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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Instructional Coaching Must Not Lead to an ‘Us vs. Them’ Mentality

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 02, 2019 25 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can instructional coaches work best with teachers, and vice versa?

Sydney Chaffee, Cindy Garcia, Carrie Johnson, Roxanna Elden, Tatiana Esteban, Heather Register, Ashley Blackwelder, and Dawn Mitchell “kicked off” the five-part series in Part One. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Laura Robb, Rita Platt, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Cindi Rigsbee, Tonya Ward Singer, and Margie Kirstein contribute their suggestions.

Response From Laura Robb

Author, teacher, coach, and speaker, Laura Robb has worked with children and teachers for more than 40 years. At present, she works at Daniel Morgan Intermediate School in Winchester, Va., training 5th and 6th grade teachers and teaching children who read four to five years below grade level. Author of more than 30 books on literacy, Robb co-authors The Robb Review Blog with her son, Evan. In addition, Robb speaks at national and state conferences and trains teachers in schools in the U.S. Follow her on twitter @LRobbTeacher:

The Art of Coaching

It’s early October, and I’m discussing coaching ELA teachers with Mary Ann Biggs, principal of a middle school in Berryville, Va. She leaned toward me and said, “I’m OK with you inviting teachers to work with you. But I have one must do.”

“A must do? That doesn’t align with invitation,” I answered. Mary Ann responded as if she hadn’t heard or processed what I said.

“Mr. Sadler (not his real name) on the 7th grade team, told me he doesn’t want to give up his basal. He will resign at the end of the year. I don’t want to lose him, so I said, “You have to work with Mrs. Robb.”

I sighed and breathed deeply. “It won’t work,” I said. The point of coaching isn’t to “save” a teacher. It’s a relationship where teacher and coach commit to change by moving through an agreed upon process together.”

My words breezed over Mary Ann’s head. “That’s my only requirement,” she stated. And over the weeks that followed, as I visited teachers’ classes and had conversations with them, Mary Ann bombarded me with reminder notes, insisting I meet with Mr. Sadler. Finally, to stop the flood of notes and diminish my growing annoyance, I set up a meeting with him.

My first goal was to develop a relationship. I knew that it was critical for Mr. Sadler to trust me if he was to be open to hearing my reasons for bringing reading-writing workshop to his students. We had several conversations, many over a cup of coffee. I discovered his great sense of humor and the funny and engaging stories he told about his second life as the lead singer in an area band. However, nothing I said persuaded Mr. Sadler to consider adopting the workshop model. He didn’t want to change: “Too much work at my stage of teaching,” he kindly explained. “Time to move on to other things.”

I felt sad about his decision, especially since I developed a fondness for him. Moreover, I had begun to look forward to our meetings and sharing stories. However, this coaching failure re-enforced what has become a firm belief: a coaching relationship shouldn’t and can’t be forced upon a teacher. The goal of coaching is to improve instruction, and both coach and teacher commit to a lengthy process that can result in positive changes in teaching practices as well as personal growth for both. Before coaching officially begins, it’s beneficial for the coach and principal to develop and present a buy-in process for teachers.

About Effective Coaches

It doesn’t matter whether a coach is on staff at a school or hired for a year or two. What will make a difference is setting aside time to help teachers understand the goals, the investment in professional learning, and the extra time commitment. The principal and coach can talk to teachers about the school’s coaching initiative during team, department, and full faculty meetings. If the coaching effort focuses on a specific discipline, write letters of invitation to those teachers explaining the goals and expectations for them and the coach.

Effective coaches are curious, and they ask questions of themselves and teachers that encourage reflection on lessons and students’ learning. They respect teachers’ needs and level of prior knowledge and allow these to set the tempo of the coaching and learning. No recipes. No pacing guides. No quick fixes. Coach and teacher plan together, debrief observed lessons, converse about professional articles, watch videos, and pull out takeaways related to their goals. Both recognize that change can’t be rushed or legislated. Through continual practice, learning, and communicating, teachers can bank enough experiences to enlarge and refine their background knowledge and effect lasting change.

