Breaking Down the Coaching Barriers

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Vicki Collet, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, shares her techniques for working with reluctant teachers by breaking down coaching barriers to create buoyant coaching partnerships.


s I talk with coaches around the country about their concerns, one of the most frequently-occurring topics is how to work with reluctant teachers. Not everyone realizes the benefits of instructional coaching and the opportunities for professional growth it creates. Fortunately, there are strategies that help to break down coaching barriers. If you're working with a reluctant teacher, here are some techniques you might want to try.

Strategies for Breaking Down Coaching Barriers

Power Shifting by Offering Choices

"It's all about power," one experienced coach explained, when thinking about how to open the doors of resistant teachers. Her comment reminded me of what research tells us about motivation: control and choice are important motivators. Your position as a coach may be viewed as a position of power. Teachers are used to being the ones in control, so threats to that control by someone they consider to be in a position of power may be unwelcome. To soften this tension, find ways to offer choice.

We can offer choice by putting control in the hands of the teacher. Even little choices matter: you can offer choices about where and when you will meet, for example. Offering more weighty choices, like the topics you'll address, pays off with reluctant teachers. Don't go in with a lock-step plan in place; be ready to explore a topic from the teacher's point of view. It can be hard to lay aside our tried-and-true approaches and explore new ideas along with a teacher, but such an approach may be the entry point you need to work with a reluctant teacher.

Being Vulnerable

Another idea to keep in mind when working with reluctant teachers is vulnerability. Teachers' reluctance to work with a coach may come from feelings of vulnerability. Being open about their practice—about their challenges, as well as their successes—may be uncomfortable. If you sense this feeling may underlie a teacher's reluctance toward coaching, you may be able to shift the tides by making yourself vulnerable. For example, if you model a lesson, point out both before and afterward that you know there is always room for improvement. Talk about mistakes of judgment you made or things you would have done differently. You don't have to be self-deprecating or insincere—just open and honest. Posting a video of you teaching a less-than-perfect lesson, with you coaching yourself as a voice-over, is another way to show that you are willing to be open and that perfection isn't expected.

Small Acts of Kindness

When working with reluctant teachers, sometimes little things clear a path. The kinds of things districts often put on the list of what they don't want coaches to domake copies, grade papers, etc.may be the ticket in the door for that difficult-to-convert teacher. The best coaching decision I ever made was to stop and help with a bulletin board that was hastily being put up just before a "surprise" visit by the assistant superintendent. That gesture of help towards the highly-stressed teachers in a turnaround school dramatically changed the dynamic of our interactions.

Your primary role and goal as a coach is instructional improvement. So quieting an anxious child, unclogging the copy machine, and delivering post-it notes may not seem like part of your job description. But with reluctant teachers, small acts of kindness can open opportunities for authentic coaching conversations. Working shoulder to shoulder on a menial task might be just the ticket. A teacher who is otherwise resistant may take her guard down when you are working side by side. Looking for ways to lighten someone's load can provide a foundation for your coaching work.

Taking Chances

Opportunities for coaching reluctant teachers can come by chance, so look for hidden opportunities and be ready to take advantage when the opening arises.

For example, when a new student with significant challenges becomes part of the class, the teacher might appreciate an extra pair of hands on the job. This could open the way for discussions about instructional practices that not only suit the new student well, but offer more authentic engagement for all students. Solving challenges created by one child's distractibility might lead to long-term instructional improvement. Offers of assistance might turn the unplanned-for experience into a springboard for lasting change.

"Teachers are used to being the ones in control, so threats to that control by someone they consider to be in a position of power may be unwelcome. To soften this tension, find ways to offer choice."

Extending Invitations

Sometimes, opportunity comes by referral, and these can lead to tricky coaching situations. For example, your principal might extend the opportunity to work with a coach as part of a professional growth plan. I've found success in this situation when I was able to shift the conversation away from what the principal wanted and focus first on one thing the teacher was really interested in thinking about. Asking, "What's an instructional practice you've been wanting to think more about?" can shift the situation from requirement to invitation.

Asking Permission

A tiny tweak that can make a huge difference to a reluctant teacher is to ask permission before stepping in. There's a significant mind-shift when a coach asks, "Can I offer my thoughts?" and her colleague says, "Yes." Even though nothing has really changed (the principal may still have required the coaching), asking for and receiving permission to coach seems to flip a mental switch, making the listener more receptive. Then, after getting permission to coach, it's important to give teachers some value that they can see right away. In this situation, the coach has to offer something that will be immediate and obviously useful. This paves the way for future work and creates early wins that pay big dividends!

Additional Strategies

Peer Observations

Providing opportunities for peers to share ideas with one another about implementing a new strategy helps to win over some reluctant teachers. Sometimes hearing about something in a slightly different way makes it resonate. Colleagues often share similar contexts and concerns, making their insights especially helpful.

Provide Resources

Finding a way to provide resources can also move the change process along. What teacher doesn't like new stuff for her classroom? Beg, borrow, and reallocate to get materials into the hands of reluctant teachers; then review the new resources with the teacher so they don't end up gathering dust on a shelf.

Offer Time

Time is one thing teachers never have enough of. For hard-to-reach teachers, covering her class (by teaching yourself or, better yet, arranging for a sub) can give the teacher time to plan for implementing new ideas. If you are not able to be with the teacher during this released time, provide structures that will support planning, and then follow up.

Offer Support

A specific offer to assist might be welcome. Asking, "Do you have a unit coming up that you'd like help revising?" or "Would you like some help reviewing that assessment data?" could change a teacher's attitude. Specific offers of help are less likely to be turned away than more general overtures.

Ask Questions

Asking questions can provide a segue into non-threatening suggestions. If you observe, ask questions afterward about instructional decisions. The teacher's responses will give you insight about his or her purposes and open opportunities for offering recommendations in ways that are more likely to be welcomed.

State the Facts

Be aware, however, that for some teachers, asking a question provokes a defensive stance. Stating a fact could be a better approach for these teachers and can support a productive conversation.

I sometimes pull an important fact from the data or observation. A fact calls for a response but, if worded in an objective way, it doesn't set the teacher up to be protective. Saying, "Johnny's independent DRA score is 40," can elicit explanation and exploration rather than justification.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully all of the teachers within your circle of influence will eventually be requesting to work with you. For those who start out dragging their feet, however, you can break down coaching barriers by offering choice, asking permission, showing your own vulnerability, and looking for hidden opportunities and little ways to offer support.

About our Guest Blogger

Vicki Collet is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on instructional coaching, literacy, and teacher learning. She has worked as an elementary and middle school classroom teacher, an interventionist, and an instructional coach. Be sure to check out her "My Coaches' Couch" blog and Facebook.

Follow Vicki on Twitter @vscollet

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Topics: Tips and Tricks, Guest Blogger, Your Coaching Toolbox, Instructional Coaching, Coaching Reluctance

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