In my work as a consultant in schools around the country, I’ve seen first-hand the power that effective coaches can have on teachers and ultimately, students. Establishing a culture of coaching is more than simply training coaches to support new hires or conduct grade-level observations. Receiving feedback, as much as people will say they welcome it, translates much differently when it actually happens. As a part of an organization that presents an innovative way of establishing a positive classroom culture, during in-service days or in conversations, educators will often express how excited they are about learning a new approach and how they can’t wait to get started.
However, I often find that when folks are observed, or walkthroughs are taking place, we start to see anxiety, push back and even sudden schedule conflicts that impact coaching sessions. As educators, most of us express a desire to improve our craft, but putting ourselves out there in a culture that isn’t used to feeling safe around feedback can make hiring and training any coach or PD expert a waste of resources. Without an intentional plan to develop and foster a culture of collaboration and coaching, the best methods and training won’t translate into results. All too often, when coaching is placed upon teachers in a school without this culture, it can actually set them back.
As my colleague wrote recently, a culture where transparent feedback is normed among leaders and teachers alike, and coaching is a consistent part of each week, helps a school to be more effective overall, and helps educators put a growth mindset into practice. This takes intentionality on the leader’s part to guide the school to that place.
Many of the leaders I’ve worked with, while fully bought into the value of coaching, have struggled with knowing exactly how to create this culture in their schools so that coaching is impactful. I’ve found that the key is to set the stage by using effective and consistent context setting and then implementing it with careful and deliberate language. Too much feedback, or jumping into a feedback session without knowing a teacher’s mindset can derail your efforts and make the teacher feel like coaching and collaboration is evaluative and too risky to engage in. To aid administrators in using language effectively, I’ve created a list of strategies to create a strong culture of coaching that will last throughout the year.
Limit the number of items in the feedback you provide colleagues.
Effective leaders must commit to using clear language with a concise but high yielding suggested next step. This is not a time to go over each piece of the observation and analyze every move, as you may during an evaluation. Consolidate your messaging into a theme and give one key lever to change that will spark a big result. This feedback should allow your colleague to experience quick wins right away versus giving too much feedback that could leave them feeling defeated and/or overwhelmed. Let’s review an example here: Let’s say your teacher struggled to get all students on task and engaged. This happened multiple times in the observation, but you decided to consolidate your feedback into one example that represented the “theme” and knew that this next step would be a good starting point to guide the teacher to. This can sound like: Today you had almost every student engaged in the collaborative learning activity and those who were working had clear expectations. For the few who weren’t working, use positive narration and notice those working around them so they can self-regulate and get on task.
During coaching conversations, use asset-based language.
There may be times when you are observing a lesson that a teacher requires immediate, “in-the-moment coaching” by you to help them get their class to a place where learning is occurring. When identifying a need for coaching in-the-moment, you will have to be quick, concise and empowering. Instead of beginning with statements like, “here’s the problem,” start off with identifying a behavior that, if they change, will create a different outcome for kids. I tell leaders and coaches to eliminate words like “fix” and replace with words like “develop” or “extend.” This would sound something like: You are moving on before everyone is with you, so they can’t all get your directions. Stop, pause, scan and narrate all those you have looking at you, and ensure you take the time to get everyone before you start on your next direction.
When providing feedback during a coaching moment, comment on something your teacher does well before you give them an area of growth. I strongly recommend eliminating the word “but,” because it negates any positives you just delivered (i.e. “I saw you working hard to give precise directions, but you were moving around too much when you gave them”). Leverage a norm called “Affirm and Push” – affirm one thing they are doing well and show them how they can use that strength to push their thinking around something else. This can sound like: I saw you referring to your clipboard to state your directions precisely. Great planning! This allowed you and your students to be clear on the expectations for the activity. As you give your expectations, your clarity will be enhanced if you are standing still and squaring up when delivering directions vs. moving around the room.
Tie feedback back to a common goal.
Nearly every grade-level team in schools across the country have common goals that are typically around student achievement, attendance, or improving discipline issues. When observing a colleague, whether it is planned or in passing, connect your feedback to a common goal that each member of the school can get behind. For example, if you are talking with a teacher about using their discipline hierarchy effectively, help them understand how their consistent, equitable, and fair use of consequences could lead to reducing suspensions this year and stronger relationships with their students.
Be targeted when checking for understanding.
Checking for understanding is an essential part of coaching conversations, but take care to avoid asking yes or no questions that could end the conversation and leave others feeling defeated. This can sound like, “Tell me one thing you’re hearing from this conversation, one thing you’re clear on, and one thing you’re going to begin doing.” It’s easy to overload on each other when having coaching conversations, especially when they are based on longer classroom observations. If you’re giving difficult or hard to implement feedback, always provide resources and support as a leader to help the teacher succeed. If you can, schedule the next time you’ll stop by their classroom or the next time you can meet to discuss their progress.
Establishing a culture of coaching takes time and relationships with colleagues in order to implement. It begins, however, with intentional shifts in language that leaders can make immediately. As I wrote in Leadership magazine about the school leader’s role in creating a culture of coaching, this kind of work can ensure the school staff is ready to take on new initiatives, higher goals, and create culturally relevant classrooms for students.
By William Sprankles
Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning, Butler Tech in Hamilton, OH
Check out William’s post on the consequences of not giving feedback here.