Lauren Vaclavik, an instructional coach in Illinois, shares her tips for building relationships and establishing a culture of coaching within a school or organization.
e thought you were a spy from the state." Yes, you read that right: at the end of my first year of coaching one of the teachers told me that this was their first thought when I introduced myself to the staff in August. I was a new coach in a district I had never taught, without a defined coaching role, and due to the lack of an established coaching culture I was seen as the enemy walking in. Just a few short months later, however, I built enough trust to talk about this original misconception.
I wish my story was rare, but that's unfortunately not the case in coaching. The more coaches I talk to, the more I hear about resistance or distrust in coaching when the culture has not been established. I've often heard that coaches feel that they're deemed "mini administration," or worse: just disregarded altogether. As I sat down to write this, I thought about all of the resources I've researched over the past few years as I was figuring out what was going to make me an effective coach.
As a new coach you read a lot about developing relationships. You read about creating a structure for PD that brings people to you and to advertise your "brand." You read about the key move of using teachers from your first few cycles as advocates to pass the word along about the great work you can do. I could write a whole series of blog posts on these core ways to build culture, but I wanted to add to the norm with some ways I've found to accelerate the process of being welcomed by existing faculty. That reflection brought me to the following not-so-discussed techniques to change a school's culture from avoidance to acceptance of coaching.
Start at the Bar
This may sound odd, but find out what your teachers do and become a part of it. If they play Bingo, go play. If they hang out at the local coffee shop, make an effort to get there. If they go to the football games, go even if you don't like sports. If life doesn't allow for these options, find out where the teachers hang out during the day and get there (e.g., the faculty lounge, by the copier, in a classroom, etc.).
I've built strong relationships with my coworkers in the past by heading out for a few drinks on Friday after a long week to talk about the highs and lows. This allows you and the teachers to act as people, not just colleagues. I learned the things that they can't stand and the things they absolutely love. Ironically, I can find out more about the culture of a school in an hour at the bar than I can in weeks during contract hours.
For some coaches this will be a welcome assignment; for others, this will bring anxiety. As you join a new staff, enter a new position, or even walk into a classroom for the first time where the room goes silent, don't give up! Always listen and add in where you can. Remember: don't try to coach in the social environment, be a teacher instead!
If you're in a coaching position, you've most likely been identified as someone who has a passion for education and is viewed as a strong teacher and leader. It's very easy for established teachers to have conviction about what they do and strong feelings about what's "right" and what's "wrong." This is really hard as you enter another teacher's space because they may not have the same ideas as you. How do you resist that first gut reaction of "Oh my gosh" to find the good in the room?
As a coach, one of the most important factors in creating the culture of coaching is to know that you are not there to fix another teacher. In fact, you're there to find the good and make it stronger. We know and embrace as educators that our students take a variety of routes to get to mastery of a learning target. It's crucial to remember that teachers also have unique ways of teaching and can reach the same target—even if it doesn't look just like what you think it should. Always remember to keep the focus on the students and their reactions to the teaching.
Phrase your questions around what you see in a room because you don't know the backstory on each student and there may be a distinct reason that a behavior is ignored or corrected in a particular way. One way to do this is to make your questions non-threatening and non-judgemental. Try to go into the question without an answer, or give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that there's clearly a reason for the actions in the classroom. Reflect together on questions to get to the heart of what is going on and create a goal for growth!
Habits are made with a cue, routine, and reward. When individuals experience a cue, the way they respond is the routine and the reward is the feeling at the end. The way to change a habit is to identify the cue, make a conscious decision to change the routine, and get an equal or better reward. Teaching structures and techniques become habits over time. Find small habit loops that teachers have and work with them to acknowledge the trigger (cue), the go-to action/structure/language they use (routine), and get them to see that the reward will be better.
An example of a teacher habit that a starting coach, or a coach in a struggling culture, may often encounter is a resistance toward people in their classroom. As a new coach I'll also fully admit that I was also hesitant to just pop into a class before that became a habit in my repertoire. In order to overcome this challenge, I began to find ways to get in. I started with teachers I felt a bit safer with and built my confidence, and then I forced myself to work through a list of every teacher I coached.
I had some rules about being in a class to build the positive reward with my presence in the room. First, I never brought a computer. Next, I would jump in whenever an extra hand was needed to help coach the students through some work. I engaged in the class and became an active learner in their lesson. I was very intentional about showing interest in their students, teaching, and content. If I could read that a teacher was uncomfortable with another person in the room I would stay just long enough to gain something genuine and positive to talk to the teacher about. The next step was to intentionally see them as soon as you can. I'm a face-to-face person and found that engaging a teacher in a conversation or a question about the class moved our relationship further much faster as opposed to those who I had to just sent an email to.
The above example works well for two habit loops:
- For those coaches who feel awkward walking into another teacher's classroom. You know that you find reasons not to take those steps in. Making an excuse to get in the door is sometimes all it takes. Brainstorm some ways to get yourself in and just go for it. Change your habits to get into rooms and be present.
- To change the feelings a teacher has about someone coming into their classroom. The teacher most often will not let you in because they have a negative feeling about someone in his or her classroom. When someone walks into a classroom (cue) the teacher has a response; that response is their routine. To change the routine you change the feeling associated with peer observations by rewarding the teacher with the positive impact you can make while in the room and by acknowledging them for the positive work they are doing or showing your genuine interest in them and their craft. These interactions don't take long and create small conversations that build into trusting relationships.
Humbleness and Patience
Being humble is an essential part to my success in building relationships. Remember, you're a coach because you can "guide from the side." You're a master at questioning and can help teachers build capacity by engaging in deep reflection and creating action plans. The people you work with are amazing; I know this because I've yet to be at a school where the teachers didn't inspire me to be better. Make those people feel like the rockstars they are because they deserve all the credit!
Having patience is imperative. Have patience with administration as they are trying to figure out what this role of instructional coaching should look like, and also have patience with teachers as they learn that you are more than someone to go to for a resource or to have an extra set of hands in the class. Be patient with yourself, keep the big picture in mind and realize that changing a habit or adjusting to a new position takes time but the reward will be worth it in the end.
Relationships are crucial to any successful coaching experience and in transforming a coaching culture to become more accepting. Sometimes it's easier to get people to invest in you before they invest in the role. I will take the win when a teacher works with me because we have a strong relationship. At the end of the day, if a teacher jumps in a cycle just to work with me, the growth the teacher will see is real and the shift in culture occurs!
If you are looking for something further to read, check out the following fantastic books
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg
- Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Educators, by Jane A. G. Kise
- Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh
- Multipliers, Revised and Updated: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman
About our Guest Blogger
Lauren Vaclavik is an instructional coach with 14 years of experience in secondary education. She spent ten years in the English classroom integrating best practices with students. For the past four years, Lauren has worked as an instructional coach in two different districts and in three unique coaching positions. This past year she has taken on a double role—acting as a coach at the elementary level as well as starting up Vaclavik Educational Consulting to help build the culture for coaching. Outside the workday, Lauren does her best to keep up with three little kiddos and a husband that works a crazy law enforcement schedule.
Follow Lauren on Twitter: @mrsvaclavik.