Let’s get real. Being an instructional coach can come with many of the same beginning of the year anxieties felt by teachers: Will the students like me? Are they learning? Am I doing a good job? How will I facilitate those crucial conversations? The good news is, being an instructional coach is a lot like being a teacher; the biggest difference is your audience. ‘And if you have been in the classroom for any length of time, I have a good feeling you understand many of the needs of those you are working with.
One of the first tasks to consider when taking on the role of an instructional coach is to build trust among those whom you are working with. Just as students have a basic need to feel comfortable and safe in their learning environment, instructional coaches need to ensure teachers feel comfortable and safe in their environment as a learner as well – which comes from developing trust. Trust is an important piece to becoming an effective instructional coach because it will determine the amount of value you are able to add to a teacher’s professional growth. Instructional coaching is one of those positions within a school system that is complex because though the primary job in supporting teachers is important, instructional coaches often don’t possess any authoritative power on the campus. Therefore, it is critical to have willing participants in this process. Trust is a vital component in ensuring the promotion of a growth mindset, rather than merely conducting a series of meetings that aren’t beneficial to you or your teachers.
Here are 5 easy steps you can use right away to build trust with your teachers:
Step # 1: Build the Relationship First
Any veteran teacher will know that in order to effectively teach a child, you must build a relationship with them first; after all, kids don’t listen to those they don’t like. Working with teachers as an instructional coach is no different – you can’t just walk into a meeting and dive into feedback and solutions. There must first be a relationship between the teacher and the coach to act as a foundation upon which those feedback conversations can occur.
Consider beginning your first meeting with a personal interview of the teacher. Ask the teacher how their day is going. Ask about their family or their interests. This will help you break the ice with that teacher and give you something to connect with on a personal level. More important than asking these questions, is remembering the responses and taking that with you into future meetings. A great way to organize all of this information is to create a digital note for each teacher on your coaching cycle to keep track of these important details. You’ll then be able to remember to ask the teacher how their 4 year old enjoyed their birthday party, take a chocolate bar to that stressed out teacher because you know it’s their favorite, or offer to help a teacher set up their new iPhone X because you know they waited in line for it all weekend. These small acts help teachers to see the instructional coach on a more personal level and will help build trust between the two because teachers will understand you are approaching them as an individual and a professional. Once the relationship between the teacher and the coach is developed, the teacher and coach have a better chance at collaborating and working together toward professional growth.
Remember, it doesn’t matter if you are talking about the football game over the weekend, your favorite HomeGoods store or that TV show you can’t seem to stop binging; if the teacher feels more personally connected and appreciated, they will be more professionally motivated.
Step #2: Listen and Empathize
You may have heard the old saying, “You have two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you talk” – this could not be more true for instructional coaches. As an instructional coach, you will spend most of your time listening to the needs of your teachers and only a small amount of time actually facilitating the discussion. As an instructional coach, or as an instructional therapist as many teachers may end up calling you, the majority of your meetings are a chance for teachers to have their voices heard in ways they may not otherwise. Teachers, especially those who trust their coaches, will be very candid in their conversation and will often illuminate challenges or obstacles unknown to the untrained eye. The instructional coach must first, and foremost listen to understand before speaking to solve. Another integral component of listening is empathizing with your teachers.
Empathy is one of the greatest assets an instructional coach can possess. Think about the number of times teachers are frustrated with administration, district personnel, or policymakers because they are “too far removed from the struggles of the classroom.” The teachers you are coaching need to know their instructional coach empathizes with their struggles. Teachers want to know that they are heard and they aren’t in the trenches alone as those sent to support them stand by and watch.
Teachers like to know that their concerns are heard and their voices valued. Empathizing with them goes a long way in building a trusting relationship with your teachers because they will know you are truly there to support their individual needs and are not just a “one more thing” initiative. In coaching meetings, consider recounting some experiences from your time as a classroom teacher – while some may argue this is an exercise in misery loves company, it is rather a shared experience that builds credibility. Teachers who know their instructional coach has felt the same struggles they are currently feeling and were able to work through them are more likely to follow prescribed feedback and suggestions than teachers who believe their instructional coach is living in an idealistic fantasy land.
