The Coaching Chronicles #3: Show up with the right intention
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
In her powerful book The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar (2013) wrote, "The art of coaching is doing, thinking, and being; doing a set of actions, holding a set of beliefs, and being in a way that results in those actions leading to a change." Yet what set of beliefs should coaches hold? How should they view themselves in relation to the teachers they work with? Why did they become instructional coaches in the first place? The answers to these questions will determine a coach's effectiveness long before he or she ever walks into a classroom.
One temptation before coaches is to focus on building relationships to the exclusion of all other considerations. Termed coaching light by Killion (2009), some coaches stray toward being accepted, appreciated, and liked by their peers as their ultimate goal. Building and maintaining relationships, to them, is more important than improving teaching and learning. Thus, they limit their focus of their interactions to praise or recall-level questions, avoiding hard topics that might put the relationship in jeopardy. Coaching light results in coaches being well-liked but not needed.
Noted author, researcher, and coaching thought leader Jim Knight (2017) draws a distinction between three types of coaching approaches. Facilitative coaching views teachers as partners who make most if not all of the decisions. Coaches don't bring their expertise but instead draw it from the teacher. Directive coaching, on the other hand, is akin to a master-apprentice relationship. The coach's expertise is at the heart of this approach and the goal is fidelity of implementation by the teacher. The third approach is dialogical coaching, which Knight views as a balance between inquiry and advocacy. Powerful questions are asked, like in the facilitative approach, but the coach's expertise is not withheld. Coaches share strategies and let the teacher decide which one to implement.
Intention is what allows coaches to filter out activities that do not move them in the right direction (Kee, Anderson, Dearing, Harris, & Shuster, 2010). When coaches have a coach-like intention, their actions are focused and productive. If, however, coaches have contrary intentions, or their intentions are unknown even to them, much work produces little to no gain. To maximize effectiveness, research and literature recommends avoiding one intention while embracing another.
One intention that coaches should avoid like the plague is that of Mr. or Mrs. Fix-it. When coaches communicate, overtly or subliminally, that they are in the school to fix bad teachers, those hearing that message will resist their advances to protect their own identity (Knight, 2009). Even if their assistance is greatly needed or the expertise they provide is producing great results, the air of superiority will proceed them and wither any potential partnership. Instructional coaches who see themselves as experts and believe that teachers simply need to buy-in to their good advice will likely encounter a lot of resistance (Knight, 2017).
This becomes difficult when coaches consider that they were placed in their position for those very reasons. Their experience, skill set, and knowledge brought them to the level of coaching and placed them in a position of rendering assistance to those in need. While these descriptors might be true, they stand in the way of fruitful collaboration. Coaches and teachers should work together as peers, not fall into a dynamic of the coach attempting to manipulate teachers into agreeing with the goals they have already chosen (DeWitt, 2017). As Stephen R. Covey so eloquently wrote, you lead people but manage and control things (Covey, 2005).
An attitude of superiority becomes evident in their actions when coaches spend an inordinate amount of time in the I Do stage of lesson modeling. By focusing heavily on the pedagogical prowess of the coach, the assumption is communicated that teachers have little or nothing to bring to the table unless the coach shows them how to do it. This reinforces the idea that the coach is the expert and the teacher isn't, thus furthering a maladaptive relationship (Sweeney & Harris, 2016).
Additionally, implied teacher inferiority can show up in teacher-coach conversations. When discussing potential strategies or the outcomes of a lesson, sometimes coaches find themselves just dying to convince the teacher that their way or interpretation is best. At that point, coaches would be wise to back off their current approach and think what they really want for themselves, their teacher, and their relationship (Patterson, Grenny, Switzler, & McMillan, 2012). Assuming that improving instruction takes precedent over being right, an approach based on mutual respect would be more beneficial.
The perspective that coaches should instead hold within themselves is one of partnership and equality. This intention is made evident when coaches operate from a foundation of respect. Instead of operating from a position of superiority, "Coaches are most effective when they act is critical friends, simultaneously providing support and empowering teachers to see areas where they can improve" (Knight, 2009).
One upside of approaching the coach-teacher relationship from an intention of respect is that it eliminates a one-size-fits-all approach, which presumes a solution before the situation is fully known. Responsive and respectful coaches need to be open to exploring many different pathways toward a goal and be prepared to share valuable expertise (Knight, 2017). Rather than dictating a preformed response or panacea, powerful coaches approach situations from a mindset of mutual respect, acknowledging that the teacher has as much or more to contribute to the solution than the coach. Coaching, like leadership, is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves (Covey, 2005).
One area that is critical for respect to abound in is coaching conversations. Coaches who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make conversations safe for everyone to add their knowledge to the shared pool of meaning, even ideas that at first seem wrong, controversial, or at odds with their own beliefs. As the stakes get higher, coaches must find ways keep the conversations flowing and ensure that everyone continues to contribute to the shared pool of meaning. The foundation for this type of dialogue is mutual respect. It's like air - if you take it away, it's all that people can think about (Patterson et al., 2012).
Cognitive coaching, developed by Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston, describes coaches as mediators of thinking. As such, cognitive coaches demonstrate respect by being neutral and nonjudgmental in supporting another's thinking toward being self-directed. They don't solve other people's problems for them because that would rob them of an opportunity to grow (Ellison & Hayes, 2009). Conversations should be life-giving because coaches go into them expecting that both partners will leave more fully alive (Knight, 2015).
Coaches operate from an intention of respect when they choose to coach heavy as opposed to coaching light. This includes high-stakes interactions with teachers, not delivered with a heavy hand but with significant impact. This makes teachers feel a heightened sense of professionalism, excitement, increased efficacy and satisfaction, and ultimately respect. One hallmark of coaching heavy is that conversations focus more on beliefs and goals than knowledge and skills (Killion, 2009).
The next issue of The Coaching Chronicles continues to look at how a coach shows up each day by examining their beliefs and position within a healthy dialogue.
Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Covey, S. R. (2005). The 8th habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.
DeWitt, P. M. (2017). Collaborative leadership: Six influences that matter most. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Ellison, J., & Hayes, C. (2009). Cognitive coaching. In J. Knight (Ed.), Coaching: Approaches and perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Kee, K., Anderson, K., Dearing, V., Harris, E., & Shuster, F. (2010). RESULTS coaching: The new essential for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Killion, J. (2009). Coaches' roles, responsibilities, and reach. In J. Knight (Ed.), Coaching: Approaches and perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Knight, J. (2009). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Knight, J. (2015). Better conversations: Coaching ourselves and each other to be more credible, caring, and connected. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Knight, J. (2017). The impact cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Switzler, A., & McMillan, R. (2012). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sweeney, D., & Harris, L. (2016). Student-centered coaching: The moves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.