Establishing Trust: Transitioning From Teacher to Coach

Collaboration Montage

Joy DeFors, instructional coach in Illinois, was eager to pass along some of her practiced techniques for establishing trust with your peers while transitioning from teacher to coach, specifically those within the same building.

🍿 Only have a few minutes? Watch Joy talk about the major takeaways from her article. Then come back later to read it all!

Prior to becoming an instructional coach, I had the pleasure of working as a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade ELA teacher for 11 years in Center Cass School District 66. This experience allowed me to work closely with each content-area teacher in the building and forge strong, collegial bonds. As I prepared for the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach, I felt positive about the decades-long relationships I had fostered with my peers, and I knew those established relationships would be an enormous asset for my new role.

I would be remiss to not share that I felt nervous about how my new role might impact these relationships, however; would non-ELA teachers feel frustrated or skeptical about my ability to provide support due to my lack of expertise in their content area? Would the ELA teachers welcome me to their meetings wearing a different hat?

Relationships are the most essential component for being an effective instructional coach. Though they may already have strong bonds, coaches who are transitioning from classroom teacher to instructional coach in the same building might consider the following tips in order to protect those relationships:

Be honest and transparent

There is no denying that I lack experience and expertise teaching most of the subjects assigned to the teachers with whom I work. However, I have found it helpful to acknowledge this fact right away and often. First, it indicates respect for teachers when you recognize they are the expert and you are there to support their needs. Second, it disarms teachers who may fear that coaches think they are better than teachers. For this reason, coaches need to be sensitive, honest, and they need to communicate respect for the teachers with whom they collaborate.

Once the staff knows the coach recognizes his or her limitations, it’s important for the coach to remind teachers that they may not have an answer to their question at the moment; however, they will dig through all of the resources available to help support teachers' needs!

As coaches, we need to be honest with ourselves as well. If we ask self-assessment and self-reflection of students and classroom teachers, certainly we need to model the practice ourselves. So get busy reflecting on your practice with the intent to grow and be transparent about it! What better opportunity do we have to authentically model growth mindset? A new coach’s honesty and transparency will help strengthen the bonds they have already forged with their peers.


Listening skills are paramount for instructional coaches. We must listen to teachers to uncover their goals. We must listen to teachers to understand the realities and challenges they face in their classrooms. We must listen to teachers to discover where they are on the continuum of professional development. Some of my very best coaching sessions occurred when I said very little, so I try to sit and carefully listen to teachers.

While listening, try to be careful about how you’re listening. One of my favorite coaching resources, The Art of Coaching, by Elena Aguilar, provides a wonderful explanation of levels of listening. Ms. Aguilar suggests that coaches be acutely aware of how they are listening to teachers and adjust as necessary. For example coaches should listen with curiosity rather than to solve a problem, and coaches should listen to understand rather than to clarify.

Listening is a skill, and you will get better with practice. Deep listening is challenging work, but it is the most effective tool you'll use in coaching. When you are listening deeply, you quiet your own thoughts and concerns. This creates space for teachers to explore their own issues, which you can support through asking great questions.

Ask questions

If coaches are listening, they will be able to ask great questions. Effective questions are open-ended and thought provoking. These questions have the power to help teachers think deeply about their goals and objectives, and they also help initiate reflective practices. Not all questions are created equally, though! As a coach, I try to avoid “why” questions, which can put teachers on the defense. Instead, I try to incorporate “what” and “how” questions in my interactions with teachers.

Ms. Aguilar has a few more questioning tips for coaching that I love. First, try to avoid using leading questions like, “It seems like this option would be more effective, and the other may not yield the same results: which one do you want?” Leading questions only have one right answer, they do not help build teacher capacity, and they may breed mistrust. Another tip to consider is when a teacher is in the preliminary stages of a coaching cycle, it’s helpful to use probing questions. Probing questions help teachers discover their own answers to the problem or situation.

By creating a safe, non-judgmental environment and asking great questions, there is plenty of room for teachers to wander around their own mind, investigate their beliefs, their roadblocks, their goals, and how to fulfill them.

Be part of the work

Fresh off being a classroom teacher, I’m not in my office doing work for the teachers. I try to be in the trenches and roll up my sleeves with them.

I am also fortunate enough to have a principal who recognizes the importance of both vertical and horizontal articulation for teachers in the building. Each week, teams of teachers meet several times both with their grade level peers and with their departments. These meetings happen during different periods throughout the day allowing me to attend all grade-level and department meetings every week, which creates more teacher contact time. Often times, I am able to turn teacher requests from these meetings into informal coaching moments to help build capacity in the staff. All of this empowers teachers, which is one of my main goals as a coach.

Recognize! Appreciate! Celebrate!

Over the course of this school year, a top priority for my school district's coaching team was to take time to recognize and celebrate the amazing work our teachers are doing. Our Director of Technology, John Hummel, came up with the idea to publish a Spotlight on Exceptional Instruction page on the district website. The instructional coaches compose blog posts highlighting outstanding teachers or strategies. After we publish a Spotlight post to the district website, we love to tweet it out to the world and share it on other social media so the featured teacher receives a very public shout out.

Teachers are always so appreciative of this level of recognition. Additionally, parents love getting a sneak peek into classrooms, and students love seeing themselves or their work on display. It’s the small things that make a big difference in our school culture and can create stronger connections between coaches and teachers.

Coaches in our district have also made teacher-to-teacher observation and in-house professional development a priority. One way we’ve encouraged peer observations is by using this free and simple idea from Jennifer Gonzalez: the Pineapple chart. Here, teachers sign up on a chart welcoming other teachers into their room and indicating the activity or strategy that can be observed. If teachers are unable to use their plan time for observations, I make myself available to cover their classes to help facilitate the Pineapple chart. It’s been a great way to foster a collaborative environment and build solid rapport with teachers.

Final note

In that relationships are a critical component for effective instructional coaching, it is helpful for coaches anticipating the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach in the same building to work thoughtfully at maintaining previously established relationships. Just like any relationship in life, the partnership between instructional coach and classroom teacher takes work. Deliberate and considerate attention to relationship building strengthens rapport between coaches and teachers, ultimately leading to a greater impact on student learning and achievement.

Aguilar, Elena. The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.

Watch Joy's video overview

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About our Guest Blogger

Joy DeFors has been an instructional coach since 2016. Prior, she worked as a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade ELA teacher for eleven years within the same school district. She earned her B.A. in Secondary Education at DePaul University in 2003 and her M.A.Ed in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2010. She believes that brains are like a muscle that grows, mistakes are opportunities for learning, and feedback is a gift.

Follow Joy on Twitter @MrsD4s!

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