Step #3: Establish Teacher-Coach Confidentiality
Privacy is a huge builder of trust between an instructional coach and the teachers they are working with. As teacher evaluations become more robust and the stakes to perform becomes higher, teachers still need to have a safe space to try new things that may potentially fail. There is a reason doctors and lawyers have patient/client privileges – because what happens in these spaces is highly personal and puts people in a state of vulnerability. The first time an instructional coach makes a recommendation to a teacher, it is likely that teacher will shy away from implementing the strategy or tool depending on the level of unfamiliarity. Teachers do not like to fail, and they especially do not like to fail in front of an audience – whether that be their students, their content specialists, or their administrators. As the instructional coach, it is your job to help teachers through these challenges in a low stakes environment. Conversations that take place between the teacher and the coach should remain between the teacher and the coach – and an instructional coach should never be put in the position to act as an evaluator. If a strategy or tools fails on implementation, the instructional coach’s job is not to evaluate, report or shame – in this moment go back to step 2: listen and empathize. Trust and safety go hand in hand. If a teacher trusts their coach they won’t be afraid to fail, but teachers aren’t afraid to fail unless surrounded by those they trust.
As an instructional coach, it must be abundantly clear that our intent is to support teachers in their professional growth. It takes great courage for teachers to allow a stranger into their classroom and see its inner workings on a daily basis, and coaches need to be cognizant of this anxiety and vulnerability. Do not fall into the trap of teacher’s lounge gossip circles, you need to keep information about meetings and classroom visits between you and the teacher if you want to build a trusting and positive relationship.
Step #4: Meet Teachers Where They Are
In order to be a successful instructional coach, you will need to learn how to differentiate your approach for each of the teachers you work with and meet them where they are. It is likely that some teachers will be ‘high flyers’ and will be well versed in technology, pedagogy and instructional strategies; but there will also be some brand new teachers, teachers that need extra support, and teachers who are a little less apt to change what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years of their career. Part of empathizing with teachers is meeting them on their level.
Again, veteran teachers know all about proximity with students, and getting eye level to have crucial conversations – I’m not saying we need to physically get on our teacher’s level, but metaphorically we do. Not all of our teachers are going to be comfortable with coaching or the tools and strategies we prescribe. We need to understand where our teachers are and let that inform where they will go. For instance, if a teacher has never used technology in their classroom before, you can’t fire right out of the gate with technology tools. You may have to start small, you may have to simplify your vocabulary and walk the teacher through step by step. The more you walk alongside your teachers and guide them, the more trust they will have in you because they can see you aren’t just writing a prescription and walking out, but you are instead seeing the whole process through – you are there as a safety net in times of need.
Teachers know their students best, and should be supported in making decisions that will most benefit those students, rather than imposing a rigid checklist written by someone else. Many times, through coaching conversation, teachers will start coming up with ideas on their own and they take ownership of those ideas.
Step #5: Refrain from Being Judgmental
The final step to developing effective teacher-coach trust is to refrain from being judgmental. It is too easy to walk into someone else’s classroom and unfairly criticize what you see because it’s not the same way you would have done things in your classroom. Each teacher you work with is a professional; they have undergone training and certification to be where they are now and are experts in their field – they deserve to be treated as such. We know that teachers face a lot of criticism from the outside world so we don’t need to perpetuate that as their instructional coach. Remember back to step 2, it is an instructional coach’s job to listen and empathize with their teachers, not to judge them.
To prevent this judgement, it is important for instructional coaches to stay up to date on the happenings in the classroom – this is why classroom visits are an essential part of the instructional coaching model. As an instructional coach, you need to assume positive intent from your teachers, and trust that teachers are making the best decisions for their students based on their current needs, whether or not that aligns with your own bias.
Establishing trust with teachers you are coaching is one of the most essential elements to the coaching model and lays the foundation for growth. Teachers who trust their coach are more likely to build capacity on their campuses and promote growth among their own colleagues. Building trust, like any other part of a relationship, may take time, but it’s definitely time well spent.
Heather Dowd is the Senior Director of the Dynamic Learning Project for EdTechTeam. She enjoys helping instructional coaches inspire their teachers to use technology in meaningful ways for student learning. Teaching English in Japan inspired her to become a teacher and the adventure hasn’t stopped. Heather is a Google for Education Certified Innovator and Trainer, Apple Distinguished Educator, and author of “Classroom Management in the Digital Age” where she encourages teachers to set the learning free with a solid classroom management plan. She is a former physics teacher, instructional designer, and education technology coach who loves talking about physics, digital citizenship, coaching, spreadsheets, and design. She believes that students should have access to current technology in order to connect to the world and be creative in ways that weren’t possible when she was in school.