How to Structure an Effective Coaching Conversation
Teachers hate meetings, they just do. If you ask a teacher how a meeting went, they’d likely respond with, “it could’ve been an email.” We’ve all been there. I’m even guilty of giving that response. My theory as to why teachers hate meetings is because meetings take time. Teachers do not have a lot of extra time throughout the course of a school day, nearly every minute is accounted for. When meetings get scheduled, that takes time that was already allocated for something else the teacher had planned. The worst possible outcome for a meeting is for a teacher to feel like that allocation of their time was wasteful or inefficient.
As an instructional coach, you are already facing an uphill battle with teachers. Coaching requires meetings and meetings require teachers to reallocate some of their time, which can be overwhelming or burdensome on their daily schedule. I have had several teachers back out of instructional coaching because of the time commitment it requires. It is imperative that as instructional coaches we ensure that our coaching meetings are productive and efficient for our teachers. If your meetings are valued by your teachers, they will go out of their way to make them a priority. The first coaching meeting is the most essential. If you can win teachers over in the first meeting, they will be more open-minded and coachable for the subsequent meetings that will follow. I currently have several teachers on my caseload that tell me they look forward to our coaching conversations, and have asked to be coached for the duration of the school year. The best way to ensure that coaching conversations are viewed as a benefit to your teachers is to come to meetings prepared, with clear goals and objectives, and a plan.
As teachers, we were required to lesson plan for our classes. Over time, and with experience, you may have been able to survive a class period or two without a lesson plan, but lessons are smoother, more strategic and tend to dive deeper when thoughtfully planned ahead of time. Coaching conversations are no different. Just as teachers need to come to class with a lesson plan, instructional coaches must also plan – on paper – for their coaching conversations. One of the greatest mistakes a new coach can make is going into coaching meetings unprepared – I know, because I’ve done it.
When I first started coaching, I took the “I’ll go where the conversation takes me” approach, but what I’ve found is that it is an inefficient use of time. The first few minutes of the meeting were typically spent in awkward silence as the teacher prepared themselves for the conversation. Next came several minutes of pleasantries and ‘get to know you’ type questions. Then I would ask about what teachers are doing in their classes and what they’d like support with in the hopes that something would spark an idea. More often than not, the teacher would just go over their lesson plans, I’d say “that sounds great” and we would go our separate ways. Sometimes a teacher would ask me if I had a tool, strategy or activity for a particular class and I would have to say, “I don’t know, let me do some work and get back to you.” Had I prepared ahead of time, I could come to meetings with pointed questions, recommendations and resources, thus maximizing the time we had together.
So how do we create this plan?
Planning for a coaching conversation is similar in many ways to planning a lesson. Each lesson has clear goals, a route to meet those goals, and anticipated challenges that might arise. Coaching conversations should follow the same path. As you work with teachers, one of the first things you do is identify the challenge they want to work on. That challenge becomes the goal. Next, you identify strategies and tools to help them address that challenge. That becomes the route to meet the goal. Just as teachers need to think about challenges that might arise in their lessons, coaches need to consider challenges as well. Will a strategy work for different class sizes? Does the teacher have the resources they need? Does the teacher need to learn how to use a particular tool or program for a lesson?
These are all considerations the coach needs to make as they prepare for a coaching conversation. Teachers will often review material that might be helpful, practice the activity themselves, or even keep notes closeby as they teach to help guide the lesson when needed. Coaches should do the same. I rarely recommend a tool or a strategy that I haven’t already used myself, because as teachers implement something new they will have questions, and as an instructional coach, you need to be prepared to answer those or at least help troubleshoot. Similarly to planning a lesson, when you plan a coaching conversation you need to keep in mind that you may need to change course, modify plans, or even abandon what you had planned because some other pressing need presents itself throughout the conversation. So, let’s dive on in.
Step 1: Identify the objective for the conversation
Is this an initial coaching conversation where you need to explain how instructional coaching will work? Is this the goal-setting meeting in which you help the teacher identify their challenge area? Is this a follow-up meeting after a classroom visit or implementation of a new instructional tool or strategy?