Tips for Positive Coaching Experiences

The first goal of a coach is to develop a trusting relationship with teachers. When I coach, I make it clear to the principal and teachers that the coaching relationship is confidential. Confidentiality is key for teachers to risk failure, pull themselves up, and try again. Principals and teachers know that I won’t discuss a teacher’s progress. What I do is let the principal know when the teacher is ready for a class visit, and the principal negotiates an observation time with the teacher. After I invite teachers to coach with me, I take time to complete the following steps to learn as much as possible about the teacher and his/her students.

  • Observe

    by being integrally involved in a lesson. Spend one or two classes working with the teacher so students are comfortable with you supporting them.

  • Follow up

    after each observation with an email or handwritten note celebrating the positive aspects you noticed. Frame any needs you observed as questions for the teacher to consider.

  • Negotiate a plan

    with the teacher to set the coaching agenda, create instructional plans, and schedule one-on-one meetings. Both the teacher and you have input into decisions. Let the teacher lead in setting priorities. If needed, you can raise questions to move the teacher’s thinking to a different place.

  • Debrief after collaborating on a lesson or observing the teacher facilitating a lesson. To have maximum impact, debriefing should occur on the day of the observation or the next day. The goal is for teachers to become self-evaluative and monitor their teaching and students’ learning by daily posing these questions to evaluate outcomes:

    • What were students learning, and how do I know they learned it?
    • What requires extra reflection and discussion?

Coaching Reminder

Just as it’s impossible to force students to read, it’s equally impossible to force teachers to change. They need to see the relevance of changing and ultimately develop the mindset enabling them to work hard, learn, collaborate, and take necessary steps to transform their instructional practices and beliefs about how their students learn. The coach can lead teachers to new places, but they have to want to go there!

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

Instructional coaches are tasked with being change-makers, and making change requires a persistent positive attitude. Our job is to help individual teachers be better and stronger for students. If instructional coaches are to be effective, I believe they must stay positive and kind and keep the following in mind.

  1. Growth mindset applies to teachers, too.

Every single teacher has the potential to grow, learn, and achieve at high levels. All teachers want to be successful, and guess what? With some work, patience, and effective coaching, most teachers (if not all) can be. We have been applying the growth-mindset theory to our work with children for some years now. It’s time to bring this positive way of thinking to our work with teachers, too. A good place to start is with this video of Carol Dweck talking about her work on growth-mindset theory and application.

  1. It’s NOT an “us vs. them” thing. Ever.

Coaches cannot allow an “us vs. them” mentality into our thoughts or conversations about the educators we coach. We do sometimes have to insist that teachers make changes, but we must do it in a way that shows we support, value, and believe in them. We must be thoughtful rather than frustrated or angry in the face of teacher resistance. Read Grant Wiggin’s excellent advice on facing resistance here.

  1. Motivation is key, but it has to be real.

Motivation is not something we give to teachers; it is something we cultivate by helping teachers see their own progress and success. Daniel Pink says that motivation comes from autonomy (teachers want to have some control over their work and growth), mastery (teachers want to get better at their craft), and purpose (teachers want to see how what they do matters in the big picture). Help teachers look at evidence of the progress they make and to reflect on their goals and growth often. Watch the RSA Animate talk Dan Pink gives on motivation here to get you thinking about how to motivate the teachers you serve.

  1. Classroom management is absolutely foundational to teacher success.

Excellent teachers know how to run a classroom, how to manage children, how to differentiate instructional experiences, and how to proactively ward off poor choices. Building relationships with students is key to effective management. Differentiated instruction is, too. If you are working with a teacher who cannot manage a classroom, helping her/him with that is Job #1! Support teachers where they are. Be where they need you to be. Helping with classroom management is a gift we can give teachers who struggle, and we should give it freely and without judgment. Read my MiddleWeb post, Ten Tips to Maintain Positive Behavior as a starting place.

