging for coaches to see resistance for what it really is because we often don’t know the whole context of a teacher’s development or understand a teacher’s previous experience with coaching. Coaching can carry a negative connotation if a district uses it largely when a teacher is struggling or being pushed out, for example. 

Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes: What might be behind a teacher’s resistance to coaching?

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Pause for a moment and try to stop seeing resistance as resistance. As Aguilar says, “You can shift [resistance] by seeing it differently, by asking someone, ‘What’s coming up for you right now? What’s going on?’” Put yourself in a teacher’s shoes: What might be behind a teacher’s resistance to coaching?  
Some of the main patterns underlying teachers’ pushback to coaching include: 
  1. They are overwhelmed: Teachers have a lot on their plates. Initially, coaching may just feel like that one extra thing that could push a teacher to their breaking point. 
  2. They’ve had a previous unhelpful experience: A teacher’s negative experience with coaching, or the negative experience of a colleague, may make teachers leery. When I was a first-year teacher, my coach would dominate the hour-long conversations we had after school, leaving me with little clarity about how to become a better teacher. I felt too tired to do anything other than “yes” my way through the meeting.  
  3. There is a lack of clarity about the coaching process: A lack of information, unclear expectations of the teacher, or a confusing purpose behind coaching can push teachers away. In my previous example of a negative coaching experience (see #1), my exhaustion and confusion about the partnership left me feeling like I was wasting my time—and it also left me with a cynical perception of coaching. 
  4. They are content with the status quo: Since coaching is about teacher growth, teachers who are stuck in a rut or already view themselves as successful may find it challenging to engage with coaching. 
  5. They are afraid: Teachers may fear judgment, change, or losing their jobs. They are often isolated in their classrooms, so having a consistent visitor can be anxiety-producing. 
While resistance is typically some combination of these reasons, we as coaches may hold some share of the responsibility for disengagement. You can check yourself by considering:  
  • Am I talking too much in our interactions? 
  • Are my meetings with teachers focused and purposeful? 
  • Does the teacher leave our meetings knowing exactly how to improve their teaching? 
  • Is my coaching grounded in specific data, especially related to student outcomes? 
  • Are our interactions joyful and engaging? 

Strategies for Supporting “Resistant” Teachers

After you examine your mindset about resistance, I recommend trying the following six strategies for creating teacher buy-in. There is no quick fix for a challenging partnership. However, these strategies can help over time, especially when combined, because they get to the root of the “resistance,” build trust, and work toward actionable, classroom-level growth. I’ve seen teachers who are at first pessimistic, even antagonistic, about coaching end up thanking their coaches for an incredible experience and making real changes in their teaching and student outcomes because their coach stayed engaged and used these strategies.   
  1. Build a connection: Intentionally connect with your teachers as people by finding a shared hobby or experience or understanding more about their life outside of school. I recommend taking the first few minutes of every coaching meeting to build the relationship. But keep a careful balance—teachers will feel like their time is being wasted if your interactions are only chatting. 
  2. Provide practical classroom solutions: For your first coaching meeting, pick a focus area that is small and manageable and will help the teacher see immediate results with their students. Coaching should focus on bite-sized, practical strategies and skills that teachers can directly apply to their classrooms. Seeing a win in the classroom because of your coaching is one of the best ways to help a teacher buy in.   
  3. Celebrate together: Share “glow” areas in a positive tone with concrete data in every coaching meeting, such as how the percent of students on-task throughout the lesson has grown. Celebrating the positive helps to decrease defensiveness or fear of judgment. 
  4. Prioritize active practice over discussion: Instead of centering coaching meetings around discussion (in which, let’s be honest, coaches tend to do too much of the talking), center coaching meetings around active practice. Role-play classroom scenarios, create an assignment together, or plan part of a lesson. This helps teachers to not just learn a new skill but actually put the skill to use. Because teachers have increased success with strategies in the classroom after having practiced them, they have increased investment in the learning and growth that happens through coaching. 
  5. Name the “resistance”:  If you see a pattern of disengagement over time, it’s best to name what you are seeing. Keep it direct, but kind: “I notice that you seem disengaged from our coaching meetings. Can you help me understand what is behind that feeling for you and how we can make this time as helpful for you and your students as possible?” Then ask follow-up questions to understand what the “resistance” really is and which coaching moves can meaningfully engage the teacher in the partnership. 
  6. Honor the teacher’s time: If coaching isn’t built into a teacher’s contracted time, consider how to support teachers with class coverage, by adding extra planning time, or by providing additional pay so that coaching is systematically supported instead of something “extra” required of teachers.  
With curiosity and humility, coaches can use these six strategies to effectively support the growth of teachers who might have otherwise preferred to “sit this one out.” Dig under the surface and understand “resistance for what it really is,” as Aguilar argues, but also have the courage to ask the hard questions of yourself so that you might also grow in this coaching partnership. As a coach, it is an incredibly rewarding experience to conclude a successful partnership with a teacher who was initially “resistant.”

Lauren Vargas is a specialist in virtual coaching and coaching coaches. She has advised schools and districts across the country on their coaching programs



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