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January 3, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 13

Grow a Coaching Relationship from the Ground Up

      Two words come to mind when I think about coaching: relationship and willingness. The relationship between a coach and teacher is the critical lever that initiates and sustains any successful coaching venture, and a teacher's willingness to receive that coaching is essential for growth on any level. Crucial for all coaching success is the leveling of any perceived hierarchy. When teachers relate to coaches as professional equals, the power balance enhances the relationship's quality and efficiency.
      As an elementary and middle school teacher, I received feedback from instructional coaches. These subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle nudges to improve my practice translated into changes only when I was open to them. Years later, after training as a coach, I look into the faces of teachers and know that any nudge I deliver must be borne out of trust and kindness.
      Whether one is a consultant coach, district coach, or site-based coach, it is important to be authentic, respectful, and humble. Site-based coaches are the near-peers of those they coach, frequently moving into the position from the classroom down the hall. Coaches must remember, regardless of their previous background, that they now have a unique distance from a teacher's classroom experience. This parity in school status can pose a relational challenge if any hierarchy exists, especially if teachers have encountered negative interactions with coaches in the past. Memories of negative experiences sear the psyches of teachers and can stunt the formation of future relationships.
      I have witnessed these challenges in my coaching practice and have learned from personal reflection on my missteps, as well as from formal study of effective coaching, how to mitigate these potential challenges and walk the path toward a successful coaching relationship. I recommend five actions for coaches that will facilitate a coach-teacher connection:
      1. Go slow with feedback. Teaching is a form of performance, and observation by even the kindest critic can provoke stage fright. Instead of leaping headlong into teacher observations, a scenario that can give even the most resilient teachers the jitters, begin by meeting away from the stage of the classroom. When I meet teachers for the first time in professional development settings or in collaborative meetings, the pressure is lower than when I simply show up in the back of their classroom for an observation. I try to meet teachers several times individually to allow for introductions and friendly interaction prior to an observation. This approach is especially helpful when a teacher is nervous about coaching or damaged by previous coaching experiences. I frequently use restorative circles, a relationship-building activity in which participants sit in a circle and respond to a prompt, at the beginning of professional development. This allows me to learn about the participants and gives them an opportunity to learn about me. I jot down any relevant information teachers share and revisit my notes before I meet with teachers individually.
      2. Begin and end the session off-topic. Begin a postobservation debriefing by discussing a topic far from the classroom. Acknowledging a shared human experience separate from the classroom helps to foster a true relationship. Talk about a shared interest, activity, or experience. Ask about a hobby or an enjoyable weekend outing. Assess teachers' body language, voice quality, and ease of discourse to gauge emotion levels. If teachers are guarded at the beginning of a conversation, they will find it difficult to hear and respond to feedback, so use this informal data to guide your coaching approach. Once the coach provides feedback and the teacher and coach formulate an action plan, guide the conversation back to a topic that reflects life away from school.
      3. Ask questions. Just as inquiring about life outside the classroom invites the teacher into the conversation, maintaining a cadence of inquiry keeps the teacher's voice at the center of the coaching conversation. In their book Cognitive Coaching, scholars Robert J. Garmston and Arthur L. Costa write that questions suggest "a constant, dynamical process of ongoing, creative problem solving, questioning, and experimentation leading to continuous spirals of learning" (2016, pp. 150). Suffuse coaching conversations with queries and jot down notes or transcribe teacher responses. If stumped for questions, simply ask the teacher to elaborate on an observation or recommendation or to share her feelings about the session so far. I frequently ask, "How is this feeling for you?" or "What are your thoughts on my observation?"
      4. Teach with, not for, the teacher. Teachers often ask a coach for a lesson demonstration. In my experience, the motivation can sometimes be less about authentic interest in an instructional method and more about evading the discomfort of an observation. Teaching in tandem, where a coach and teacher give a lesson in turns, offers support and demonstration while simultaneously disallowing escape and diminishing the emotional load of observation. When a coach is willing to become a thought partner, a teaching partner, and a critique partner, relational parity thrives.
      5. Be of service with humility.What do you find most helpful in our debriefs? Is there something I could do better? How can I be of service to you? My life as a coach changed when I began to end all my coaching conversations with these simple questions. Because I was honestly interested in the answers, my humility shone through. In her book The Art of Coaching, instructional coach Elena Aguilar encourages coaches to ask questions about the quality of service they provide (2013). This is an essential practice of "right-sizing" oneself in the context of the coaching relationship by extending willingness to receive feedback and suggestions.
      Instructional coaching is a multifaceted craft that develops through learning and experience. Becoming a master coach requires the union of professional and experiential knowledge and an acumen that weaves together interpersonal communication and emotional intelligence. When done right, the practice allows fellow educators to link arms in support.

      Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

      Costa, A.L. and Garmston, R.J. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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