When we first began providing staff development to schools, our mentor at Tufts University shared the book Strategies for Teacher Collaboration by Loviah Aldinger with us. We each carry a well-worn copy of one chapter with us at all times — “What Goes Wrong in Teacher Collaboration?” The chapter explains the different types of traps that trip up consultants and coaches who work with teachers; how you get into the traps; how to get out once you are in a trap; and how to begin to recognize patterns so you can avoid traps in the first place. We have been in our share of traps over the years, but most of the time we use these strategies to avoid them.
Trap #1: Giving Advice
When you are in a coaching role, it often seems like you should give advice to teachers. We found this trap one of the easiest to fall into unexpectedly, since it is so counterintuitive. What is the harm in giving advice?
When a teacher asks a question and a coach quickly answers, it can make the question seem trivial and the teacher feel stupid. The coach is most likely trying to be helpful, but being the “holder of answers” does not encourage collaboration. In these situations, a teacher is usually asking a question because she is genuinely struggling with an issue. The question may seem simple in the manner it is posed, but typically it is just the tip of a much more complicated problem. When we answer the question instantly, we shut down conversation rather than probing for more information to get to the bottom of the underlying problem. As coaches we want to be helpful and demonstrate our expertise, but if we are tying to create a culture of collaboration, we need to be careful about giving advice that only addresses an issue in general or superficial ways.
Here are some tips we use to avoid the advice trap:
- Always ask teachers to tell you more. Probe for more information and specific details to describe the problem.
- Tell teachers that if they are asking a question, then it is most likely not something we can answer quickly. If we could answer it quickly, then they would most likely not need to ask the question.
- Set up a time to come into the classroom to experience the question/problem together, and then reflect on the experience collaboratively.
- Brainstorm ideas with the teacher or group of teachers, and set up an action plan to solve the problem. Have the teacher try one or two of the suggested solutions, and then have her share what happened during your next meeting.
At times, teachers do truly have “quick questions” or want to “run something by you.” We don’t want to imply that we never answer questions. But we are careful to pause, notice patterns, and make sure we are finding time to solve problems collaboratively with the teachers we are coaching.
Trap # 2: Overresponsibility
Of all of the coaching pitfalls, we have probably spent the most time in the overresponsibility trap over the last ten years. This is a hard one for us. The authors of Strategies for Teacher Collaboration define this trap as “leading to a working relationship in which the work load is unbalanced. Over time, this trap can take its toll by contributing to stress and burnout.” In trying to be helpful, we tend to take on too much responsibility in our coaching relationships. This leaves teachers feeling dependent on us, and often disconnected from the process of making changes in their instruction. We like being in control of situations, so this is a favorite trap. It allows us to do everything ourselves and rely on no one else.
The theory of the gradual release of responsibility has helped us avoid this trap. In our coaching relationships, teachers often ask us to do demonstration lessons. While we know that modeling is an important aspect of coaching, we need to be certain that our coaching sessions also allow for guided practice and independent application. When we plan our coaching cycles, we use the gradual release of responsibility model as a touchstone. Here are some ways we share responsibility in our coaching:
- Even when we are planning to demonstrate a lesson for teachers, we rarely plan the lesson by ourselves. Typically we meet or email the teacher before our session, and co-plan the lesson. We use the teacher’s conferring notes and materials in planning. This allows the teacher to be a part of the lesson, even though she may not be teaching it.
- Once we have been in the classroom a few times, we begin to co-teach lessons with the teacher. We will co-plan the lesson, and then each of us will choose a section of the lesson to teach. Sometimes we break the lesson up by section, or we decide that one person will introduce the lesson and the other will close the lesson. We find most teachers want a clear plan of how we are going to co-teach, and are comfortable if we co-plan the lesson first.
- Some teachers ask us to observe them teach and provide feedback. These teachers find this is the best method for them to learn. When this occurs, we prefer to meet with the teacher to discuss the lesson before we observe. Once we have a clear understanding of the lesson, we ask the teacher what she would like us to observe – what is an area of instruction or a student she would like to us to focus on? This helps us target our feedback, and gives the teacher a focus for reflection. We find it is always more productive to provide feedback on an authentic concern of the teacher.
- If a teacher does not ask us to observe, then we typically divide responsibilities in the readers’ workshop with them. For example, we may still model the whole-class lesson, but ask them to confer with a student or small group. This allows the teacher to observe a demonstration lesson, but also gives us the opportunity to observe independent practice. By the end of our coaching cycle, most teachers are ready to let us observe them teaching the entire readers’ workshop.
