Having Difficult Coaching Conversations

Collaboration Montage

Ellen Eisenberg, returning guest blogger from the Pennsylvania Institute of Instructional Coaching (PIIC), shares her acquired skills for having difficult conversations as a coach and tips for a successful debrief with teachers.

For more posts from instructional coaches, for instructional coaches, please check out our recent posts from the TeachBoost series entitled: "Your Coaching Toolbox".


ne of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” This was her comment to me each time I “asked” my younger brother to please stop touching my carefully constructed paper doll city. It sounded more like, “PLEEZE STOP MOVING THINGS AROUND.” And, yes, my words were capitalized! I reiterated that I said, “Please” but my mother never really bought that distinction in my words!

As coaches engage in confidential, non-evaluative conversations, they will likely experience similar situations where their words may be misinterpreted or misunderstood, especially where ego and identity are interconnected with practice.

What Do I Mean?

I mean that many teachers equate their “value” with how well they deliver instruction. If a lesson falls flat (and we have all experienced this), the teacher is crushed and has to admit s/he needs support. This is where the coach needs to approach the situation with finesse, class, sensitivity, and a bit of humor. The coach must navigate the conversation so that the needs are addressed, some subtlety and some more overt. The coach needs to know when to “pat and push” and “nag and nurture,” all at the same time. Using feedback appropriately, i.e., language that is specific, descriptive, non-evaluative and timely, is what makes a difference in changing practice. Coaches can neither skirt issues nor focus only on areas of need without encouragement. And, every situation is different.

Coaches meet with teachers and ask questions that help identify the focus, purpose, goal, and intended outcomes of their work together. This sounds cut and dry but it’s not… coaches need to ask the questions without interjecting their own opinions; they need to deflect the conversation so that their teaching colleagues’ thoughts are front and center. It is not a time for the coach to share everything s/he knows about the topic, content, or instructional delivery. This is not a test for the coach to prove street “cred"—that credibility is built as the relationship is established. It is a developmental process where the coach needs to step back and let the teachers’ thinking become visible. These interactions should result in more questions, not more answers.

Think about Mark Twain’s words and how they might impact your work as an instructional coach… “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

How Does This Relate?

Every one of us has felt cornered and uncomfortable in situations where we think we need to give our opinions. You know… a coach visits a classroom and the lesson does not follow anything the coach and teacher planned in their “before” session. Then, the teacher anxiously asks the coach as s/he leaves the room, “Well, how was my class? I think it was great.” What’s a coach to say, especially if s/he knows that the lesson was fragmented, devoid of consistency, lacked rigor, and didn’t achieve the initial planned goals?

“A rightly timed pause” is needed here. The coach needs to thank the teacher for allowing the visit and remind the teacher that they both have time to reflect on the goals which they will discuss when they meet on their already scheduled “after” debriefing session.

Sound like a plan… yes, until it happens to you!

Tips for the Debrief

Debriefing can be emotional and anxiety producing – for both the teacher and coach. Remember, every teacher, administrator, coach, and student wants to get better at his/her craft!

Here are a few tips to remember when engaging in a debriefing conversation.

  • Make everyone feel important; value their expertise and voice;
  • Listen more than you talk; the silence can be revealing;
  • Ask, don’t tell; your voice is not more important than the teachers with whom you are working;
  • Be transparent; don’t make the teacher guess at anything; this is not a quiz;
  • Ask how the teacher responds best to feedback… written first followed by a conversation or just the conversation? Resist the idea of giving electronic feedback only; a coach will miss a teachable moment if the conversation is virtual only;
  • Don’t be a bully and “hit and run”; don’t drop hints and then leave the teacher feeling inadequate and unable to move forward;
  • Know thyself… if you are uncomfortable getting feedback, you will not be able to give feedback effectively to the teachers with whom you are working;
  • Model, model, model… be reflective and share; ask for feedback from the teachers about your coaching; that will help the teacher feel more comfortable receiving feedback from you;
  • Less is more… co-create the goals and limit the data collection; focus on small and let those ideas percolate and morph into a more comprehensive ongoing conversation about teaching and learning;
  • Co-construct, collective problem-solve, collaborate regularly, and keep student needs at the center;

Final Note

The debriefing process takes time. It doesn’t have to be a difficult conversation although many of them are just that. Take time: plan with the teacher, visit the class, think about what you saw as you visited, refer to the goals of the lesson, process how the goals were achieved, write your notes to share with the teacher, then debrief the lesson with your prepared questions, not answers. And remember, coaches, too, have a learning curve about how to approach conversations involving teaching and learning.

About our Guest Blogger

Ellen Eisenberg is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC). PIIC, a partnership of the Annenberg Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, is a statewide resource for developing and supporting consistent, high-quality instructional coaching in Pennsylvania schools.

If you've liked what you read from Ellen, please take a moment to check out PIIC's most recent book.

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