Saturday / April 13

The Five Teachers You Meet in Professional Learning

A dozen years ago I took on the role of an Instructional Coach in the school of my tiny town I grew up in. I was filled with blind optimism. Imagine Dorothy, post Emerald City, exclaiming “Oh, there’s no place like home!” I showed up that first day giddy with the naive belief that this was the position the school had been eager for. I was bluntly brought back to earth when a teacher, one to whom I had reached out to for advice and support, said, “We don’t need you or this position. And I shared my opinion with the superintendent.” Boom, like Dorothy’s house thudding down onto the dirt after the cyclone.

After the ego bruise wore off, and a lot self reflection, I came to realize that instructional coach is, well, an irritant at first in a school culture. Sure, like an irritant in an oyster becomes a pearl—eventually the coaching yields lustrous student learning—but at first, you’re a foreign object, let’s face it. And I get it— it’s inherently patronizing to a teacher, a professional, to be told, hey, here’s someone who is going to make you “better.” When I walked in that day over a decade ago, I was doomed to a rocky start because I had assumed buy-in. And I had no clue that my first work there wasn’t on teaching others X or Y reading strategy or routine, but was about building trust and rapport. Now I know that  instructional change always  begins with strong, authentic relationships with the educators involved. And, as anyone who has worked in a school knows, forging those relationships takes time, openness, and a readiness to meet myriad challenges that bubble up when so many personalities interact around a shared goal. This was my first journey of study as an instructional coach: how can I nurture the relationships that become the foundation for professional learning?

What I discovered was that there are some trends in teacher persona, teacher archetypes if you will, and respecting those perspectives and working to understand their values helped me do the complex work of relationship building. These five personas helped me to better see the concerns, challenges, frustrations, successes, and gifts of my colleagues. I share these with you not to label teachers in any way but rather to say—this is me, too! And if we can be more mindful of them, they can help us all navigate the ups and downs of relationship building (many of these strategies can help at holiday dinners filled with lots of relatives, too!). Keep in mind, as well, that each of us has all five of these personas within us and, depending on the circumstances, one may emerge more prominently than the others. They are the foibles that make us human, and when I shared them with friends in other professions, they all chuckled and said, “Oh, yeah, this is us.” Within each persona, I share a description and, more importantly, strategies for strengthening relationships with the five teachers you meet in professional learning.

The Hidebound Teacher

Who? She values the status quo and often feels like her experience and knowledge is being overlooked, or alternatively, might be trying to hide insecurities. She has a small social following, but may have difficulty with many of her colleagues. Often reflecting on instructional practices and revising her instruction is a tender area to visit and in response she presents an angry affect. One may find that she seems to think of ways to sabotage others by using embarrassment, alienation, and unkind words in order to make those who are taking on the change feel uncomfortable.

Nurturing a Working Relationship

  1. Rephrase the anger. This means to listen and find neutralizing wording that acknowledges her concerns and set a plan. This does not mean one must agree with her, but listening is essential, and paraphrasing words can help soften the sting.
  2. Get to the bottom of the resistance. When we listen and find out what is making the Hidebound Teacher dig in her heels, we can problem solve. Example: “I’m hearing you say…”  or “Let’s take what you are saying and think about…” and “What do you think is the best solution?”
  3. Give her time. Enculturating change takes a long time, especially for the Hidebound Teacher. Often when the rest of the school has gone in one direction, the waves of change will gently bring her along as well.

The Sage

Who? He has been teaching for many years, often in one position. He has volumes of expertise to offer, but may not do so in a way that supports a trusting team environment. Nevertheless, he seems to have the best interest of the school in mind.  His resistance may be paired with emotions such as anger or resentment, yet he is deeply invested in the well being of his students.

Nurturing a Working Relationship

  1. Acknowledge his knowledge. Remember the years of teaching and successes this teacher has had—he is proud of that! He is often afraid that this understanding will be lost to the new school leader or coach. Learn from his expertise and his connection with students.
  2. Suggest some reading together. The Sage is often willing to consider new practices from professional texts. So, when studying a text, try things out together to create a neutral, collaborative experience. In fact, ask to try out these practices in his classroom and solicit his feedback.
  3. Ask for his counsel. He is wise and has much to offer—especially about the culture of the school.

The Rookie

Who? She is relatively new to the profession but comes with some strong preconceived ideas about what teaching should be. She has a heart of gold and wants to do the best she can. While new to the profession, she can be surprisingly set in her ways and not open to learning new things. She may have a mountain of energy and dedication to children, but in a way she uses her sheer enthusiasm as a shield against coaching.

