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Instructional Coaches Should 'Center on a Strengths-Based Approach'

(This is the final post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)


The new question-of-the-week is:

How can instructional coaches work best with teachers, and vice versa?

Sydney Chaffee, Cindy Garcia, Carrie Johnson, Roxanna Elden, Tatiana Esteban, Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, and Dawn Mitchell "kicked off" the five-part series in Part One. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Laura Robb, Rita Platt, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Cindi Rigsbee, Tonya Ward Singer, and Margie Kirstein contributed their suggestions.

In Part Three, Lisa Westman, Dr. Debbie Silver, Dr. Carol Chanter, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kristin Rouleau, and Keisha Rembert share their commentaries.

Part Four included answers from Kris Allen, Stephanie Affinito, Barry Saide, Diane Sweeney, Ann Mausbach, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, and Wendy Murawski, Ph.D.

The series is "wrapped up" today by Cathery Yeh, Amy Sandvold, Tamara Hewlett, Becky Corr, and LaChawn Smith.  I've also included responses from readers.

Response From Cathery Yeh

Cathery Yeh, @YehCathery, is an assistant professor of teacher education at Chapman University. Her research focuses on teacher learning and social-justice mathematics. She has published 40-plus articles on mathematics education, teacher learning, and video-based professional development and is the lead author of the NCTM book Reimagining the Mathematics Classroom:

I have had the privilege to work with thousands of teachers. Three principles guide this work:

  1. Begin as a Learner. 

Just as we cannot assume teaching any subject is culturally neutral, we cannot assume the work of coaching to not be laden with power and privilege. Too often, coaching consists of a more "knowledgeable other" coming in to lead workshops or demonstration lessons without teacher input. Teachers bring their own cultural knowledge and prior experiences to the classroom, and our work together needs to use their knowledge and experiences as the foundation. I begin my work with teachers first as a learner. I listen closely to learn about and from them. Here's a few questions that usually come up as the teachers and I build a relationship for co-learning: 

Tell me about you. Tell me about your teaching, your students, the school curriculum. What should I know? What would you like to know about me?   

  1. Build Interdependence - Co-Plan and Co-Teach Together

"If I dream a dream, I dream alone. If we all dream together, we can succeed together." Te Puea Herangi, 1883-1952 (as cited in the New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2011) 

This is one of my favorite quotes to describe the importance of teachers and teacher educators learning alongside and working interdependently. Lesson study is my favorite model for professional learning. The teachers and I would design a lesson together building off an identified area of focus; this can be a particular concept or pedagogical tool or routine we would like to deepen our knowledge on. Then, we would co-teach the lesson together in one or a few classrooms.  I've found these co-planning and co-teaching experiences to be the most powerful. It provides a collaborative culture of learning and a shared vision of the type of learning environment we hope to develop at the school or district site. I always learn something new during each co-teaching event.

  1. Focus on Strengths 

When planning or analyzing a lesson with teachers, I always center on a strengths-based approach. Labels of children—"high,, "low," "remedial"—are not allowed. We focus only on what a child can do and consider how to use these strengths to build success. Within education, teachers AND students have been conditioned to identify what they cannot do and what they need to do better. Not enough time is spent on having students or teachers identify their strengths. I ask teachers to identify their students' strengths and their own strengths, to publicly say these strengths out loud, and to consider how they can incorporate more of these strengths-based actions into their next lesson.

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Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is a literacy coach in the Waterloo Community Schools, in Waterloo, Iowa. She is an experienced educator in both private and public schools, having served as a principal and classroom teacher with over 25 years in education. She is co-author of the best-selling The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching. You can read her Lit Coach in Iowa blog at and follow her on Twitter @LitCoachinIowa:

Avoiding the Gray Area Between Coaching and Evaluator Land

As instructional coaches, we can get caught up and lost in the gray area between coaching and evaluator land. I believe passionately that instructional coaches are not given the evaluator role. Principals can serve as instructional coaches, too; however, they will always be the evaluator in the minds of the teachers. 

Teachers thrive when they have instructional coaches that they can freely share ideas with, ask questions, and someone they can be vulnerable around as they work through challenges.They hold back when they think their words and actions might be used against them. 

How do we avoid this gray area of evaluator land?  Many of us are part of a leadership team that includes administrators. Perception can become reality for teachers when they see you working closely with the administrative team and can become intimidated that you are also an evaluator. Much of this depends on the relationship between the coach and the principal. Principals and coaches should clearly define expectations. 

