Is the Academic Coach Diagnosing the Patient or Guiding the Artist?

The coaching of professional educators can substantively guide and influence the delivery of classroom instruction.  But coaching is not about compelling teachers to teach the way the coach would teach.  Instead the coach’s role is to help the teacher examine his or her own instructional practices and identify areas where certain of those practices can be strengthened.  A key question we need to ask ourselves – quietly but constantly as we coach – is this:  “Is this teaching behavior enhancing student engagement (to ultimately improve student learning)?”  Some practices may need little or no intervention or support.  Others may differ from what we ourselves would do, but are no less effective than what we ourselves would do.  Internally acknowledging this reality is critical:  “My way is not the only way.” What works for one individual may be deadly for another.  Teachers, like coaches, are not homogenized commodities, and their individual artistry will vary greatly.  It’s one of the hardest things to keep in mind when we are observing for effective teaching behaviors.  But it’s crucial.

Sometimes a teacher might resist balanced and reasonable coaching, ostensibly because an inquiry or suggestion is “not a good match with my own artistry.” When that happens – and it occasionally will – here are some other factors to consider:

Fear of Change

The fear of change frequently arises from a fear of failure.  we tend to do things in ways that make us feel successful, and altering behaviors may mean opening ourselves up to …failure.  Because altering behaviors may mean taking uncomfortable risks – and may create discomforting possibilities about competency – discreet probing may be required when a teacher responds to suggestions with words akin to “That’s just not a good match to my artistry.” Artistry is dynamic and ever-changing, and consequently something that empowers one to explore and create.  Subtly convening such a message (often between the lines rather than overtly) can help establish the underlying point:  It is safe to try things that may ultimately prove unsuccessful – but trying is worth a shot.

Trust in the Coach and the Process

If a coach views his or her role as “corrector of deficiencies,” a trusting partnership with any teacher is remote.  As clinical and observational research demonstrates, coaching in any profession is dependent upon trust.  Trust remains the foundation for effective communication, employee retention, employee motivation, and for inducing individuals to voluntarily engage in efforts that they would not otherwise have considered.

Trust: A fundamental Factor if Resistance is Present

As documented throughout the various research genre that addresses employee coaching we explored, trust forms that basis of any relationship – and coaching is at its core a relationship.  In teaching, resistance to coaching efforts can arise from multiple factors, but the crux of each factor appears to be trust – or more accurately phrased, the lack of it.  Sometimes it’s a capacity issue; the teacher, for reasons unrelated to the profession or the coach, lacks a fundamental capacity to trust.  It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens.  More often, however, it’s about the teacher’s perception of the coach’s competency, or the coach’s intent.

A Teacher’s Capacity for Trusting

Teachers approach the coaching process with a variety of background experiences, both professional and personal.  On those rare occasions when the individual cannot engage meaningfully in the process, for reasons wholly unrelated to the coach or coaching process, it is best to simply acknowledge the reality.  If the lack of engagement arises from other factors, however, it is well worth exploring the causes – together.  This can occasionally be uncomfortable, but tends to be absolutely necessary if meaningful relationship-building is to occur.

A Teacher’s Perceptions of the Coach’s Competence

No coach is master of all content.  And no coach has all the answers.  Sometimes, teachers and coaches come to the table with unrealistic expectations related to the role of the other, and the skills of the other.  When that goes unchecked, the parties are setting themselves up for failure of the worst kind.  To avoid risks, starting off on the right foot means starting off with candor.  Not the brutal, in-your-face kind, but the basic, respectful acknowledgement of who each is, and what is – and is not – being brought to the table.

A Teacher’s Perception of the Coach’s Intentions

In a teacher’s career, there may have been multiple performance evaluations, coaching sessions, or other interactions in which hidden agendas or motives were present.  As a professional, education typically provides assistance and coaching only to those who are new to the profession or who are struggling.  Often, coaching is employed as a process that many fo through solely as a final resort before terminating a teacher’s employment.

As mentioned earlier, to overcome historic perceptions (or in some cases experiences), coaches need to – early on – communicate the purpose of the coaching relationship, and solicit feedback and ideas on what the teacher’s own goals and expectations are.

Other Possible Causes for Resistance

Some other causes for resistance that coaches should consider include the following:

  • Lack of understanding of purpose
  • Perception that a coaching relationship means extra work
  • Anxiety about how coaching will affect their career, status or perception of themselves
  • Belief that there exists a “pecking order” among teachers
  • Inaccurate information or misunderstood information
  • Inability to accurately self-respect

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