There’s nothing like the first few weeks of school. It’s a time to reconnect, reimagine, and dream. But just like anything else, starting a new year requires planning and patience. An apt metaphor is the spring gardening season. We can’t wait to plant all of those beautiful flowers we picked up at the nursery, but a voice in our head reminds us that before planting, we need to first clean out the flower beds, till the soil, and add mulch. While this isn’t the glamorous part of the job, we know that if we put beautiful plants into soil that isn’t ready, they will fail to thrive. The same is true for our coaching. The first few weeks of school are when we do all the work that sets us up for success in the months that will follow.
The Importance of Relationships
James Flaherty (1999) emphasizes the importance of establishing relationships in the early stages of coaching. He writes, “Relationship remains the beginning point of coaching and its foundation. This is the stage that more than any other is neglected, ignored, or considered to be unnecessary. Given that it’s the foundation, it can cause the most problems when it is taken for granted” (p. 39). Relationship building isn’t only limited to teachers. Rather, it includes making connections with the principal, students, and broader school community as well. When we take the time to invest in this stage of the process, teachers will be more comfortable settling into the vulnerability of coaching.
Four Ways We Can Build Relationships Early in the School Year
1. Maintain a Learning Stance
While coaches can support things like setting up classrooms, helping with assessments, and participating in PLCs, it is essential that no matter where we find ourselves in the first few weeks of school, we maintain a learning stance. Being curious and open sends the message that we aren’t there to fix teachers or tell them what to do. Coaches can seek opportunities to spend time in the classroom of an unfamiliar subject, grade level, etc. Doing so reinforces this learning stance because it means a coach recognizes that teachers have something to teach them as well.
2. Build a Partnership with the Principal
This involves working together to clarify the coaching role and creating boundaries around these early in the year tasks. Without such boundaries, coaches risk being relied upon as resource providers rather than instructional coaches. We recommend that the coach and principal talk through the following questions to ensure they are set up to shift to coaching cycles as the school year gets up and running:
- What are some early in the year tasks that the coach can help teachers with?
- What is a start date for kicking off coaching cycles?
- How will we monitor the tasks the coach is involved in?
3. Support Teachers to Build Classroom Community
In the first few weeks of school, teachers will be reconnecting with their students and setting up classrooms, and many will be learning about new curriculum and programs. While we may feel pressured to jump right into content on the first day of school, we can’t overlook the importance of building community in the classroom. If we don’t make time for this, we set ourselves up for challenges related to student behavior and engagement as the year progresses. We simply can’t risk setting up a school year where underdeveloped teacher and student relationships lead to ongoing behavior challenges in classrooms.
4. Join PLCs, Grade Level, or Department Meetings
Most schools have established collaborative time such as PLCs, grade level meetings, or department meetings. These are opportunities for coaches to make connections with a wide array of teachers. The key is to remember that at this point in the year, the goal is to build relationships rather than assign tasks or direct conversations. If a coach is new to a school, the priority may be meeting as many teachers as possible. Coaches who have been at the school for a while may be reconnecting. In either case, because teachers are often protective of their meeting time, it’s helpful to think of ourselves as a guest rather than a facilitator at this stage in the process. As the year progresses, there will likely be opportunities to support through facilitation. But for now, it’s okay to just listen.
Engaging teachers in coaching is an ongoing process that requires planning and intentionality. Whether a coach is new to a school or has been there a while, the beginning of the year brings forth the opportunity to envision what these partnerships will look like and the impact they will have on teacher and student learning. We’ll soon reach the place where we’ve cleaned the beds, tilled the soil, and planted the seeds. Then we’ll be able to watch the flowers grow.
Flaherty, J. (1999) Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others. Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.