Here are some ideas to convince your staff that the instructional coach is a COACH, not the Evaluator: 

What the Principal Can Do: 

  1. The principal clearly states and explains the coach's role. At the beginning of the year and multiple times throughout the year, the principal reminds everyone that the coach is there to help and all is confidential. 

  2. The administrative team refrains from using the coach as an evaluator. Avoid assigning evaluative teacher walk-throughs to the coach. Instead, let the coach schedule teacher-requested visits. Require a certain number of visits, but make them teacher chosen. Notice the difference.

  3. The principal resists the temptation to use the coach to do his/her job. Avoid asking the coach to provide data regarding teacher performance. Instead, use the coach to help and assist if it appears a teacher is struggling. 

What the Coach Can Do: 

  1. Watch how you give feedback and make sure it is teacher-driven. As much as possible, ask the teacher what the teacher wants out of your visit or what they want to talk about, then stick to that topic. 

  2. Have a passion for your coaching expertise. If you are a literacy coach, share your passion for reading and writing in your life. If it's math, get excited about math! Your passion for your subject is contagious and builds authenticity. 

  3. Remember that you were once a teacher. I will never forget my own experience as a classroom teacher when the instructional coach shook his head during my entire lesson, not understanding all that had happened minutes before his very short visit. Watching your body language and seeking first to understand builds trust.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves daily what our role is. I keep this quote by Stephen Covey as my background on my phone: 

"Be a Light, Not a Judge. Be a Model, Not a Critic."

 It serves as a constant reminder of what my role is as an instructional coach. Teachers respond best to a coach that they know supports them without the evaluator lens.

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Response From Tamara Hewlett

Tamara Hewlett is an instructional specialist in the elementary curriculum team for the Montgomery County public schools in Maryland. Her work focuses on access and equity for multilingual learners. Some of her experiences include serving as a classroom teacher, math-content coach, staff-development teacher, and teacher-leadership specialist:

Teaching is one of the hardest yet most rewarding jobs a person can have. While it can often feel isolating being in a classroom by yourself, it is truly a profession that relies on the experiences and expertise of the people around you. It is truly a blessing to have someone in your building or even outside of your building serving as an instructional coach 

I've found that when serving as instructional coach, it is important to be a good listener. Naturally, if you have the title of coach, there is the expectation that you are uniquely skilled in a particular area that affords you the opportunity to help others become better at what they do. When I think about some of the best coaches I've been lucky to have throughout my career in education, I can truly say that they were all great listeners. They didn't listen to respond; they listened to understand when I was sharing my questions, struggles, successes, and perceived failures. Listening builds relational trust. 

A teacher might be leery of being vulnerable with a designated coach when there is no relational trust. While this is true, teachers need to be vulnerable with their instructional coach and ask the questions, share concerns, and revel in the successes no matter how small. Teachers, also like coaches, need to listen to understand rather than to respond. Listening to understand sets up the conditions that build collegial respect and build the relational trust in order to make the relationship one that is beneficial for both parties involved.  

Whether you are a new teacher, a person new to the district, starting a new position, or just in need of some coaching, relational trust is the ultimate goal. Until then, here are some other things to consider, outside of listening, that both teachers and instructional coaches can practice in order to have a positive working relationship. 

  1. Keep students at the forefront of your mind and heart. We do what we do because we want our students to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. It is important to remember that in order to really get to the heart of the need/ desire for coaching. 

  2. Make time to speak to and work with each other. On-the-go conversations in the hallway are sometimes necessary, but setting aside some dedicated time to plan and receive coaching and/or seek out coaching is important. Time is never on our side, but I believe in the saying, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

  3. Be OK with not knowing the answer right way. As an instructional coach, there is pressure to feel as though you should be ready with an answer right away. As a teacher, you may feel as though you have to be ready with an answer to a question from your coach. It is OK to say you don't know and/or you need to look into something or spend some time thinking about it and get back to your partner. The important thing is to actually follow up in a timely fashion. 

  4. Do not share with others what was shared with you in confidence. It takes a lot for a teacher to be vulnerable and for an instructional coach to also be vulnerable. Nothing is worse than seeking out help and finding out that everyone else knows about your feelings of falling short. This goes back to the need to build relational trust.

  5. Bring something to the conversation(s). What I mean by this is that both teachers and instructional coaches want to be better versions of themselves. The partnership that is forged through coaching has to nurture each other. It may look like providing a challenge for the coach to stretch themselves as a coach. It may look like provisioning resources or asking thought-provoking questions for the teacher. In either case, instructional coaches are teachers, and teachers are continuous learners, right? So bring something that will help each other grow in your journey of educating our children. It may not be something that happens each time, but check in with yourself about whether or not the partnership is one-sided or not.

