“I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable.” —John Russell, Managing Director, Harley-Davidson Europe Ltd.
Although Mr. Russell was referring to corporate coaching, his words hold true for coaching teachers in educational partnerships. After spending the past 17 years coaching teachers in classrooms all over the country, I have gained some solid understandings about what works in the coaching relationship and what does not. My initial training on how to coach teachers came from my mentor, the late Dr. Mike Mezzocchi. There are three truisms that he shared with me that I never forgot and have carried with me through every coaching relationship.
- Teaching is like sales. You are selling new ideas, different perspectives, and alternative approaches to a buyer. How you approach a buyer determines whether you will win the sale. Help co-teachers win the sale.
- Building a relationship with the teachers you are coaching is critical. You cannot coach someone whom you do not have a relationship with. Know the teachers you are working with as human beings first.
- Never break trust. If the teachers you work with think you are a snitch reporting back to the principle, you will not be successful as a coach.
Why Coach Co-teachers?
Coaching is expensive, so many school districts attempt to initiate co-teaching models with an in-service training or by sending teachers to a seminar and then leaving them on their own to make it work in the classroom. In my experience, the failure rate of initiating co-teaching without supporting teachers throughout the implementation process is high.
Sometimes the negative impact that occurs in a failed process sets schools back a decade in successfully supporting students with special needs. I have worked with schools who are trying to re-introduce co-teaching as a model for teachers and I was warned not to use the term “co-teaching” because it had gained such a negative connotation in the district due to a past failed attempt.
When school districts start co-teaching on a smaller scale and provide strong support for co-teaching pairs that include coaching, schools have the greatest chance for success. Rather than start with a large initiative, I recommend that schools start on a small scale and build successful co-teaching classrooms that can be models to spread enthusiasm for the process.
By investing in coaching, schools can reduce incidence of failed co-teaching relationships, build confidence in the process, and see exponential student growth. One co-teaching team that I worked with in Texas saw a fourth-grade student gain ten reading levels in one year using the co-teaching model!
While an entire book can be written on the topic of coaching co-teachers, for this article, I will focus on some of the key do’s and don’ts for coaching collaborative teacher partnerships.
Build a Relationship With Your Co-teachers First
I have walked into situations where the teachers that I have been asked to coach firmly believed they were assigned to me because they were doing a bad job. Sometimes, they felt it was because they had failed as teachers, not just co-teachers. When teachers you are coaching feel that you are there to make them better teachers because their administrator feels they are failing, the first thing a coach must do is assuage their fears, let them know you are on their side, and start building a relationship.
It will not be easy and sometimes it may be impossible. Know that going in. A coach needs to know how to listen, repeat back concerns heard, and look for solutions that show care and respect for how the teachers are feeling. This is not the time to be all business and tell them to get over it and get to work.
It is important to not only understand teacher struggles, but to share with them that you understand. Be sincere because if you provide feel-good platitudes, they will see that immediately and you will lose credibility. Even if you do not understand where they are coming from, it is important to open your mind to their perspective and try to comprehend.
Be honest and up front, yet tactful. As coaches, we work with many different personalities, so I will typically share my personality quirks and approaches with teachers that I am working with up front. As a New Englander, I tend to be direct, which can feel abrasive to teachers who are not used to that style. However, if I am upfront about it, and approach it with humor, it sets the stage for better understanding as we work together. Also, the worst thing a coach can do is act like they know better than the teachers they are coaching.
I made the mistake once of telling a group of co-teachers that when I co-taught, I had a caseload of 35 students and co-taught with 3 to 4 different teachers, six class periods a day. In my view of the world, their caseloads and co-teaching arrangements were much less challenging. To the teachers, my un-spoken message was, “I could do it so you should be able to do it, too.” My anecdote did not give them the confidence that I hoped it would. On the contrary, I conveyed to them that I had no understanding of their dynamic, their reality, and their struggles. Fortunately, that experience came very early in my coaching career. I lost those teachers. I would never make headway with them going forward. It was a lesson learned and not repeated.
When coaching, always remember: it’s not about you, it’s about them.
And one last critical rule that I live by when coaching teachers is, “What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom.” The only time I will share a concern about specific teachers with an administrator is when, after repeated attempts to move a teacher forward in their efforts to support students with disabilities, I feel the students are at risk of being hurt academically or emotionally. There comes a point when I need to let administration know. If students are being under-served to the point where it is detrimental to the students, I tell teachers this upfront. In all my years of coaching, I have only had to do this twice.
