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Building productive coaching relationships: The role of school leaders

Nili Pearlmutter
April 20, 2015

Stock PhotoWith the advent of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics, more educational leaders, including teachers, administrators and policymakers, are realizing the need to change the way math is taught. Simply adopting a math curriculum that aligns with the standards will not lead to learning changes, so many schools and districts are turning to instructional coaches.

In fall 2014, I investigated the on-the-ground work of math coaches. Six people with current or former responsibility for coaching math teachers agreed to let me interview them and, in two cases, observe a day of their work. It comes as no surprise that all of them strongly emphasized the need to build effective professional relationships with the teachers they coached. While relationships are at the heart of any teaching situation, elementary math coaches face particular obstacles. In order to support teacher growth, math coaches must develop trusting relationships. School and district administrative leaders who want to use instructional coaching as a strategy for improving instruction would do well to collaborate with coaches so that the their leadership choices support the development of a productive relationship between the coach and the teachers.

Relationships are strongly influenced by the expectations that coaches and teachers bring to the table. Carefully introducing the coach and communicating the coach’s role and responsibilities to all stakeholders is a first, critical step. Consider the story of one coach, who on her first day was told by her principal to introduce herself to the teachers. As she approached one room, the teacher inside hurried to the door and, pointing her index finger so that it touched the coach’s nose, stated emphatically, “You are not coming in!”  That teacher feared the coach was performing a surprise evaluation.  Another coach was sitting in on a weekly first-grade team meeting in order to support the planning process, when one of the teachers turned to him and asked in a hostile voice, “Why are you here?” That teacher viewed the weekly meeting as a time to collaborate with fellow first-grade teachers and perceived the coach’s participation as a distraction. In both of these situations, a mismatch in expectations led to mistrust between the coach and teacher.

Another critical aspect that drives the coach-teacher relationship is the way the work is, or isn’t, embedded into the daily schedule. One coach had time scheduled each week to plan with several teachers and time to observe them, but no time to debrief. This sent a message not only about the nature of the work they were expected to do but the kinds of talk in which they might engage. Another coach believed that her most effective work could be done by creating collaborative relationships with teams of teachers, yet teaching teams did not have any common planning time or a regularly scheduled opportunity to meet with the coach. A third coach’s role included teaching duties that coincided with the times the teachers he was supposed to coach taught math, thus precluding any opportunity for him to observe teaching and implicitly sending the message that observation and discussion of practice were not expected to be part of the relationship.

To avoid terse situations and mismatched expectations, coaches and principals should meet before the coach begins work. Here are some topics to consider:

  1. Set expectations for the coach’s role. What kind of communication is expected between the coach and principal?  Will the coach serve as an evaluator?  Will teachers be present during any discussion of their teaching practice?  What role is the coach expected to play on teaching teams?
  2. Consider school schedules. Are there opportunities for substantive, collaborative work, such as observation and debriefing or working with teaching teams? School schedules are complex and this step may help the principal and coach clarify goals and choose priorities.
  3. Pay attention to communication. After these decisions about role and schedule are made, it is important to communicate them to the teachers, preferably with an opportunity for teachers to provide feedback, share anticipated conflicts, and raise questions.

When leaders clarify for themselves the roles and responsibilities of instructional coaches, communicate that vision to all stakeholders and make room in the schedule for this coaching work to happen, it supports the development of a productive coaching relationship.

Nili Pearlmutter is a senior education specialist at Brandeis University. A former elementary-school teacher, she has spent the last 12 years teaching and coaching teachers at all stages of their development, from pre-service to veteran.  She is also a founding faculty member for Brandeis University’s new Teacher Leader Program, which prepares teachers to be effective instructional leaders.

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