The first step to plan a coaching conversation is to identify where the teacher needs to go in a particular meeting. To do this, you can read over the notes and reflections you made after the last coaching meeting. This helps you as the instructional coach remember what challenges your teacher is having, what strategies or tools you’ve already recommended and gives you a place to begin the conversation. For an instructional coach, keeping these types of notes is essential in planning for effective conversations. It does not matter if you take handwritten notes, use a collaborative Google Doc or even have something more robust like the DLP Coaching Dashboard, what is important is keeping track of each conversation you have with teachers. With several teachers on your caseload, you will not remember everything from meetings each week. By the same token, teachers will not remember everything discussed in your coaching meetings either. I recently met with a teacher and we discussed the use of digital rubrics, and then went through some ways she could organize the data that was collected. I praised the teacher for picking up on this skill so quickly, and she made a comment “yeah, but I have a class coming in soon so by the time I get back to working on this I’ll probably forget everything”. Teachers have so much on their plates already and it’s impossible for them to remember everything all the time. These notes allow both the teacher and coach to review where they’ve been and plan where they need to go. Think of it like planning for different classes, each one requires their own unique lesson plan based on where the class ended in the previous lesson.
Step 2: Identify tools and resources for scaffolding
The second thing to consider when planning for a coaching conversation is to think about where the teacher may need to go in order to move closer to their goals. Just as with students, teachers may need to have some scaffolding to get from where they started to where they want to end up. Each coaching meeting should move teachers a little bit further along than they were until the ultimate goal is reached. Consider this, when you were first learning to drive a car, did the instructor teach you to parallel parking, merge onto the highway and perform a 3 point turn all in the same lesson? No. Just as students often need material chunked and scaffolded, so do teachers. This also helps ensure that coaching meetings continue to be productive, because each one builds upon the meeting before it. Teachers are able to learn one skill or tool, become comfortable with it and then add more depth or complexity later on. This is very similar to working with students. As a teacher, you must constantly assess where your students are, where they need to be and what the next step is in getting them there.
Step 3: Script your meeting
Though planning for a coaching meeting is important, it is just as important that you don’t over plan. Remember, we do not want our coaching conversations to turn into coaching interrogations. When I first started teaching, I would script my entire class. I would write down exactly what I wanted to say at each step of the lesson and it would throw me for a loop when the student’s wouldn’t respond the way I had scripted it. Don’t worry, I learned how to adapt. Just as teaching, coaching conversations should be organic and ebb and flow where needed. Teachers, much like students, may not realize if we subtly guide the conversation in a particular direction with thoughtful questions, but as instructional coaches we also need to be prepared to go in a different direction entirely based on our teacher’s needs.
The number one barrier for many coaches is time. Time is an obstacle not just in ensuring meetings are productive, but it takes time to prepare for each meeting. As a teacher, lesson planning takes time. Teachers are often afforded a planning period, because schools recognize that planning effective lessons requires time and they want to ensure that teachers have the opportunity to do so. As an instructional coach, we don’t get a planning period. What we do get, however, is the ability to moderate our own schedules. Set aside a planning period for yourself each day or each week. Block off that time on your calendar to protect it, and use that time to review previous meeting notes and plan for upcoming meetings. Some conversations take a long time to plan for and some take less. The more coaching conversations you have, the more efficiently you’ll be able to plan.
There is an infinite amount of resources out there about teaching, education and instructional practices. As an instructional coach, we do our best to stay up-to-date with as much information as possible, but there is no guarantee we are going to know or remember all of it. We are more likely to guarantee that we won’t. As you plan your coaching conversations, you have an opportunity to gather some materials or resources you think may be relevant for each of your teachers. Even if the conversation digresses, you still have some tangible ideas you can leave with teachers or tools they can implement right away. Planning instructional coaching conversations allows you as an instructional coach to keep the big picture in mind and consider the needs of your teachers as they work toward their instructional goals.