Ultimately, my goal as a coach is to help teachers become better instructional decision makers. In other words, I’m there to help them become more responsive to their students. So, it would stand to reason that, as a coach, I must be responsive to the needs of the teachers. This is not always easy, and sometimes I may lack all the necessary tools, but I have found a few guiding principles that help me to stay focused on the ultimate goal. So, here are some “Do’s and Don’ts” that I have learned along the way -and that I still struggle with- in my journey to become a more responsive coach:
1. Meet teachers where they ARE-not where you think they SHOULD be. The best advice I ever received was when I was in college and going through volunteer training at a domestic violence outreach center. Many of us in the training had not experienced being homeless or having to leave a spouse due to violence, so we were trying to assert logic into situations that are beyond logic. The trainer wisely told us to not “should” on ourselves. What she meant was don’t try to view a situation only from your limited view of what “should” be happening. Take the situation at face value. What IS happening? Take action on that. That phrase- “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” has stuck with me ever since. Whenever I find myself-or hear someone else- saying things like, “The teachers should know that” or “The students should be able to…,” I think of that advice. Acting on “shoulds” automatically puts us in a place of judgment. No one responds well to being judged. Plus, I can’t coach a “should.” I can coach what IS. So, when I go to a classroom, I try to look for what IS happening and then create a plan for helping that teacher learn the things needed to improve his decision making. That may look different for every teacher….and it SHOULD!
2. Focus on improving practice-not personalities. If the goal of coaching is to help teachers become better instructional decision makers, then my goal as a coach is to help identify the behaviors that a teacher can practice that will accelerate their learning. Because we all encounter people that may be difficult- or we ourselves may not always be the picture of pleasant- it is important that our coaching focuses on improving behaviors of practice-not trying to change someone’s personality. One activity I like to do when I am training coaches is to have them make a list of all the things a teacher needs to know or be able to do. They can only use nouns and verbs. Inevitably, there will be adjectives included on those lists as well. Words like patient, caring, flexible will be sprinkled among the nouns and verbs. When I see this, I draw attention to it and have the groups come up with nouns or verbs that are indicative of these character traits. A teacher might seem patient if she gives students enough wait time after asking a question or if she knows some mindfulness or de-escalation strategies to use with an angry student. Do you see the difference? I can’t coach a person to be a better person, but I can coach them in practicing behaviors of and gaining knowledge of a patient, caring, or flexible person.
3. Work in reality--not ideals. This is probably the lesson that has made the most difference in my coaching experience. Every single school and classroom is different. The resources available from district to district vary tremendously. So, if I have been charged with helping teachers learn to conduct guided reading lessons, yet there are no guided reading resources on campus...guess what?...we use what they do have...even if it is the students' own writing. If the only thing that those teachers have available to them for shared reading is a basal reader, then we use that basal reader, and we figure out how to use it in the best way possible. If they don’t have chart paper for anchor charts, we find what they do have and get creative. If they don’t have computers, we get out paper. If they don’t have a classroom library, but they have a bookroom full of old textbook adoptions, then we use what we can until we can get a www.Donorschoose.org page going or lobby admin for supplies. It’s not always ideal, but it’s reality. If I told teachers that we can’t learn to do guided reading until we have a guided reading library or that they can’t really implement a reading workshop unless they have a classroom library, I would be (1) lying, and (2) making excuses. If my role is to help them become better instructional decision makers, then I have to model for them how to make decisions about the resources that ARE available and how to be creative with what they have. It’s not about the quality of the tool, anyway...it’s about the person whose hand the tool is in. Though good tools can make it easier, it is NEVER EVER EVER about the tool...or program. Sure, I want to show them where they can access other, better tools, but ultimately, I want to help them become teachers who will and can create the tools they need when they can’t find them anywhere.
To sum it up...
Responsive coaching means that the path to meeting a goal will look very different for every teacher, campus, and district. There simply isn’t a mold that works the same way for every situation. If there was a script, there wouldn’t be any need for decision making...or responsive teaching. So, while it may not be an easy approach, I encourage fellow coaches to continue learning and finding ways to support teachers where they are, no matter what that may look like.