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Response From Becky Corr

Becky Corr is the president of EdSpark Consulting, which is dedicated to igniting partnerships for diverse learners through professional development, technical writing, and systems analysis. In her role as an the English-language development-team lead in the Douglas County school district in Colorado, she coaches, mentors, and supports teachers and facilitates family-engagement opportunities:

"The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other.  Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives."

-Robert John Meehan

Teachers' identities are tightly connected to their relationships with students, the school, and the classroom.  Therefore, building trust between teachers and coaches is the foundation of success. Providing feedback and opening ourselves up to receive feedback can be difficult and a bit scary—on both sides.  It is important, as a coach, that I hold my colleagues' "teacher souls" in the highest regard.  To be honest, sometimes the coach is more nervous than the teacher because of what hangs in the balance.  

I work hard to build a trusting relationship with teachers before giving feedback.  When visiting teachers' classrooms, leaving a note about something positive that was observed begins to create a comfortable and welcoming environment.  Holding true to your word demonstrates to teachers that a coach is trustworthy.  So, it is important to follow up to provide the resources a coach commits to.  Small gestures and actions add up.  It's like adding marbles to a jar, as Brené Brown describes in her book, Dare to Lead.  Every action that demonstrates trust is like adding a marble to the jar.  The fuller the jar, the more trust that exists and the stronger the foundation of the relationship will be.  

My good friend and mentor, Amy Montague, professional learning specialist at Castle View High School, says that she starts every conversation with this question in mind, "How does it feel to be coached by me?" Since she shared this with me, I try to start every coaching conversation with this in mind.  When engaging in coaching sessions with teachers, I work side by side with the teacher on a common goal.  As a coach, my role is to facilitate and draw out their thinking by asking probing questions and paraphrasing teachers' thinking.  We work as a team to solve what the teacher identifies as an issue or something they would like to analyze or improve. 

As one who coaches and one who continues to be coached by my colleagues, I know that I have to prepare myself to receive feedback.  My own "teacher soul" is at stake, and receiving feedback can be difficult.  I know that feedback will help me to improve and I welcome it, but sometimes it is still difficult to process.  I believe that I can't ask my teachers to engage in coaching and feedback if I am not engaging in the practice myself.  This year, my colleague and I plan to hold triad coaching sessions so that we can give each other feedback related to our coaching conversations.  We intend to be transparent with teachers to let them know that it is our goal to improve our coaching strategies as well.  

This year, I'm going to try something new.  My district covers 900 square miles and has 91 schools.  I'm one of two coaches for our ESL Department.  It is impossible to visit our ESL teachers as much as I would like.  So, I'm starting with learning walks or classroom walk-throughs where I will take photos of the great things happening throughout the district.  I'll upload the photos to the Seesaw app where I can invite teachers and privately post the photos to their journals.  This is one way to provide positive feedback.  I plan to grow this practice so that eventually teachers or I will post a video of the teacher teaching.  Then, we'll analyze the video together and have a dialogue about it.  These conversations will be face to face, but I'm hoping that once teachers get comfortable with the practice, that they'll share photos and videos unsolicited by me and for their own professional growth.  My hope is that this will extend my coaching beyond the classroom walls.  I'm new to this practice, but I am excited about the possibilities it presents.  Even though I have to admit that I'm nervous to start this new practice, I remind myself I ask teachers to trust me and take risks every day. If I'm asking teachers to take risks, I must do so myself in order to improve my practice. 

When the teacher-coach relationship is built on a foundation of trust and both parties are open to feedback, there is real opportunity for growth.  I'm grateful for the coaches who have taken the time to open my eyes and view my practice from another perspective.  I'm indebted to those who have opened their doors, minds, and "teacher souls" to diverse perspectives.

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Response From LaChawn Smith

LaChawn Smith is deputy superintendent for New Hanover County schools in North Carolina.  Previously, she served as assistant superintendent for instruction and academic accountability, director of instructional services, principal coach, principal, assistant principal for New Hanover County schools, and special education teacher for Brunswick County Schools, also in North Carolina:

I think it is important for coaches to approach coaching as a "learner." I think they need to do the work and develop the skills necessary to be an effective coach. I recommend utilizing the partnership principles in Jim Knight's work, which include voice, choice, equality, praxis, reflection, dialogue, and reciprocity. It is also important to understand that this is an iterative process.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Cathery, Amy, Tamara, Becky, and LaChawn, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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