Education Opinion

The Particularities of Coaching Teams

By Elena Aguilar — February 25, 2016 4 min read
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“What’s the difference,” I’m often asked, “between one-on-one coaching with teachers, and coaching a team of teachers?” My simplified response is that coaching teams is harder, and can have a different impact than coaching individuals.

Let’s start here: there are very different reasons to coach teachers one-on-one versus in a group. Individual coaching is a powerful form of professional development because of the potential for differentiation: an instructional coach can precisely meet a teacher wherever he or she is at. When you’re working with just one person, you can set a pace that is exactly what they need, you can divert from plans and agendas when they need, and you can tailor specific activities to what they need. There’s great flexibility when working one-on-one with a teacher. Individual coaching can also allow for the space, privacy, and trust to dive deep into a teacher’s beliefs and ways of being, an exploration that can make many feel far more vulnerable in a group.

The primary power of team coaching is in the potential to shift, shape and strengthen school culture. When you’re working with a group of say, six teachers, it can be harder to differentiate the professional learning opportunities you’re offering. You’ll most likely have people in different places in their practice, with different needs, and different personalities.

Now, this doesn’t mean different is always harder. Different can be great. Different can lead to deep learning. But difference requires that the coach have an expanded and refined skill set. The coach must know how to understand where the learners in the team are individually, and then how to structure activities and experiences which will advance their practice. When a coach has these skills and can do this, the impact can be tremendous. Some teachers learn more from each other, in diverse groupings, than they do in one-on-one coaching. Some teachers are more likely to take risks and change their practice when they see their colleagues talking about it and doing it and having success. They can be inspired (and sometimes pressured) by peers.

A coach working with a team has a unique entry point into changing school culture. When a coach has the skill set, he or she can guide a team to strengthen their relationships with each other, have healthy conflict with each other, deal with unhealthy conflict, and see each other as resources for learning, support, and community. If a coach works with several teams within a school, the impact can be tremendous as staff culture can shift or strengthen and become a true a culture of learning. And what our students need most is for those of us who work in and with schools to be engaging in our own learning, with each other--our students need their staffs to be working in a culture of learning. That’s the only way we’ll figure out how to meet their needs, how to provide them with the experiences and outcomes that they deserve.

Different Skill Sets

I want to emphasize this: Coaching teams requires an expanded skill set. Coaching individuals, one-on-one, is hard. You need to know so much about communication, managing emotions, adult learning, guiding change, and more. When you coach a team you need this knowledge base and skill set, plus the knowledge base and skill set to work with people when they’re interacting with each other. To coach a team you need to know how to manage group dynamics, how to interrupt dysfunctional interactions, how to recognize and interrupt systemic oppression, and how to bring people into healthy relationship with each other.

Most coaches get little to no training before taking a position as a coach. They may have been experienced, good teachers, with strong content knowledge, and for these reasons they may have been asked to become a coach, or may have enthusiastically signed on. However, the work of a coach requires a massive skill set which few coaches have as they begin coaching.

Based on my experience as a coach and training thousands of coaches, I’m convinced that an aspiring coach should participate in the equivalent of a two-year master’s program (that includes an apprenticeship with an exemplary coach) before moving into a coaching position. Coaching--of both individuals and teams--has transformational potential for individuals, schools, and students, but in order to fulfill this potential, coaches need rigorous, quality training and a great deal of practice.

The Art of Coaching Teams

I am thrilled to announce that I can now offer you a tool to help build your skills and knowledge about coaching teams! The Art of Coaching Teams is now available. When I wrote The Art of Coaching, I planned on writing one chapter on coaching teams--I know it’s something that many coaches do in addition to coaching individuals. When I started writing that chapter, it became quickly apparent that I’d need more than one chapter to describe the knowledge and skills necessary to work with groups of teachers--I knew I needed to devote a book to the topic. And it’s now out and I hope it’ll help you on your journey learning to coach teams.

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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.