Collaborating, learning, and supporting the coaching process in underserved districts.

Author: Mandela Oxford

Time Management Tips for Coaches

Time Management Tips for Coaches

Instructional coaching is consistently variable. That makes time management tricky. It also makes effective time management absolutely essential. Here are a few important reminders: Relationship building is NEVER a waste of time. Sometimes I get to the end of a day and feel like I […]

Data Meetings that Matter

Data Meetings that Matter

The situation Last year, our leadership team struggled to have positive data meetings. We presented attendance data, passing rates, and student feedback. We asked for teacher input. We restructured and rethought and tried multiple formats. The principal, the counselor, the department heads, and I (the […]

The Value of Coaching Light

The Value of Coaching Light

Before I started coaching full-time, I used to wonder what the value of coaching light could be. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms coaching light or heavy, I suggest you check out Coaching: Approaches and Perspectives and other works by Jim Knight or Joellen Killion. I thought I would coach heavy because of the intense focus on student learning.  The results were not great. My teachers didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them, so they had no reason to listen. Then, I realized that coaching light might not be so worthless after all.

Working with teachers is more like working with students than most of us would care to admit. That means relationships are everything. As a person who prides herself on the ability to foster positive relationships, I thought I could do both: coach heavy and build rapport, not so much, actually.

In addition, let’s be honest, teachers are intimidating. Coaching heavy takes incredible guts: self-assurance, thick skin, and courage. When I was new, I felt like a fraud, like I didn’t know what I was doing yet.  Sometimes this was true, but mostly thinking I was a fraud had to do with my confidence. Coaching heavy intensified my feelings of inadequacy.

A few teachers listened and responded enthusiastically. I’m proud to say no one got nasty or defensive or generally unpleasant, but my feedback didn’t generate any instructional improvement either. I received vague platitudes, empty gratitudes, and not much else.

After a year, I switched positions for reasons that have nothing to do with coaching. In my new position, I decided to try another approach,  a relationship forward approach. This approach combined my personal relationship and my coaching relationship with each teacher. I made a conscious decision to coach lighter.

I realized that before teachers could focus on student learning, I needed to focus on teacher learning. Thankfully, I have never played a teacher’s aide or doled out random resources, but I do act as recorder and resource. While we have instructional expectations and curriculum, I value the expertise of my teachers and I make sure they know it.

The results have been undeniably positive. My relationships are stronger. My feedback is taken more seriously, even though or maybe because, I make a point to see everything and judge nothing. Teachers are seeking me out when they need ideas or support. That didn’t happen before.

Coaching light has value because it leads naturally to coaching heavy. Maybe the answer isn’t either/or. Instead, every coach has to find a balance between heavy and light that meets the needs of each teacher, of each position. The value of coaching light lies in the way it can give a coach the ability to foster positive instructional improvement built on mutually respectful relationships and commitments.

Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of the teacher isn’t exactly a real thing. But it should be. It is the teacher equivalent of ‘contempt of cop.’ Wikipedia provides the following definition: “Contempt of cop” is law enforcement jargon in the United States for behavior by people towards law enforcement […]

Meaningful Feedback-A Strategy

Meaningful Feedback-A Strategy

Today, I had a teacher tell me she “always feels so supported” when she gets feedback from my visits. That is an incredible compliment. It made me wonder why instructional coaches don’t receive feedback like that more often. I don’t have all the answers, but […]

Stuck in the Middle

Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle of…well, everyone. Not only am I navigating and sometimes mediating relationships among teachers, I also wind up third party to student-teacher, counselor-teacher, or administrator-teacher interactions.

Let me be clear: I do not take sides and I do not state an opinion. I listen, paraphrase, emphasize and look for potential paths forward. My focus is on student benefit. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that stress among faculty, and stressed out faculty, both negatively impacts students. My job requires me to be a patient listener. The ‘white hat’ so to speak.

Often, I feel boxed in by all the “peopley” needs people constantly share with me. Threading the needle of these situations is exhausting. How can I improve my instruction if I am sidetracked trying to keep the science clique from ostracizing the new teacher? When am I reviewing curriculum if I am mediating lunch time because teachers who hate each other insist on eating together with a larger group? What data am I analyzing if students are wandering into my office looking for advice?

The flip side

These are real and constant tensions. For the most part, those questions are a positive. If teachers didn’t trust and respect me, they wouldn’t seek my support. If I weren’t visible and approachable, students wouldn’t seek me out. The cultural positives of common lunch, outweigh the need for a referee. My lens has to be on why I am front and center in every potential conflict rather than how on annoying or petty they seem.

The most troubling and delicate situations, though, are the legitimate concerns brought to my attention. When these concerns are instructional, I am equipped with the tools to handle difficult conversations. Managing personalities is also something I feel is a strength.

But I am nervous about the legitimate critiques of administrators. My job isn’t to coach principals. No one told me I would have to advocate for different groups without alienating anyone else. I believe most administrators are well and truly stuck in the middle of everything. So, they get defensive or dismissive easily.

I have to remind myself I have worked hard to create positive relationships with them too. Generally, they respond positively to honest, helpful feedback. I am a teacher advocate. If I support principals, I support teachers too. I can be the bridge by thoughtfully sharing concerns.

An example:

Over the course of a week, I observed and worked closely with five teachers. Three teachers mentioned missing supplies. All three stated that they had already requested the items. The missing items will enhance instruction. What do I do?

