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Education Opinion

How Can I Coach A Resistant Teacher? (Part 2)

By Elena Aguilar — May 01, 2013 3 min read
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This week I’m posting a series of responses to the most common question I received: How can I coach a resistant teacher? Today I’m sharing some of my thoughts on this challenge.

1) The un-coachable

Let’s start with this: Some people are not coachable. For some teachers and leaders, the conditions are not present that allow them to be open, vulnerable learners. For some, their past experiences have concretized to a point that they are stuck there, and although there may be a fantastic learning opportunity right in front of them (you could be the most amazing coach)--they aren’t able to be present in that space and time with you. We don’t make them wrong. We can look at them and feel compassion--how sad that some things have occurred in your life which have made you feel closed off to learning opportunities and to me--but we don’t make them wrong.

It helps me to think of “resistant teachers” as “un-coachable.” It kind of sounds like the living dead, which isn’t too far off for me: not open to learning/not reflective/afraid to look in a mirror=living dead. And this thought also makes me laugh (inside, quiet laugh) which brings just enough lightness and space to my mind so that I don’t get too caught in the drama and intensity. It’s never productive to be caught there.

When I first started coaching and encountered many “resistant teachers” I consulted with every coach I knew, asking for advice on what to do. An experienced master coach radically shifted my paradigm when she simply said, “Not everyone is coachable.” I had been engaged in a struggle that wasn’t winnable, that really wasn’t my struggle to have.

2) Coaches are not a remedy for resistance

If there are people who are not open to learning, and their current job requires them to be open to learning, then coaching is not the way to deal with their actions. Coaching must not be used as a way to deal with ineffective teachers, or teachers who are not reflective, or teachers who are toxic. And there most definitely are teachers who are ineffective, who are not open to learning and who are toxic. I’ve come across a large handful in my years in education. However, after calling them all kinds of things for many years, I’ve decided not to label them as “resistant” because I feel that gives them too much power.

Furthermore, they are not mine to deal with--I am not a remedy for “resistance.” A teacher who is not reflective, or open to learning, or able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about his or her practice, or who cultivates unproductive relationships amongst a staff is not a good candidate for coaching. Those deciding who receives coaching must never use a coach in this way. It is not appropriate, it doesn’t work, and it’s not fair to anyone.

And let me be clear: I do believe that everyone working in and with schools must be engaged in their own learning--principals, superintendents, central office staff, teachers, and so on must constantly be deepening their learning about our work. It’s always changing, we can’t ever know everything there is to know, and we must always engage in improving our practice.

I have seen teachers scream at children and verbally threaten them. I’ve seen teachers who show up intoxicated to work, day after day. I’ve seen teachers scream at their colleagues, administrators, and student’s parents. I’ve seen teachers show videos to kids, day after day after day. These teachers are not resistant--they’re something else all together. Responding to their behavior does not lay anywhere in the domain of coaching. It has nothing to do with us.

If you’re a coach and you’re being ask to work with these kinds of teachers (and you’re really clear they’re these kinds that I’ve just described) then back away. Be very assertive and clear that this is not your work. This is not coaching. This is a battle to fight--not with the “resistant teacher,” but with those saying that you must coaching him or her.

3) Don’t coach resistant teachers--coach those around them.

Often “resistant” teachers build a following. They rally others to whatever cause they’re championing and create friction and factions amongst a staff. However, I’ve seen entire staffs shift over a period of years when coaches focus their work on the teachers who are receptive to coaching (and ignore the “resistant teachers”). As the receptive teachers experience the positive power of coaching, as they see their own practice grow and improve, as they see student learning increase, they gravitate away from the resistant teachers. Work with the willing and then let their example lead.

Coming tomorrow: How can I tell if a teacher really is “resistant” or if something else is going on? When do I know that it’s my job to coach, or it’s not my job?

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.