Teacher to Teacher: The Coaching Relationship
By Janice Ewing
If teaching is built upon a foundation of trust and mutual respect, nowhere is that more apparent than in the coaching relationship. Earlier in my career, my position as a reading specialist morphed into that of literacy coach. It was not a complete change, because the reading specialist role can and should incorporate sharing of strategies with teachers as well as direct work with students. There was a change in focus, though, and a lot of fuel for professional growth. One of the challenges of the literacy coaching role, I quickly learned, is to differentiate it clearly from that of supervisor or evaluator. True coaching is a collegial partnership. (See the work of Regie Routman and Cathy Toll for more on professional trust and coaching.)
Fast forward to this summer. I was one of two coaches who worked with small groups of teachers in the PAWLP Invitational Institute. I had been a participant myself in the 2004 Institute , and have coached a few times over the last few years. Like most ‘PAWLPers,’ I found the Institute experience to be transformative, and I always enjoyed the coaching aspect as well. Of course, my goal in that role each year was to be a source of support to the groups I worked with, but this year was unique. The facilitators, Mary Buckelew and Brenda Krupp, had been the facilitators for my Institute eleven years ago, and had not co-facilitated since then. So, in some ways, this experience felt like coming full circle.
As a coach in the Institute, my main role is to work with a small group of teachers to help them with their ‘demos’ – choosing a topic of inquiry, narrowing it down, finding resources to support their inquiry, and preparing a presentation for the class in which they share their work in progress and invite discussion on the topic and its application to the classrooms of the participants. The topics of the group that I worked with this summer included the use of wordless picture books across grade levels and subject areas, launching the writers’ notebook, and the implementation of mindfulness practices in the classroom. This is just a sampling of the variety and richness of the topics that were explored among the larger group.
Now that the summer segment is over (participants met on two Saturdays in the spring and will meet on one Saturday in the fall), I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience. I wanted to deconstruct the coaching aspect specifically, but realized that it was inextricably linked to the entire experience. So to begin, some overall reflections:
- The spirit of the Institute was one of inquiry and co-learning
- The growth-mindset stance encouraged stretching and risk-taking
- The above characteristics flowed through all of the various components, including the demo process
More specific to our coaching groups:
- The understanding at our first small group meeting, as well as at subsequent meetings, was that people would naturally be at different places on the continuum – searching for a topic, narrowing one down, collecting resources, etc.
- Our common goal was that we would all help each other to move forward. This might include offering specific feedback, giving suggestions about resources for or timing of the presentation, or just plain old moral support.
- We had defined coaching sessions, but we never went off-duty, so to speak. Whenever a resource or idea presented itself that might be relevant to a member of the group, we shared it or put it aside for the right moment. The groups became microcosms of the larger community.
Zooming out from this experience, I’ve been thinking about the coaching relationship overall. Why does it work so well in some situations and not others? A few thoughts:
- From the start, it’s hard to participate in a healthy and productive coaching relationship if it is not part of a larger healthy and productive system. Put another way, a toxic environment that breeds distrust, or one that is based on compliance to programs and acceleration of test scores, will not allow a true coaching partnership to thrive.
- Just as our students have different needs at different times, teachers do as well. These differences should be expected, respected, and addressed.
- Coaching needs to have its own time and space to flourish, but in a true collaborative culture it will not be limited to that time and space; it will, instead, become a mindset, a way of being.
As we look ahead to the next school year, I hope that many teachers will have the opportunity to engage in productive professional coaching relationships, whether formal or informal. I think it is worth reflecting on the process as well as the content of coaching. I invite you to share your thoughts and/or experiences:
- How has coaching helped or not helped you in the past?
- How might you be a part of a successful coaching partnership moving forward?
- What are the conditions and resources that need to be in place?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.
Using the word “coaching” is interesting. Rarely do I find myself participating in “coaching” situations with peers outside of the Writing Project. A formal job description of “coach” may or may not exist, but my interpretation of “coach” is, much like you wrote, support. Support others with resources, yes, and support others to feel comfortable in their own skin and experience–how often does that happen in our own buildings? In other words, just because you went through in 2004 and I went through in 2011 and this current team will be wrapping up in the Fall of 2015 the spirit of the Writing Project is always always always: everyone grows and everyone contributes.
This is what is unique between most day to day teaching experiences and the opportunities to be engage with the Writing Project. Everyone encourages and supports one another. Sharing and conversation never feels like threatening, defensive, or mired in unreconcilable debate or someone defending who they are or the choices they made/make in the classroom. We learn to sift our experiences through the seminal research, current evidence, and each other–and we mine these beautiful little discoveries about ourselves and our craft. Coaching with the Writing Project means modeling these expectations and welcoming everyone in our community of writers without borders.
Brian, I completely agree that we all have much to learn from each other. Building on your metaphor of “writers without borders,” a whole new group just got their passports, and we’re looking forward to continuing our relationship with them!