When teachers feel like you're on their team, they're more willing to partner with you. Michael Sonbert promotes the "D.A.S.H." coaching framework for coaches to relieve teacher anxiety and drive genuine, data-driven conversations with those they support.
early every coaching book, blog, keynote, training, or conversation inevitably comes back to one concept: relationships. As coaches, we're told that there's nothing more important than building and maintaining relationships with the people we're coaching. Unfortunately, how we should actually go about building relationships is less clear.
From some, we're given broad generalities like "be compassionate," or "be a good listener," or "be positive," but the detail of what these qualities look like within the context of relationships is missing. From others, we're told to bring our teachers coffee or treats like doughnuts or cookies to establish good relationships—this is unsustainable over a long coaching engagement.
Ultimately, effective communication is what's most important in coaching relationships and, at Skyrocket, we use the D.A.S.H. Communication Framework (data-focused, authentic, straight, helpful) to do just this.
The D.A.S.H. Model
Often, I see teachers push back on feedback that is not based firmly on clear and unbiased data. For example, a coach might say a very generalized "I'm not sure students understood the objective," to which the teacher might counter with, "of course they did." Without specifics, any feedback may be refuted, leaving the coach and teacher at a standstill. All communication about what's happening in the teacher's room should be grounded in data.
Data is neutral. Data is non-judgmental. Collecting this effectively is the basis of constructive communication with your teachers. Consider this: rather than sharing with a teacher simply that their students aren't on task, instead share specific, quantified, time-stamped examples of what students were doing and the teacher's responses:
At 8:31 you said, "Based on today's objective, write a prediction about what you think you'll accomplish by the end of the lesson. You have 2 minutes. Go." 18 out of 27 students began writing within 10 seconds of this direction being given. One minute in, it went down to 15 out of 27. Three students in the back right-hand corner of the room were talking throughout the two minutes. James had his head down up front, and Tanya took the two minutes to sharpen her pencil. During this, you positively praised the entire class one time by saying, "Good job, everyone. Keep writing,' and you did not redirect the off-task students."
Sharing such precise information helps paint a crystal-clear picture for teachers about what's happening in their classrooms. It also allows you, the coach, to land on the exact skill the teacher needs to improve. For the above example, I'd focus on the positive praise: it happened one time in two minutes; it was generalized and not grounded in specifics; it was inaccurate since not "everyone" was doing a "good job."
Data is undeniable. A teacher may not love receiving feedback as it may often be tough to hear. But in all my years of working in schools, I've never seen a teacher refusing to address feedback that was this precise and non-judgemental.
Whether you realize it or not, as a coach, you cast a massive shadow. When you walk into a room, some teacher's heart rates jump, their palms begin sweating, and they stress about every word they say. Sometimes, after you leave, they perseverate on an interaction with a student or a flubbed set of directions, wondering what you thought.
For these reasons, it's important to show you are an authentic and genuine person, who has their teachers' and students' best interests in mind. Share your likes and dislikes, what motivates you, where you've struggled in the past, where you've succeeded. Own your misses and mistakes to make your feedback relatable. Remember snippets of information about your teachers: their hometown, their favorite sports team, their children's names.
To be clear, these things won't drive the coaching conversations—the data should do that. However, to ensure teachers feel comfortable with you looking through their lesson plans, interviewing their students, and asking them to practice in coaching meetings, they'll need to buy into you and know you've bought into them.
Have you ever spent so much time in a coaching meeting with a teacher, saying things like, "I know you're working very hard" or "I know students just came back from break," that by the time you're ready to begin the actual coaching it feels that none of what needs to change is within the teacher's control? Yes, I have as well.
What I mean by being "straight" is within the language that frames your data; this is where we often see coaches struggle. Coaches might share very precise data around what's happening in the room and then say something like, "It was right after lunch, and that's a really hard time to teach, as students are unfocused." Boom: the coach just tacitly gave the teacher permission to be less than stellar with that class going forward.
While there are many very real challenges in schools, some students have greater needs, and for some periods it's harder to achieve student engagement, and some content is more difficult to deliver. But emphasizing these pieces only serves to lessen the data you've collected, and it leaves teachers less likely to engage with your feedback. Share data precisely and eliminate any sugar-coating—even if it is tougher to engage students during the period right after lunch, it’s certainly not impossible.
Not all that long ago, I shadowed a coach who'd tell teachers things like, "I need you to give directions this way" and "What I'm looking for is all students to be working within 2 minutes of the bell-ringing." While it was true that his teachers did need to work on and ensure these pieces were happening, his delivery struck me as cold and unhelpful. He’d made these requests in a way that left me feeling like the teachers were on their own to make these improvements and that his approval was what they should be striving for—not a greater impact on student outcomes.
Instead, when you're coaching teachers, use words like "together" and "we" and "us." These words message to teachers that you're working with them and that you'll be there, side-by-side, coaching them along the way. Additionally, helpful coaches don't just send email updates on what they observed (this rarely leads to change! It mostly leads to emails being ignored). Rather, they present their data and the teacher's next steps clearly and unpack for teachers what those next steps look like. Helpful coaches provide models for teachers versus just telling them what to do.
Without an effective communication framework for your coaching conversations, teachers can feel like they're on their own, that they're responsible for making their own change. This can lead to resentment from both teacher and coach, causing relationships to flounder.
In what can be an already very stressful environment, your coaching should aim to lessen teachers' stress. It should do this not because you're the nice coach who sugarcoats feedback or buys them coffee, but because you're working together to achieve a common goal for your students.
About our Guest Blogger
Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Education, which specializes in school leader and teacher training. Michael has personally trained leaders and teachers from over 100 cities worldwide, and his Skyrocket frameworks are being used in hundreds of schools internationally.
Before he started Skyrocket, Michael was a teacher, instructional coach, and the director of strategic partnerships at Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. He is an autism advocate, a fiction writer, and the lead singer of the bands the Never Enders and Disco Thieves in his spare time. He lives in New York with his wife and three children.