TeachBoost continues to learn—and share—experiences, skills, and tools from instructional coaches in our new chapter in the "Your Coaching Toolbox" series, "First Year as a Coach."
Billy Spicer, Instructional Coach from Lake Zurich CUSD95 in Illinois, shares the importance of effective communication within a coaching meeting, making a habit of empathizing with others, and how to grow your professional learning network.
ffective communication is essential if instructional coaches are truly seeking to serve as a catalyst between an educator and shifts in instructional practice. As a classroom teacher and integration specialist for over ten years, I made meaningful and effective communication the foundation of my classroom—it was simply the most important aspect when working closely with my learners.
Although the idea of effective communication remains the same when shifting to working with adults, I knew a greater emphasis needed to be applied as I gear up for one-on-one coaching cycles. My success as an instructional coach depends on knowing if I could learn to be better at listening, questioning, building emotional connections, and fostering productive dialogue. If so, I'd have an impact moving forward.
Prior to jumping into that first coaching cycle meeting with a teacher, I first pledge to adhere to a partnership model of communication. This is quite different from a top-down approach which oozes strategic compliance behaviors alongside the idea of "being fixed." It also tends to highlight only once voice rather than all, crowbar a forced idea of buy-in rather than autonomy, and constructive feedback versus dialogue. When reflecting on my beliefs I continuously reference a simple scale developed by Jim Knight that brings a quantitative element to my beliefs and behavior. It includes three simple statements:
- Typically during conversations I’m very engaged
- Most of my conversations energize me
- Usually I feel better after having a conversation
The lower total score, the more oriented I may be towards a top-down approach to communication.
Making a Habit in Empathizing with Others
Prior to designing an amazing lesson plan or sharing some possible strategies to model, the most important question I have in my mind entering the first meeting with a teacher is this: What is ___________ thinking and feeling about this topic?” If I am truly going to become a better listener and empathize with my teaching partner, the conversation has to start and end with them in mind. But before that, I suggest first clearing the slate in your own mind. Often times the biggest roadblock to empathizing with others is the noise inside our own heads. Clearing the decks across a variety of levels, including emotionally and cognitively, truly allowed me to enter a coaching meeting ready to support the teacher with a renewed commitment to listen.
When I demonstrate empathy through effective listening, I can begin to see beyond any stereotypes I may possess and view my teaching partner as a unique subject. Jim Knight provides some useful forms that helped me begin the journey of listening with empathy.
Instructional coach, Billy Spicer, working with one of his fantastic educators.
The Power of Building Trust
Connecting and building trust are crucial ingredients towards establishing a viable and meaningful coaching cycle. However, it does not happen overnight—it takes time. Curating a connection with a teacher may occur over several meetings however, one cannot be an effective coach if trust is missing. Prior to entering the first meeting I strive to ensure they see me as someone who supports their work. One motto I heard from fellow coach, Candace Hall, continues to stick with me: "I am a teacher first and my job is to support and inspire teachers to be learners." Without trust, such a motto may fall to the wayside. Many authors and researchers have spent time unpacking the importance of trust and how to build it. I've come to enjoy the work of Jim Knight and some of the resources he provides to help coaches become better at building trust.
In addition to being adequately prepared for an initial coaching cycle meeting, one must also do a good amount of self-cheerleading! Instead of a daily affirmation with famed self-help professional Stuart Smalley, I suggest viewing the TED Talk given by Atul Gawande in 2017, "Want to get great at something? Get a coach."
The video helped provide me with inspiration to dive into the unknown and also affirm that this work is important, I can do it, and that I believe in the teachers’ ability to change their practice. Learn more by visiting his site that includes templates for self-reflection. These are but just a few exercises I complete before entering an initial coaching cycle meeting with a teacher.
Seeking a Clear Picture of Reality
Although getting a clear picture of reality isn't in play until after at least one coaching cycle meeting, it was important for me to recognize this as the first piece of what Jim Knight refers to as the Impact Cycle. Entering my first coaching meeting I want to make sure I'm being transparent and clear in what a coaching cycle will look and sound like. To help me achieve a sense of clarity and to also provide my teaching partner with a resource moving forward, I created a Nearpod presentation to be used throughout our time together. The feedback from teachers has been positive in that they have a resource to reference moving forward and also a way to clearly see the growth and accomplishments once the coaching cycle begins.
"Often times the biggest roadblock to empathizing with others is the noise inside our own heads."
Having a resource has helped provide a bread crumb trail in our goals as a partnership, preview what's to come, and show growth in our conversation and planning. Teacher feedback has also pointed to the release of stress and anxiety associated with gaining a clear sense of reality. Using video to accomplish this task is not always an easily digested variable for teachers, it can be scary! Nobody enjoys listening and watching themselves on video, so any effort to make it a less scary element usually works out well for both the teacher and the coach. Most importantly, having a clear sense of reality as the focus of the initial meetings provides authentic buy-in from the teacher. We want to empower our teaching partners so that they see the importance in shifting instructional practices and how it positively affects student learning outcomes. In my opinion and from my experience this can only happen at a deep level when video is used to gain a clear sense of reality.
Moving Forward: Leveraging a PLN of Coaches
One final element that continues to help assist in preparing for an initial coaching cycle meeting is to curate, harness, and leverage your PLN. Or, if you aren't shaping your own PLN yet, get started! The Edvocate defines a PLN as, "...a customized social media platform for educators. But instead of sharing pictures, status updates, and liking each other's filtered profile pictures, educators can learn from people and resources around the globe to improve their teaching methods, stay up-to-date on the latest edtech trends, and receive endless outside support."
A large element of my PLN has been and continues to be Twitter. The #EduCoach hashtag has proven to be a worthy follow and I plan at least 10-20 minutes each day to browse the activity that is being shared. It's my happy place—a collection of educators and coaches that challenge me but also provide a mechanism of support and affirmation.
Entering the first meeting in a potential coaching cycle can produce some anxiety, but just know it's being felt on both sides! It’s only natural to experience some trepidation. But it is upon exiting these initial meetings with teachers where I feel incredibly valued and impactful. I feel that I am becoming a better person on the planet, a more compassionate, patient, curious educator while having a wider impact throughout the district. As you continue to reflect (and do a whole lot of listening!) I hope you too are finding deep learning and satisfaction in serving as an instructional coach.
About our Guest Blogger
Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade, Billy currently serves students and teachers as an instructional coach. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and meaningful technology integration to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Billy has enjoyed sharing and learning as a presenter on a local, regional, and national level and has presented at many events including ICE, ISTE, FETC, ICIC and iEngage.
Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter @MrBillySpicer.