How We Talk About Teachers Matters

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Amy Ellerman, instructional coach in Colorado, explores how an asset-based mindset can help you recognize the value and uniqueness of everyone you work with.


uring my first year as an instructional coach, I forced myself to do something challenging every month at our district coach meeting: sit at a different table. In a coaching community of 100+, this gave me an opportunity to learn from, and beside, a wide range of colleagues. Over time, some fascinating patterns emerged, particularly in how coaches talked about teachers. I found myself gravitating toward coaches who talked about teachers in a particular way:

  • "Our kids are lucky because. . ."
  • "Teachers at my school care about. . ."
  • "We can leverage and/or build on. . ."

There was an energy generated by this kind of talk, and it was the energy I needed as a new coach. These were coaches who radiated efficacy about the impact they were having on kids and teachers, with a positive assumption underlying everything: teachers are skilled, teachers want to learn, and teachers are capable of high levels of learning.

I quickly realized that how I choose to talk about my learners—whether it's kids or adults—communicates a great deal about my beliefs about learning and coaching.

The use of deficit-based language reveals a belief that we might not expect all learners to be as capable or as ready for new learning. While coaches would never say, "I don't think so-and-so has the ability to learn/grow/change," there are more subtle ways that we communicate this message, perhaps unintentionally. For example, we might use the phrase "veteran teacher" in air quotes or categorize certain teachers as "resistant". When we do this, we're only noticing the ways their actions make our jobs more difficult, rather than the ways they might be contributing in an essential way to the professional dialogue.

Instead, starting with an asset-based mindset—by focusing on what learners are doing right and believing that all learners can add value—can help us maintain awareness and create that better dialogue.

Collaborating with a wide variety of professionals in a school can be tough, especially when we differ in our beliefs around how to best serve the needs of our kids. Those potentially frustrating moments are the ones that reveal our true beliefs about teaching and learning. In those moments, I try to be hyper-aware of my language. I also find myself reflecting on what it looks like when my actions match my beliefs about teaching and learning.

Four ways to help create an asset-based mindset for coaching

1) Plan with intention

Unfortunately, our structures for adult learning don't always align with what we know to be best practice. When time and accountability are the drivers, we can become overly dependent on the whole-group staff meeting as our primary method of professional learning. Over time, teachers who have experienced the lukewarm impact of this model lose enthusiasm for it. It seems unfair to then categorize these teachers as disengaged or resistant to learning when the fault may in fact lie in the poor design of previous learning experiences.

New research from Linda Darling-Hammond cites five dimensions that support deeper learning for teachers:

  • Learning that is developmentally grounded and personalized
  • Learning that is contextualized
  • Learning that is applied and transferred
  • Learning that occurs in productive communities of practice
  • Learning that is equitable and oriented to social justice (Darling-Hammond et al, 2019).

In the context of this research, I wonder how I might be more intentional in my own planning, so that teachers can see evidence of these five dimensions in our professional learning experiences. I also think about the number of personalized, contextualized, applicable learning experiences it might take to undo the baggage of negative learning experiences that teachers may have had in the past. Clearly making this shift explicit is another way to build trust with teachers, demonstrating how much we value their time and expertise through the care we take in planning for their learning.

I believe that teachers are more willing to engage in new learning when we respect and trust them enough to acknowledge the complexity of what it is we are asking them to learn and apply. Deeper learning—which is what we're expecting when we're talking about transfer to work with kids—requires a deeper commitment from those who design the conditions for that on-going learning.

2) Differentiate

Recognizing that teachers might need different entry points, varying levels of side-by-side support, and opportunities to choose next steps most relevant to their students is step one. We have to understand (and empathize with) where learners might get stuck, and be proactive about where learners might need individualized support to get unstuck.

To plan for this level of differentiation and personalization, we must know our learners deeply. Samantha Bennett, consultant and author of That Workshop Book, has worked with the coaches in my district this year. As an instructional coach, she sees her sole responsibility is to ensure that every educator (i.e., teacher, coach) grows every year—and she plans for the artifacts she'll gather to prove it.

