How can coaches and administrators promote a partnership approach in coaching?
Years of research made the argument that a partnership approach is instrumental to effective coach-teacher collaboration. Teachers learn better in spaces where they can take ownership of their learning and collectively participate in the learning process with peers. The Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 teachers who described coaching as a partnership with shared responsibilities reported greater improvement in addressing their classroom challenges. These teachers described joint decision-making in their collaboration with their coach and viewed their coach as a thought partner with whom they collectively found solutions to teaching challenges.
Jim Knight defines seven principles—equality, dialogue, reflection, praxis, choice, voice, and reciprocity—that together describe the attitude that coaches should hold to build a partnership with teachers. Following Knight’s conceptualization, we suggest three strategies that coaches and school/district administrators can put in place to facilitate the development of partnership between coaches and teachers:
1. Coaches and school/district administrators should clarify teachers’ roles up front.
It is widely acknowledged that when administrators introduce a coaching program to their staff, providing clear information on coaching and the role of the coach is necessary for the success of that program. That being said, it is also crucial that the role of teachers be clearly defined and communicated up front. When teachers understand from the beginning what they themselves are expected to do in the coaching program, they better understand the concept of coaching, more quickly trust their coach, and are more likely to be active agents in the collaboration. As the coach-teacher collaboration matures, teachers who see themselves as partners feel increasingly empowered to take the lead in initiating ideas and applying next steps, and are better positioned to sustain and extend their progress after their formal collaboration with the coach ends.
Tips for success:
- When coaches and administrators first introduce a coaching program to their staff, they should define the role of both the coach and the teacher in the collaboration. This should include explaining that the coach serves the role of thought partner (as opposed to an expert advising someone less knowledgeable) who shares ideas and experience to help the teacher navigate complex challenges. Teachers should understand that their role is to act purposefully and constructively to direct the coaching work. Through this process,the coach-teacher dyad will be able to create something more powerful than either of them could have produced on their own.
- When beginning one-on-one collaboration with a teacher, coaches should share concrete examples of the active role that the teacher will play in all steps of the coaching partnership (e.g., identifying their goals, identifying and implementing strategies to meet their goals, deciding what type of data the coach should collect in classroom visits, interpreting and reflecting on the data, deciding how to revise strategies).
2. Coaches and school/district administrators should solicit teachers’ voluntary participation.
Multiple theories of adult learning tell us that adult learners need to be able to choose their own learning opportunities based on their individual needs and interests. DLP teachers who volunteered to work with their coach reported greater improvement in addressing their classroom challenges compared to teachers who were assigned to participate in the program. Coaches and administrators can solicit teachers’ voluntary participation using the following strategies:
Tips for success:
- At the beginning of the year, a kick-off event that introduces the alignment between coaching and school and district goals can energize teachers to participate. This helps them understand that the coach is there only to make teacher’s lives easier rather than adding additional work to teachers’ plates.
- Early volunteers for coaching can also be leveraged to recruit their colleagues by sharing testimonials, both formally in larger faculty meetings, and informally through word-of-mouth and social media. “Happy customers are the best salespeople,” said a DLP teacher.
- Building rapport with teachers in smaller group settings can help coaches establish relationships and recruit more volunteer teachers. In these smaller settings (e.g., by visiting grade-level and department meetings to share strategies and tools), coaches can build relationships by listening to individual teachers’ needs and perspectives and by sharing success stories, and teachers can feel more comfortable asking questions about what participation in sustained coaching would look like.
3. Coaches and school/district administrators should promote a non-evaluative approach.
Teachers are more willing to volunteer to be coached when coaches and administrators create a safe environment where teachers feel comfortable trying new practices without fear of judgment. As one DLP principal explained, “The reason people engage, I think, and engage as willingly is because of the confidentiality connected to it.” This non-evaluative relationship supports partnership and open collaboration, and results in greater progress in teacher learning. DLP teachers who experienced non-evaluative coaching were more likely to see improvement in their teaching practice as a result of working with their coach.
Tips for success:
- Coaches and administrators should repeatedly emphasize the non-evaluative aspect of the coaching work and be open with teachers about the extent to which information that the coach collects during their collaboration with teachers will be kept confidential. This communication should not only occur when the program is launched, but it should also be reiterated throughout the year in staff meetings by the school administrator and by the coach.
- In interactions with teachers, coaches should take care to provide objective feedback (e.g., sharing classroom data and inviting teachers to reflect and draw their own conclusions), and avoid judgemental and directive statements. “If you can lead [teachers] to their own natural [conclusion on] what is their next step or action step, then they’re most likely going to do it, because that’s what they believe it is. If they’re told, ‘this is it,’ it’s not authentic,” said a DLP coach.
- Before visiting a teacher’s classroom, coaches should be transparent about the purpose of the visit, collaboratively decide with the teacher about what type of data the coach will collect during the visit, and share any forms they will be using for collecting data.