Instructional coaches walk in two worlds simultaneously, serving as bridges between the turbulent waters of active teaching practice and the steady mountain of pedagogical theory.
One of the most significant barriers to building a culture of trust is that, in American culture, excellence and growth can be considered mutually exclusive. Coaches face the challenge of addressing a duality that challenges American perceptions of outstanding professional skill: it is possible, and indeed necessary, to be a wonderful teacher and determined to improve professionally.
Educational professionals face, on a daily basis, an infinite learning curve. Even superhuman teachers can continue to grow indefinitely, stretching towards the zenith of perfection, without ever reaching the apex of the curve. Because learning is a dynamic endeavor, and because classrooms are shifting mosaics of persons, ideas, and circumstances, educators will always encounter novel challenges, barriers, and imperfections in our work.
How can instructional coaches build a culture of trust that affirms the confidence of the professionals they support – while working continuously towards that zenith of perfection? Here are a few steps that can help.
- Know your role. Instructional coaches can serve as supporters, cheerleaders, evaluators – the permutations of coaching roles are truly vast. It’s important to have clarity about what exact role you have to play in your work with educators. Lack of clarity can easily undermine trust.
- Track your relationship. Just as educators work over months and years to cultivate productive relationships with students, coaches need to take time to observe, understand, and nurture our relationships with educators. Consider perspective-taking exercises like journaling to get a glimpse of how the people with whom you work view your presence in their practice.
- Read the room. There are days when my students walk into my classroom and I can tell immediately that I will need to adapt my lesson to meet them where they are academically, socially, or emotionally. We are living through unprecedented and challenging times, and educators mirror the times in many of the same ways that students do. There are days when the educators I support are just not ready for the leaps and bounds I’ve prepared – and days when they are ready for a larger leap than I imagined. Instructional coaches need to have the flexibility to shift to meet the needs presented to them.
- Focus on the bright spots. Asset-based inquiry provides a structure for instructional coaching that elevates and reinforces what teachers do well. When planning teacher-led learning walks at my school, I’ve asked teachers to choose a shining star of a lesson to show off to colleagues as an example of outstanding pedagogy. Volunteers invite teacher teams to visit specific classes that to serve as exemplars. Visiting teacher teams then take time to discuss what best practices they observed and might apply in their own classes. This approach can set the foundation for a strong culture of trust that will eventually support critical inquiry practices.
- Lighten the load. Think creatively about how your presence in a teacher’s work could free up their time, energy, and cognition for professional growth. Teach a section of a class, run photocopies, or help with assessment tasks so that a teacher with whom you work can take a deep breath and study a technique or approach that sparks their passion, giving them the lift needed to bring their practice to the next level.
A creative, compassionate coach can be an incredible asset in the work of an educator. A strong culture of trust provides the supports for that bridge between practice and theory, allowing coaches to walk in both worlds, bringing the best of both to the teachers they serve.
Dr. Megan Olivia Hall is the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. A National Board Certified Teacher, she teaches science and agriculture, and coaches anti-racist social-emotional instruction at Open World Learning Community in St. Paul Public Schools.