As educational practice becomes more collaborative, instructional coaches play a pivotal role in helping educators hone their skills.

How to build relationships with instructional coaches

As educational practice becomes more collaborative, instructional coaches play a pivotal role in helping educators hone their skills

Teaching at any level can often be a solitary occupation. Even with a classroom full of students, teachers often work in isolation from peers. Teachers rarely receive instruction on how to work with co-teachers or teacher assistants in their pre-service teacher education programs. Therefore, it is often difficult or awkward for teachers to ask for help or effectively collaborate with others. Instructors often don’t know how to accept help from the instructional coaches, even when they would like to.

Educational practice is shifting from isolating practice to collaborative efforts, and creating healthy and productive team dynamics is often a challenge. Instructional coaches can positively impact these relationships, but the trust must be in place for it to occur. Even in systems where working with a coach is expected, building those initial relationships can be challenging.

Instructional coaches, instructional designers, and even assigned co-teachers often struggle to establish working relationships with individual classroom teachers. Librarians regularly complain that they spend more time clearing jams from printers instead of assisting students with reference questions. However, clearing that paper jam can help the student see the librarian as a resource. In the same way, the instructional designer might start to build a relationship by helping an instructor properly format hanging indents for a research paper. One instructional coach started building a positive relationship by making copies for classroom teacher. Just like the proverbial salesman who had to get a foot in the door, sometimes the first step is a small one.

Just as teachers rarely learn about collaborating with others in their classroom, instructional coaches and others of their stripe are often trained to focus on analyzing student learning data or the technical skills. However, that is only one facet of the coaching role. Gathering and analyzing data is an important aspect of instructional improvement, but it is rarely successful as the first facet.

Instructional coaches need to begin by building relationships with those instructors they are assigned to support. Building a supporting and trusting relationship with those coaches is essential. Coaches have to be able to keep confidences with those they work with. Building trust is essential for coaches and co-teachers to be able to collaborate fully and honestly. It is easy for instructional coaches to be frustrated when asked to complete mundane tasks, but those mundane tasks might be the conduit to building an initial relationship with an instructor.

One recent instructional coach exclaimed to a class full of graduate students, “Please tell everyone to take that first step, even if it is to make copies. It just might be the important first step.” It might be those copies that were the first step to an instructor telling the coach, “Ok, I will try that, because it is you.”

Beyond the need to build relationships, instructional coaches need to ensure they help the instructors focus on the impact they are having on students. Instructors almost universally want their students to be successful. Once the coach has built a trusting relationship, then they can begin to suggest technical changes based upon the data and best practice. Here again, balance is important. Asking instructors to make wholesale changes will not be nearly as effective as working on a couple of specific high value items. After experiencing cooperative success, the coach can then push forward a few more suggestions. Pushing too much at once can turn an instructor off. Even with the most struggling instructors, instructional coaches should always look for bright spots where they can help instructors build confidence–particularly in those cases where the instructors have been directed to work with the coach due to performance concerns.

Effective coaching is a three-faceted process. Coaches need to build relationships with the instructors they support, then work to collaboratively analyze the relative data in light of the goal of impacting student achievement or otherwise supporting student success. All three facets of the coaching process need to be given adequate attention to build strong successful partnerships to improve the teaching and learning process.

One instructional coach articulated her process in this way: I started my process in an optional fashion, meaning my teachers choose “to work with me.” This has been a challenge that made me come up with ideas to get the foot in the door, made me feel sometimes ineffective as an instructional designer, but now after seven years, it has really made me appreciate the value of that journey.

As mentioned, instructional coaching is a multi-faceted process. There are many layers in it. The emotional wellbeing of your team is essential to build a foundation for further work. The small steps are key ingredients to start any coaching program and finding a framework to plan for structure and next level of practice. A coach starts with small tasks, but we need to be prepared to move our practice toward alignment with building goals, refine the work, and this is what a coaching framework provides.

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