Using the gradual release model in our coaching gives us plenty of opportunity for demonstrations, but also provides us with an understanding of the areas in which teachers need support. If we never see teachers instructing students, then it is difficult for us to lift the quality of their teaching because we don’t know what their learning zone is. When we strike the right balance, we find that we decrease the “stress level” of all involved.
Trap # 3: Judgment
If you have managed to not fall into the overresponsibility trap, then it is likely you are headed for the judgment trap. Once we begin co-teaching or observing teachers and providing feedback, it is very tricky not to fall into this one. Teachers often want to hear what we think, but we do not want to set ourselves up as the judges who praise or criticize. Coaching is not meant to be evaluative, but our language can often be seen as judgmental. Here are some examples of this trap:
- As coaches, we observe a great lesson and truly enjoy our experience in the teacher’s classroom. We share our thoughts with the teacher and let her know how impressed we are with the work she is doing. The teacher then shares this with her colleagues. Once we pass judgment, positive or negative, we then shift from a coaching to an evaluative role. Now all the teachers wonder what we think of their classrooms and why we have not given them similar feedback. Teachers are now nervous when we coach because they feel they are being judged. What was meant to be a compliment has morphed into a judgment.
- Teachers often come to us with issues that arise in their classrooms. In trying to understand the situation better, we begin to ask a lot of questions. The more questions we ask, the more defensive the teacher becomes. Our questions feel like judgments to the teacher. As coaches we often do need to get more information to fully understand a situation, but we need to be careful how we get that information.
- Education is filled with jargon. Often during a coaching session, we slip into jargon mode and assume the teacher understands what we are talking about. The teacher is left in the position of asking for clarification or remaining silent (and confused). This leads to the teacher feeling that her level of expertise is being judged, and once again we are in the trap!
Everyone needs feedback and encouragement. How do we communicate to teachers that we appreciate what they are doing, or express concerns without falling into this trap? We ask the teachers to provide us with areas of focus for our observations, and are careful to talk about what we noticed factually rather than giving an evaluative comment. In other words, we strive to be very specific about what we saw, and then ask for interpretations from the teacher about the meaning of what we saw. We also ask teachers to first reflect on what they noticed during the lesson, as well as questions they may have after the lesson before providing our feedback. Teachers often bring up the topics we want to discuss with them without any prompting from us, and they are controlling the discussion. In terms of clarifying questions, we try to slow down and ask more open-ended questions so the teacher does not feel as though she is being “grilled.”
Trap #4: No Relationship
At times, we find ourselves in a “dead end” coaching relationship. The situation gets to a point where we are avoiding contact with the teacher altogether. This can occur for many reasons, but what is most important in these situations is having genuine conversations with the teacher, taking on some responsibility for the problem, and finding an entry point that feels comfortable for coaching. One mentor once told us, “It doesn’t matter how I get into the room, I just get in there. Once I am in, I have about one minute to find that teacher’s brilliance. Find it, label it, and then I can extend it. I always begin with their brilliance and then see where it takes me.” This advice has helped us more times than we can count. When we look for it, we can find any teacher’s brilliance within a minute. Here are some other relationship building tips:
- We try to find time to build a relationship with the teacher outside of coaching. If we know more about the person – her family, hobbies, and interests – it helps us think about an entry point for our coaching. Many teachers bring their passions into the classroom. Starting with passions always makes it is easier to collaborate around instruction.
- We try to find out how the teacher would like to collaborate with us. Often it works best to have the teacher choose the entry point for the coaching. We find that teachers have learning styles just as varied as our students’ styles. We need to honor those variations and differentiate our coaching for our teachers as well.
- Building a coaching relationship around a student at risk is often a good entry point when we do not have a relationship with a teacher. All teachers have a student they are concerned about, and this paradoxically is an area that feels safe. These are usually students who have been puzzling staff members for years, and a focus on the student takes the focus off the teacher’s instruction.
We love coaching, but it is rarely a smooth road. Our job is not always focused on literacy, but on learning how to work with adult learners. We rarely have time to sit calmly, plan and reflect. It is no wonder we are constantly falling into traps and causing hurt feelings unintentionally — we are sometimes trying to collaborate in the midst of chaos. We hope that if we talk openly about these traps with teachers they will also recognize them, pull us out when we fall in, and understand the unintentional impact of some of our actions in the coaching relationship.