Preparing for the Coaching Session
When coaching, if we can do any of the following ahead of time, it will increase the effectiveness of the coaching session. Here are some options for pre-engagement:
- Write up your terms of engagement. After many years of coaching co-teaching teams, and spending the entire first meeting laying the groundwork for the working relationship, I began to realize that it was best to have teachers understand my terms of engagement prior to my arrival for that first session. I found that it was important for teachers to know, before I arrived, why I was there, what my philosophy was, and that I was not a spy sent by the administration. In my case, it was also very important for me to let them know that coaching was completely non-evaluative. It is important for teachers to know up front that they have nothing to fear. They may not believe that at first, until you build that relationship; however, it is important to lay the groundwork upfront.
- Survey your teacher teams. I typically survey teams before my first visit with them. However, there are times it might be beneficial to survey them between each visit. This allows them to share with you, in a nonthreatening way, what they need from you. Anonymous surveys are perfect for learning about your teams’ true feelings about the initiative as well as working with a coach.
- Ask clarifying questions. Many times, when I ask teachers questions about what they need, hope to gain, or want out of the coaching session, they do not know. Nevertheless, it is important to ask the question. Again, it demonstrates that you are there for them.
- Virtual check-ins can ease teachers’ minds before you get there. I once had a co-teaching team that emailed me and asked me to meet with them virtually before I showed up so that they could go over their co-taught lesson plan with me ahead of time. They were nervous about whether they were on the right track and taking the time to meet with them virtually eased their minds. Other times, teachers might take short video clips of what they are doing in the classroom and review them with me before I arrive. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions that are very specific to what they are doing in their co-taught classroom. I find this can be an important confidence builder.
Reality check: because of challenges in scheduling, timing, and teacher overload, sometimes doing things before the actual visit is not possible. Do not stress over this reality, just roll with it, and do the best you can when you show up.
Tips for the Classroom Observation
The strength of the observation is clearly related to the data collected during a coach’s time in the classroom. I use a format that I adapted from a student observation process I learned years ago from my mentor, Dr. Mike Mezzocchi. It provides me with the data that I need to analyze, clearly and objectively, what is happening during every minute of the session. It is important that a consistent tool be used so that all observations follow the same format when working with a school or school district. Choose a format you are comfortable with and always use it.
And, most critically, when taking notes about observations in the classroom, BE OBJECTIVE! This is not the place to write down opinions, make judgments, or express criticism. Write your observations in a way that you can show them to the teachers you are coaching without reservation.
Some Quick Ideas of What to Look For:
- Does there appear to be mutual respect in the relationship?
- Is there parity?
- How engaged are both teachers in the lesson?
- How do they communicate with each other regarding lesson planning?
- What methods are they choosing to differentiate instruction?
- What approaches are co-teachers implementing to accelerate students who need enrichment and provide Specially Designed Instruction to students who need re-teaching?
Debriefing the Observation
When debriefing co-teaching teams, I prefer both teachers be present. There is rarely a time when I would want to coach one teacher without the other in the room. Because it is difficult for school districts to free both teachers at the same time, I am often asked whether I could coach them one at a time. I strongly encourage school leadership to figure out a way that both can be in the room for coaching at the same time. The problem, in my view is, when coaching one teacher at a time, the other teacher is wondering what is being said behind their back. It is a trust issue. Also, they are a team, and they both need to hear the conversation, the kudos, and be a part of brainstorming solutions and options.
I reached out to my network of co-teachers and asked what they felt worked best for them in a coaching session. Following are some of their suggestions:
- Offer suggestions that are constructive and add to student engagement.
- Provide clear direction for improvement.
- Notice the little things that teachers are doing right. Small recognitions make a big difference.
- Validate teacher concerns, do not minimize them.
- When a teacher raises concerns about students, offer specific ideas to help with those students.
- Brainstorm solutions with co-teachers, so they are part of the process and their input is valued.
- Champion co-teachers’ hard work!
And lastly, I have a few rules that I coach by for you to consider:
- Set boundaries. What’s off limits?
- Ask permission before offering suggestions or solutions. Again, this is about building trust and respecting your co-teachers’ experiences.
- If they are willing to hear additional options, be clear that the options you are offering do not mean they are doing something wrong, but rather are suggestions to take what they are already doing well to the next level.
- Remind teachers that these are options only, and they can choose to change them, ignore them, or use them. They have the right to choose what works for them in their co-teaching relationship.
- Never say, “This is how I would do it.” Or any other variation of those words. It is not about you, it is about them.
- Never say, “You should have done…” It is not a good idea to “should” on your co-teachers.
Coaching teachers, especially those special individuals working to build and maintain co-teaching partnerships has been, for me, one of the most rewarding experiences of my career as an educator.
But it is often not easy. A coach must always put the welfare of those she coaches before her own “agenda,” remember to be objective, and offer support in a way that will build up and encourage those she coaches.
I hope that the insights and advice shared here will help you in your coaching efforts, or when working with a coach in your school.
Thank you to the following for contributing to this article:
Cindy Delcambre, Tracillia July, Michaela Gagne Hetzler, Kelly Hastings, Heather Zybas