I could have approached the administrator and pretended I am not fully aware of how supply ordering works. This makes me uncomfortable. My reputation as knowledgeable precedes me. Maybe I could have encouraged teachers to follow up. Though I hate to promote a “squeaky wheels get the grease” mentality or create unnecessary tension. The third option is the most intimidating: I could have brought the issue to the administrator’s attention.

I both did and did not do all of those things.

Teachers should be willing and able to speak with their supervisors. In this case, I know the relationships are positive enough to withstand such a minor issue. Therefore, I reminded teachers to ask, appropriately and professionally, about their orders.

Despite my hesitation, I heard about this from enough people to warrant my intervention. I feel somewhat intimidated by approaching administrators. Nonetheless, I felt a pattern emerging that needed to be disrupted. So I decided to include this issue in my weekly meeting.

In addition, I opted to play a little dumb. Or at least, to approach bringing up this problem as casually as possible. First, I gathered a few more details. Second, I left this discussion to the end of my meeting. I didn’t want to derail the positive trends we had to review. Finally, I reflected on how to craft my statement. I needed to get the message across without judgement. I also needed to stay out of it–to not take sides.

To my surprise, it worked. At least, I think it did. As I packed up to leave, I said, “By the way, a couple people mentioned they are missing supplies. How can I help with that?” He surprised me by saying the supplies have arrived. He just hasn’t gotten around to distributing them. Hopefully, my reminder will help him prioritize putting those items in teachers hands.

Lessons and Questions

I might be nervous over nothing in these situations. On the other hand, I am learning to honor my feelings. In doing so, I become more reflective. I can stay positive and feel less stuck in the middle when I am self-aware.

Changing my point of view also helped me recognize the compliment I am getting when people confide in me. I am slowly becoming more confident. Moreover, I am intentionally building strong relationships.

I still have questions. How can I better manage my time? In the long run, how can I reduce conflict among teachers? What steps will help strengthen a culture of respect? How do I advocate for everyone? Who coaches me? When will I feel like I know what I am doing?

Maybe the last question was somewhat hyperbolic. Maybe. I hate feeling like I am stuck in the middle. And I love being in the middle of everything. I am focused on adjusting the ‘stuck’ part and I hope will continue to improve.

The Missing Piece in Professional Development

The Missing Piece in Professional Development

What is the missing piece in most professional development sessions? Why is it so hard to change teacher behavior in learning new knowledge? What can we do to make teacher learning stick? We’ve all asked these questions. No matter how thoroughly we prepare or how […]

The Coach’s Role in Teacher Self-Care

The Coach’s Role in Teacher Self-Care

Coaches have a vital role to play in teacher self-care. That statement almost sounds counter-intuitive. Honestly, I kind of hate the term ‘teacher self-care.’ I worry it puts the onus of caring for teachers only in their own hands. As coaches, as schools, as districts, […]

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How Soon Is Too Soon to Observe Teachers?

How soon is too soon to visit classrooms? Maybe that is the wrong question. How soon is too soon to start observing teachers and providing feedback? This is my struggle.

Of course, as a coach, I want to get into classrooms as soon as possible. But I am fearful. If I push too hard, I run the risk of damaging the relationships my job requires. The start of the year is an overwhelming, busy, stressful experience and it takes time to establish a routine. Teachers are skittish and visiting too soon can seem pushy. For insecure teachers or in schools with a poor culture, it can seem like the ultimate gotcha. Then there are the schools where 1st week, five-minute visits are the only time anyone comes into classrooms. As you can see, most of us have a lot of baggage from bad experiences when it comes to classroom visits.

Even the terminology is problematic. ‘Observation’ has a connotation of formality and evaluation. And ‘walk-through’ was always a junk term. ‘Learning walk’ can be better depending on the implementation though it doesn’t really mean anything to most teachers. Like, who is learning? The walker or the teacher or the students? I try to say “visit”or pop-in”…and I am still not satisfied with those either.

If I wait too long, a whole different set of problems can arise. Teachers won't find me visible and will wonder what exactly I do all day. Share on X

Anyway, how soon is too soon? If I wait too long, a whole different set of problems can arise. Teachers won’t find me visible and will wonder what exactly I do all day. Administrators will want immediate data I won’t have yet. I run the risk of allowing questionable practices to go unchecked and allow my staff to feel complacent. Teachers are myopic. If it seems to be working from their own perspective, and I am not there to offer another, they are too busy to dig deeper to improve.

Teachers hate feeling judged. This is cultural–societal. We are everyone’s favorite scapegoat and most convenient target. We also push and punish ourselves for factors well beyond our control. The thought of another teacher being sanctioned to judge our teaching is unlikely to be eagerly anticipated.

So I keep wondering: How soon is too soon? My current compromise isn’t ideal and I hope time will help me develop more strategic ways to handle this question. For now, I simply pop-in to offer assistance and ask how things are going for each teacher. I don’t sit down or hang around unless I am asked to help. I don’t take notes or send feedback or do any of the anxiety triggering things that set teachers off.

Week three, all that must change. Two weeks is enough to get it together. The start of the year excuses centered around teaching rules and establishing routines have mostly expired. Students and teachers are easing from the first date to honeymoon and the instructional patterns set now will likely echo across the school year. Out comes the note-taking, questioning, feedback, and formal conversations. Well, for most teachers. A few will need an extra week or two, or perhaps another tactic.

I don’t know the answer, but I constantly wonder: How soon is too soon to visit classrooms?

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating Instructional Materials: An Integral Part of Being an Instructional Coach

Evaluating materials is often a part of the coaching gig, even though it isn’t in the typical coaching job description. We are often called on as experts to evaluate a variety of instructional materials, books, and programs. There are so many things to consider when […]