The core of Sam Bennett's coaching practice radiates positive presuppositions. After working with her, I can feel myself as a learner stretching into the high expectations Sam is setting for us as coaches, applying strategies for knowing my own teachers deeply and intentionally monitoring growth. It is so motivating as an adult learner to be challenged (and supported) right at the edge of where I need to be challenged—and to see clear evidence of that growth. This is exactly how teachers want to feel about their own learning. My responsibility (and privilege) as a coach is to make sure this happens.

We ask so much of teachers; the least we can do as coaches is to demonstrate our commitment to adult learning through thoughtfully designed, research-based learning experiences for teachers.

3) Dig deeper

As instructional coaches, we ask teachers to be reflective. It's just as important for us to be reflective in our own work. When a person is struggling to transfer and apply a new concept, or when a lesson goes up in flames we need to reflect as coaches. There must be something we do not yet understand that's creating an obstacle for this teacher—and it's our job to figure out what it is. We can ask ourselves questions like:

  • "How might I have structured this experience differently?"
  • "What might my learners have needed to be ready to engage in this learning experience?"
  • What beliefs about teaching and learning might be rubbing up against this new practice for this teacher?"
  • "Have I built a strong enough relationship with this teacher, so that he or she feels safe taking professional risks? What else might this teacher need?"

4) Be honest/be vulnerable

As instructional coaches, we sometimes place an unrealistic expectation on ourselves to be experts. If this is how we see our role then we might be less likely to take risks, especially in front of an audience. As a coach, modeling a strong lesson builds credibility; modeling a lesson that does not go as planned builds trust. The opportunity to be vulnerable as a coach, to genuinely reflect on what we might do differently next time (and then collaborate to do it) shows teachers that we are in this together.

Here are a few things we might consider to promote vulnerability:

  • Do we have (and have we demonstrated) empathy for what is hard for learners? Rather than judging teachers, do we voice and express understanding of some of the genuine obstacles to implementing new practices?
  • Are we side by side in the classroom with teachers, trying new strategies ourselves, reflecting together on how it's going? These actions build trusting relationships with teachers.
  • Are we transparent with our own risk taking, sharing moments of cognitive dissonance, elevating a design thinking mindset in our collaboration with teachers? Sometimes the most authentic way to create safety for others is to model vulnerability ourselves.
  • What kinds of structures in our buildings support teachers in taking risks and reflecting on how it's going? Do teachers have opportunities to engage in coaching cycles, learning labs, and extended team planning?
  • Does the culture in our building encourage and leverage relationships between colleagues? Sometimes the best move we can make as coaches is to attend to the culture that will support collaboration (even if the most powerful collaboration doesn't involve us at all). It's not about us as coaches; it's about supporting the conditions that will be most impactful for learners.

Final note

As a coach, it can be uncomfortable to feel that our invitations to collaborate have been rebuffed. However if we take this personally, if we step back and hesitate to try again rather than digging deeper to uncover the root cause, we communicate to teachers that either we don't care enough to try harder—or worse—that we have given up on them.

All teachers deserve to work beside colleagues who believe in them, just as all our students deserve teachers who have unwavering faith in their ability to learn. Learners live into our expectations of them, and if we really believe that everyone can learn, our language and our actions should reflect that belief!

About our Guest Blogger

Amy Ellerman is in her ninth year as an instructional coach in Golden, Colorado. Prior to coaching, she taught grades K-2 for many years, with a two year hiatus teaching at the university level as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. Amy currently serves as Immediate Past President of CCIRA, an independent nonprofit literacy organization. Amy recently joined Two Writing Teachers Blog as a contributing writer, and she is a Teacher Consultant with Colorado Writing Project. Also, Amy blogs about transforming the learning experience for adults at Running to School.

Follow Amy on Twitter at @sanderling12!

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