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New Coaches: Try This at Home

Are you weeks or months away from taking on a new role as an instructional coach? Emily from Baltimore, MD, just emailed me this question:

"I've been a teacher for 18 years and in late July I'll become an instructional coach. Many teachers in my school are suspicious of coaching, I never had a coach, and I've had no training in coaching--our school is just one that is going to 'pilot' coaching so there's a lot at stake. I'm excited about coaching, however, because I intuitively feel like it's the right way to help teachers--but I'm also really nervous. I want to do a good job. I want teachers to get excited about coaching. And I have no idea what I'm doing. Can you give me some suggestions for things I can do this summer to prepare?"

Yes, Emily. Here are some things you can try at home to prepare for this position.

1) Elaborate on Your Excitement. Write it out. Speak it to friends and family. Practice refining why you're excited about coaching and why you think it will help teachers. This "pitch" will be really important in your first weeks as a coach because others will pick up on your excitement and get energized by it. Your belief in coaching will help others get excited. So elaborate on why you "intuitively feel like it's the right way to help teachers."

I'd also encourage you to expand on that and make the connection to how students can benefit from their teachers receiving coaching.

And how do you define coaching, anyway? How would you respond to a teacher who says, "What is coaching? What are you going to do?" Write out all the questions you anticipate getting--from teachers, students, administrators--and see what you come up with for responses. This might also help you figure out what else you need to know--either about coaching or about your role at this school (questions which administrators might need to have a say in answering).

2) Practice Listening. The core, foundational skill for a coach is listening. What do you know about yourself as a listener? Where does your mind go when you're listening? Many of us have wandering minds--we drift to our own connections and experiences when we're listening, or we want to interject a question or comment, or we want to offer advise, or sometimes we just check out and start thinking about dinner.

If you practice listening to your listening for ten minutes a day you'll dramatically improving your coaching skills. As someone talks--a friend, family member--watch your listening. See where your mind goes to. Notice what you want to do in response to what they say. Just bringing awareness to your listening is tremendously helpful. Listening is at the core of what a coach does.

3) Ask Non-Judgmental, Probing Questions. A coach's primary role is to elicit reflection. You can do this by asking open, reflective questions. Again, practice on whomever you have around you--regardless of what they say, see what happens if you respond with something like, "I'm curious to hear more about that" or "Can you help me understand your thinking in that moment?"

Here's a a tool: Coaching Sentence Stems .docx that you can use to practice. You can modify these stems to make them feel more like you--but there are some useful parameters to keep in mind. First, don't ask "why" questions--sometimes it's ok, but as a general rule it's better not to. "Why...?" can sometimes make someone feel a tiny bit defensive. It's a request for an explanation and often doesn't yield deep reflection. If you want to know "why," you might try saying something like, "It sounds like that evening didn't go as you'd hoped. I'd love to hear more about how you made that decision..."

Another parameter is to keep your sentence stems short. Long rambling questions confuse listeners. After a while, you'll find the stems you use most often, in a range of contexts. One of mine is, "Tell me more about that."

4) Get Comfortable with Silence. Coaches listen, they ask questions, and they hold silence--a space for someone else to think through their thoughts and figure out solutions to their problems. When someone speaks and finishes a sentence or thought, they might pause. There might be a silence of a few seconds. See what happens if you don't rush into it, if you just let it sit there, even if it feels a tiny bit uncomfortable. Most likely, the other person will resume talking and sometimes that's when they really get to a deep, reflective space.

Sometimes if the silence feels awkward, I gaze off (as if I'm processing what the person said--which I usually am) or I take a few notes. This helps them feel less awkward and again, sometimes they resume talking. This really can be the moment when their thinking gets deep.

5) Read. Finally, this might go without saying, but do as much reading about coaching as you can. Of course, I recommend my book and this blog as a starting place. I wrote my book as the book I wish I'd had when I first started coaching so it's aimed at new coaches. You'll also find many tools you can download from my website.

I've held many roles in my twenty years as an educators. I've been a classroom teacher, an administrator, a PD provider, and now I also do consulting. Of everything I've done, coaching is my favorite. Emily--and everyone else joining the ranks of instructional coaches--I wish you all the best on your journey discovering the joys of coaching.

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