  1. NEVER stop learning and model continuous learning for others.

Instructional coaches cannot allow ourselves to put on know-it-all airs. There’s no room for ego in coaching or teaching of any kind. Model continuous learning. Reach out to other teachers. Build a professional learning network, tag a mentor or two for yourself, and never be afraid to admit (in front of those you coach) that you sometimes have questions or need help. Study, read, write, talk, reach out! Use Twitter, Pinterest, lesson-plan wikis, Google Docs (the list is endless) to share ideas and ask questions. Keep learning in low-stress ways and show teachers how to do the same. Effective coaches are reflective learners. Check out Elena Aguilar’s tips for instructional coaches here. I learn every time I reread it!

The bottom line is that effective coaches are servant leaders. They understand that if they are to help teachers to be more effective in their work serving students, they must start and end with positive, respectful, open-minded, nonjudgmental, and kind relationships.

Response From Michelle Shory, Ed.S., & Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She serves five high schools in the district. In addition to coaching, Michelle designs and implements professional learning experiences for teachers across the district. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., is a district instructional coach and Google Certified Trainer in Jefferson County. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and the University of Louisville adjunct who teaches literacy and ESL methods courses.

Michelle and Irina are passionate about good books, meaningful tech integration, andragogy, and classroom joy. They share resources on Twitter and at bit.ly/ell2point0:

Working with another adult can certainly make any educator (new or experienced) feel vulnerable. Here are a few tips for coaches and teachers on making this relationship work.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

― Brene Brown

For Coaches

  1. Start with relationships. It is difficult to accomplish anything in a classroom without building relationships. Atul Gawande says that when you touch someone’s heart seven times, “they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.” Keeping this in mind, try to have seven positive interactions before offering advice/suggestions. And remember to always be real—it is OK to admit that you don’t know all of the answers.

  1. Build on the positive. When you focus on the positive, you help teachers to build their self-esteem and rise to their potential. Positive energy is contagious. According to Tom Rath (2007), when people are able to focus on their strengths, they are six times as likely to engage in their work. Let positive energy and strengths guide you as you begin your relationship with a teacher.

  1. Make it meaningful, relevant, and applicable. Just like we differentiate for students, it’s important to differentiate for teachers and start where they are. Ask teachers what they need and find out what type of learner they are. Some might learn best when you co-create and co-teach with them; others might only need your honest feedback or a quick resource they can utilize in their teaching.

  1. Model that you are a learner, too. As an instructional coach, you are always searching for new knowledge. Spread the joy of learning by sharing books you are reading, projects you are working on, and podcasts you are listening to.

  1. Wildly celebrate the successes of teachers. Tweet, co-present at conferences, brag about them in front of their students and administrators. Be their cheerleader, support their ideas, and ask to share their resources with other teachers.

For Teachers

  1. Be open. If you trust your coach, share; but realize that trust will not happen after just a few visits. Deep trust takes months (or even years) to develop. Once earned, this trust is the basis of a powerful partnership. Once you have it, celebrate it.

  1. Look forward to seeing your coach. Get to know your coach. Think about this as “your time” to reflect on your practice and grow. Instructional coaches are NOT for struggling teachers. All teachers deserve a thought partner who helps them work through challenging times and celebrate successes. Never think that asking for help or support makes you a less effective educator. In fact, the opposite is true.The best teachers are always reflecting and refining.

  1. Keep communication open. Lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be sure to offer your feedback on coaching sessions where you share what is helpful and what is not. This will help your coach in tailoring his or her support.

  1. Ask for feedback on one thing. Pick an area you want to grow and have your coach focus on that area. If you’re unsure of what area to select, pick an area where your coach excels. Maybe your coach is a pro at technology or literacy. Ask for help in those areas and you’ll get amazing advice until you figure out how you want to direct your time together.

  1. Be proactive. Coaches love to feel necessary. Ask for support when you are struggling and just need someone to come and work beside you. In addition, coaches often know about interesting opportunities within your school or district, so tell your coach when you want to be a part of a project, conference, or initiative. Many times, your coach will even help you by co-writing or reviewing a proposal.

A great partnership takes time and effort to develop but the results can be transformational. Have an open mind and heart and embrace the journey.

“Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together. “

-James Cash Penney


Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. NewYork, NY: Gotham Books.

