The Power of Coaching Circles

Collaboration Montage

Christelle Harding, instructional specialist coordinator with Decatur Public Schools in Illinois, explains the value of coaching circles for building supportive relationships and emotional restoration among teachers and coaches.


nstructional coaching can be a lonely business with high demands. When we think of the students who depend on teachers for their academic and social-emotional learning, plus all of the teachers who rely on coaches to support them, it’s a lot of pressure!

In the past few years, there’s been a focus on the importance of social-emotional learning in the classroom to help meet the needs of students who’ve experienced trauma in various forms. Groups like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have been providing research that supports and illustrates that when the social and emotional needs of students are recognized and addressed, academic performance improves.

By working with children in trauma, teachers also experience secondary trauma known as “vicarious trauma.” Dealing with children who are victims of trauma like abuse, neglect, or violence can cause responses similar to those of the students themselves. These responses may include raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, headaches, and acting out behaviors (e.g., being late to meetings or avoiding others).

Restorative Circles

Coaches aren't immune to this same types of vicarious trauma when working with other educators and students. It’s important to recognize that coaches are sounding boards for many and are often giving much needed support to teachers. Coaches must keep in mind that they need to restore themselves first before their work of restoring others can happen.

One practice that has been successful is the use of restorative circles:

"A circle is a versatile restorative practice that can be used proactively, to develop relationships and build community or reactively, to respond to wrongdoing, conflicts, and problems. Circles give people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in an atmosphere of safety, decorum and equality.” — International Institute of Restorative Practices

Restorative circles have been used in classrooms and are starting to be used in staff meetings to support teachers in dealing with secondary trauma.

Why We Started

As the instructional specialist coordinator and instructional coach of 15+ years who works to support 20 instructional specialists (coaches) across the district, I often see the stress that teachers and coaches face on a daily basis. Last year a couple of instructional specialists and I decided that we would give restorative circles a try to build a supportive environment for our instructional specialists. We've since concluded that when groups of coaches or other instructional leaders get together, it’s imperative that they also connect and talk with colleagues to share their feelings and experiences. This helps to reduce isolation, overwhelming feelings, and competition among colleagues.

The idea itself is simple but the results are very powerful! When we first started, it was a little strange to be in a literal circle with colleges but a year later we're fans of the process and it has become a part of our regular meeting time.

My colleague, Sarah, and I have been sharing the idea of coaching circles to several different audiences and always come away amazed at the connection that can happen—even with strangers—when given a circle, a talking piece, and a compelling topic.

Types of Circles and Goals

There are different types of circles depending on the needs and purpose of the group. Sometimes the circles may be used to resolve a conflict, build empathy, inspire our work, build leadership, or even deepen understanding of a topic. Regardless of the purpose, all circles transform relationships, reduce isolation, provide support, allow a safe space for vulnerability, give all participants a voice, create opportunities for growth and build a stronger community of coaches.

There are two main goals for a coach's restorative circle: building trust and connectedness or building authenticity and intimacy (Tri-Association). When building trust and connectedness, the topics should be light, answerable without too much deep thought, fun, quick, easy, reflections on stories or memorable moments, and nothing too controversial. When moving on to circles that build authenticity and intimacy, answers may require more time and introspection, the topics are often edgy, participants may share things they've not talked about before, participants may become emotional, and the subjects may be more controversial. Our group started with trust building and quickly moved into authenticity.

Protocols and Components

The protocols and components of a restorative circle are pretty simple:

  • Use of a talking piece (this indicates who is speaking)
  • Follow norms (expectations for restorative circle participation)
  • Use a shared discussion topic, video, or text
  • Keep an open mind and have willing participants

Along with the protocols and components of a restorative circle, there are a few norms that must be followed in order to increase the effectiveness. Here are a few for reference:

  1. Be positive
  2. Take an inquiry stance
  3. Assume positive intentions
  4. Stick to the topic
  5. Start and end on time
  6. Be present
  7. No phones
  8. No multitasking
  9. Only talk when you have the "talking stick" (i.e., a stick or item that the speaker holds)
  10. What’s said in the circle, stays in the circle

The Process: Participation and Facilitation

The circle process is easy. To begin, participants form a circle and then pass a talking piece around (e.g., we've used a pen before but our favorite is a 100 bead counting string). The facilitator must then decide if the talking piece will be passed around the circle in order or if people can simply indicate that they want to have the talking piece and then share their thoughts.

The facilitator needs to do some prep work in choosing the topic or discussion catalyst. For our group, I've often chosen videos from Jim Knight or Brene Brown. These videos promote fantastically deep conversation but are often a long process. Another powerful circle was a response to a read-aloud from the text, Fostering Resilient Learners, by Sours and Hall. If time is short, groups can do a quick circle with one word or phrase answer (e.g., “One thing I want to learn more about is…”).

Final Thought

In our circles we've laughed, cried, listened, understood, and came to know the hearts and minds of our group of coaches a little more fully. It has been time well spent with everyone gaining a stronger sense of community and connection with each other. We all know that we are not alone and have our own tribe who supports us in our efforts to support teachers and students!

Here are a few of my favorite topics to help facilitate your first, or next, coaching circle:


Topics Resources

Jim Knight: Courage, Judgement, Fear, Empathy, Trust, Listening, Reflections, Better than our Best



Vulnerability "Hangover"

Brené Brown on Empathy

Brené Brown Blame

Brené Brown Vulnerability Hangove


Inspirational videos (5 minutes or less)

Edutopia's 60-second videos: instructional ideas to discuss with a group of teachers. There are many here that would work, you decide what teachers need to discuss.


Topic Resources

Vicarious trauma in educators

Secondary trauma in educators

Building community with restorative circles

Quick Circle Ideas

Topic Resources

Pit and Peak: one-word or a short phrase that defines the best and most challenging part of the day

Sample Prompting Questions/Topics for Circles -

Check-In or Check-Out: one word

True North: What matters to you most at this moment? One sentence answers.

"One thing I want to learn more about is..."

"One thing I wonder about..."

About our Guest Blogger

Christelle Harding has been an instructional coach, or coordinator, for 17 years. She loves to continue to learn, grow, and reflect. Christelle earned a masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction, is a National Board Certified teacher, has a NASA STEM teacher certificate, a District Coach Leader Certificate, and is currently working on her Teacher Leader State Endorsement. Working with new and future teachers is a passion of her’s and she often leads professional development and mentoring for all teachers new to her district. Additionally, Christelle is an adjunct professor for Millikin University working with preservice teachers in math and social studies methods for instruction.

Follow Christelle on Twitter @ChristelleH87!

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