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Three Simple Secrets of School-Based Coaching

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As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Written on a sticky note stuck to the edge of my laptop are three phrases: listen first, teach by example, be patient. These are the three things I've learned as a school-based literacy coach. My notes on these simple but essential guidelines are a scaffold for the coaching I do, a reminder to be focused on the needs of the teachers and their students, a collection of what I've learned over 15 years.

I wonder how coaches who are flung into the adult-learning role without much preparation deal with the reactions of teachers with whom they work. Many of us who coach have enduring memories of our first interactions with classroom teachers; indeed, our early struggles are about as easy to forget as a bad case of the stomach flu. Why, then, do so many education decisionmakers easily accept the idea that there exists a superhuman race whose members can walk into a classroom the very first day and "take on" the role of a coach without any guidance or even basic training?

If you find yourself thrust into that "superhuman" role, maybe some of what I've learned coaching in nearly a dozen elementary and middle schools can help.

As a coach, the first question to ask is "what doesn't work?" A clear and present danger for any coach is to see him- or herself as an expert. While expertise is probably what helps you get the job, showing off that expertise is a surefire way to get into trouble immediately. Here's where the admonition to "listen first" comes into play. Time spent talking with teachers, asking questions about their needs in terms of how you can help them help their students, reaps big rewards for a coach. That was the first lesson I learned. Preparing materials requested by teachers, photocopying, finding resources online and in libraries—these are the kinds of things that teachers need immediately. Once their needs are met it's possible to move into the curriculum.

What else doesn't work? Thinking there's only one way to teach a lesson—my way, right now—has gotten too many coaches off on the wrong foot. We have to go slow, build trust, and "teach by example."

Teaching is a very private enterprise. While we like to think that teachers share and collaborate regularly, it's still the case that a teacher is usually in a classroom teaching by themselves all day long. First we have to get in the door. I begin by offering to help—much like a teaching assistant. I've carried water for science experiments, sharpened pencils for writing workshop, and handed out books and other materials, all in the name of building a trusting relationship. Trust makes coaching possible.

Once trust develops, the modeling of instruction can begin. It can be a team-teaching approach, a demonstration of something a teacher requests, or a coach asking to try out a strategy or technique with the class. I think of it as the "inch at a time" approach. Trying to go too fast can have dire consequences on the teacher/coach relationship. Here's where "be patient" comes into play.

In coaching, things just don't happen quickly. It takes time to build credibility, especially if you've moved to a school where no one knows you. It's really helpful if a coach has a strong understanding of the content and standards for which teachers are responsible. Then, as they work in classrooms, coaches can watch for small ways to incorporate best practices and make the best use of their time and expertise.

One of the trickiest things to do is to find time to meet with teachers without adding to their already overwhelming workloads. Work alongside teachers in their classrooms. Catch a minute or two to talk with teachers in the parking lot. Share lunch when possible. These "on the go" conferences can be extremely productive and non-threatening, encouraging teachers to talk about their needs and reflect on how things are going.

One final note about coaching: It's important to get feedback from teachers. It doesn't have to be a formal survey or interview, but knowing what teachers think about your work and how they feel things are going makes a big difference in how effective the coaching ultimately will be.

Coaching is difficult work, but the rules are simple. If you remember to listen first, teach by example, and be patient, you build trust, then credibility. That's a lesson every school-based coach should know by heart.

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