As I developed relationships with 36 teachers this year, I was careful to watch and try to understand the dynamics that would help me as a coach. It’s easy (and tempting) to fall into patterns and routines with teachers. Because each relationship is different, and progress isn’t always steady or obvious, it can be hard to measure success. But taking time to step back and watch closely sometimes gives me the perspective I need to move forward effectively.
An Enthusiastic Start
One teacher I coached this year was kind, friendly, and eager to work with me. Dina and I met several times to talk about what was on the district curriculum map, starting with looking at the standards to understand what her fourth-grade students needed to be able to know and do. Dina was also happy to have me come in and work with her students. After a few classroom sessions, I decided to nudge our conversations to focus on being more responsive to her students’ strengths and challenges. Dina had big ideas about their needs but was struggling with pinpointing next steps.
I offered to Dina that I could model how I collect data, showing her how I created a conferring-notes grid with her students’ names and used those notes to decide on next steps.
“Yes, yes, great! I love it. I get it!” Dina gushed.
Collaboration Takes a Turn
As I began to take a more collaborative rather than just supportive role in Dina’s classroom, I began to notice a pattern:
We both had grids (which Dina seemed to respond to with enthusiasm) to collect data, but after talking to one student, Dina would set the grid aside and continue breezing about the room to chat with students, seemingly without purpose.
After we managed to pull together some data (from my notes and some work samples), Dina and I mapped out a few lessons. But when I would arrive at her classroom to teach together, Dina more often than not would have changed the plans in favor of something she’d found that was “more fun.”
On the two occasions that Dina asked me to model minilessons, modeling turned into co-teaching with Dina, which turned into 25-minute maxilessons.
After several weeks of working together, Dina and I fell into a pattern of interaction that was hard to break. Dina was comfortable with me being in a helping position, but not a power position, in her classroom. She was comfortable with having a new social relationship, but not a professionally challenging one. I asked myself, For all of her friendliness and enthusiasm, what kind of interaction is Dina really looking for? What is she saying about coaching, and how is this different from what her actions are showing me?
Failure to Break the Pattern
After consistent lack of follow-through, I had to have one of my first more challenging conversations with Dina. I caught her alone during plan time and said, “I noticed you changed up the plans for today after we’d spent some great time together yesterday mapping out lessons. Can we talk about what our plan will be for communicating about those changes before class time?”
Dina shifted uncomfortably in her chair and waved her hand casually.
“Oh, you know how I like to go with the flow—I found something online last night that will fit better, so I thought we could try that.”
She immediately averted her eyes and started scrolling through her phone and drinking her coffee.
Dina’s casual response and her body language told me that she was not interested in engaging in this conversation any further. In that unexpected moment, I struggled to find the line of questioning that could drive the conversation deeper. Instead, I decided that I would gracefully take my exit and simply back off. Dina appeared to be most interested in the social relationship before the professional one, so I needed to preserve the social relationship that we had pieced together and continue to reflect on ways to take it to the professional level.
Norms Are Key
Though I had preserved the relationship for the time being, upon reflection, I now know that an initial norm-setting conversation would have allowed me to push Dina’s and my tough conversation deeper. At the start of a new school year, for efficiency and effectiveness, I need to consider writing shared norms with any teacher before collaborating. Although my collaboration with Dina failed, it did teach me the importance of stepping back in my coaching relationships, taking an honest look at their dynamics, and recognizing when I need to make changes.