Nurturing a Working Relationship

  1. Show her what others are doing in a non-threatening manner. Share units, approaches, lessons—but in small doses. Taking it bit by bit can really pay off in the long run.
  2. Acknowledge the good in the classroom and validate what brought her to teaching in the first place. The Rookie may lead schools in the future so with a careful and consistent approach to helping her develop her instruction, she will simultaneously refine her leadership skills.
  3. Crunch the numbers. Show The Rookie some data that reveals some needs of a particular student and together make a plan to work with that student. Work on the issues with this student together—it will benefit your learning and hers.

The Traditional Perfectionist

Who? He expects perfection from himself and from his students. He can craft a perfect lesson plan, but has difficulty being responsive when student need arises. Sometimes the Traditional Perfectionist feels so frustrated that he complains rather than problem-solves. The “I learned it this way” thinking guides his teaching. It is often hard for the Traditional Perfectionist to truly understand that learning is messy so teaching must be flexible.

Nurturing a Working Relationship

  1. Acknowledge the limits. The Traditional Perfectionists often come to realize that many of the struggles of a classroom are beyond their control, making him feel frustrated and powerless. Help him focus on the things he can influence.
  2. Work to move from complaining to problem solving. Acknowledge that there are so many issues to deal with and then help him to prioritize the one issue that is most significant. Make an action plan to work on that problem.
  3. When starting the change process, give him as much preparation as possible. First, prepare the Traditional Perfectionist with the goals of the professional study. Then, prepare him for the fact that this will not be perfect.

The Superstar

Who? She is very well respected, a self reflective, collaborative, continuous learner who loves her job. The Superstar is often a leader in her own right because of her skills and achievement in the classroom. She is always looking to improve her instruction and extremely responsive and caring to her students. The most struggling students feel loved and successful under her care. She is able to inspire and motivate those within her classroom and within the school. She desires a level of autonomy from the administration that allows her to flourish but needs to connect with others to collaborate, learn, and grow. She is a powerful positive role model for new teachers, for students, and for the staff as a whole, but may feel more comfortable behind the scenes.

Nurturing a Working Relationship

  1. Start your work here. The superstar is the most important teacher to work closely with, have a strong working relationship with, and to have as a critical friend. This is the place collaboration will occur and blossom. Stick together!
  2. Validate her work. And study it. This is the teacher to learn much from. And, as you study it, let her know what you are seeing.
  3. Start change with her. She is the barometer you can use to decide if an initiative is valid and valuable. She is still in the trenches but has the vision of an outsider. She can tell you whether something new will work or not, and if you have her on your side, an initiative is most likely going to succeed.

The secret to building these relationships with the varying personas is staying consistent over time, knowing that most will soften and trust your presence and intentions. I’m happy to share that the very same teacher that shared her disagreement with me as the instructional coach became one of my most valued colleagues and friends as we supported a five-year literacy initiative. So as you work to support instructional growth, invest in the five teachers you meet in professional learning to partner with along the way.


Written by

Patty McGee is a Literacy Consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She does her best literacy research by practicing on her two children. Prior to her work as Literacy Consultant, she was Coordinator of Professional Learning in Literacy with the Northern Valley Curriculum Center. Previously, Patty was a fourth grade teacher, a Library Media Specialist, and a Literacy Coach. Patty received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education at Loyola University in Maryland, an Associate School Library Media Specialist certification through Rutgers University, and her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership through Montclair State University. Patty has also studied literacy and literacy coaching through Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and Iona College. She has received the Milken Educator Award (2002), worked as a consultant for Workman Publishing, Scholastic, and Corwin, and served on several committees for the New Jersey Department of Education. Furthermore, she has been an adjunct professor at Montclair State University and presenter at the ILA, NCTE, ASCD, and Learning Forward national conferences. Patty is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing.

Latest comments

  • Thanks for your reply, Mary Beth.

  • And thank YOU for your reply. Coaching is challenging work and so worthwhile.

  • Your description of the work of an instructional coach is “spot on”! I, too, did not anticipate the resistance by classroom teachers as I began coaching work 2 1/2 years ago. Thank you for your observations and advice.

  • As a new professional Literacy Coach last year. I walked into a fantastic situation where the veteran teachers here were eager for help. Taking a “watch and observe” position for the first few weeks, I discovered that they did not need over hauls but tweeks with their teaching. They provided me with valuable school background along with an understanding of the student population and they were eager to learn how to teach in a different manner. This is my second year and the relationships have grown. Students are beginning to see the value in learning to read and understand and we are happy to see what growth there is and look to take this process even further ahead.

  • Very insightful article! Thank you!

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