Gawande, Atul. (2013). Slow Ideas. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas

Rath, Tom. (2007). Strengths finder 2.0. New York, NY: Gapllop Press.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/reading teacher currently serving as a K-12 literacy coach in North Carolina. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

I had the honor of serving as a reading specialist in my middle school for two years, and then my district adopted the literacy-coach model, and I held that position for one year. As reading specialist, I traveled among the language arts classrooms on one grade level. I co-taught, I assisted students with individual work, and occasionally I presented a lesson myself. The reason the two years I served in this position were a highlight of my career is because I relied on my two foundations of teaching—relationships and communication—to ensure that students AND teachers were effective. Those relationships are meaningful to this day—13 years later.

I was a new teacher to the school (actually the school itself was new) when I began my journey as a reading specialist. So after I was assigned to help out in the three 6th grade classrooms, I set out to get to know those three teachers and every single student in the 6th grade. Relationship building takes time, of course, but we had a common goal in that brand-new school: We were developing a mission, vision, and goals so we met frequently (actually every day) to determine our direction. I made an effort to LEARN and GROW myself that year, and those brilliant teachers taught me so much as I stood in their classrooms watching them teach and interact with students. Once I knew where they were in the curriculum, I developed lessons to supplement their teaching. Then I offered to co-teach whenever possible. Those lessons gave the teachers a break, and I tried to do that often, offering to grade papers, to advocate for students with special needs or behavioral issues (with administrators and special-needs teachers), and to help with lesson plans and materials.

The most important part of relationship building is trust. I wanted my co-teachers to know that I was there for them as well as for their students, and I was eager to do whatever was needed to ensure they all were successful. (That goal included dressing up as Britney Spears during an interdisciplinary day on test-taking skills. My genre was informational text, and my era was pop music. I encouraged them to darken that circle, baby, one more time!)

The relationship piece was important outside of the classroom, too. Those three 6th grade teachers and I became best friends and soon began meeting socially as well as professionally. Our friendships and our professional lives intertwined, and I always say coming to work is more fun when you’re side by side with friends.

Because those relationships were strong, communication was easy. Discussing challenging curriculum (and/or students) is more meaningful when conversations are open and occur often and are seamless in the work day. Modern-day technologies (that I didn’t have when I started teaching) like emails, texts, and interactive documents have made the work easier for sure. And my two years as a reading specialist were my favorite of my entire career.

After I served as reading specialist, I transitioned to the literacy-coach position. The expectation was that I would help teachers teach but I wouldn’t work directly with students. Although I recognized the importance of coaching, I did miss that student contact. The focus that year was on reading assessments so I spent most of my time testing or scheduling assessments and was afraid I would lose my teacher voice and credibility with the staff. But I turned to the same foundations I had used as a reading specialist: relationship building and strong communication.

In both jobs, I recognized the importance of working with teachers in a way that would make their jobs easier by providing resources, making suggestions, and sometimes just offering a listening ear.

The best reading specialist/literacy coach-classroom teacher relationships are reciprocal ones where partnerships are formed in the best interest of the students. When educators work as a team, students grow and learn and teachers and coaches do, too!

And I have news! I’ve just accepted a position as literacy coach at a K-12 school. The work will stretch me in ways I’ve never been stretched. But what an opportunity! I’m thankful to get back in the trenches and work to support teachers and students.

Response From Tonya Ward Singer

Tonya Ward Singer consultants internationally to support K-12 educators in transforming teaching for equity and English-learner achievement. Tonya is the author of bestsellers EL Excellence Every Day and Opening Doors to Equity and co-author of Breaking Down the Wall (Corwin, October 2019) and EL and literacy curricula for major publishers. Connect with Tonya on Twitter @TonyaWardSinger and at www.tonyasinger.com:

To be an effective coach, be a learner. Be unwavering in your belief that all students, especially students who now underperform in our school, are capable of excellence. Be humble in seeking ways to grow as a coach and with teachers to realize a vision for student excellence and equity.

From this place of courage and humility, invite reflective collaborative learning. Be willing to be humble, not all knowing, and try things you haven’t yet tried in the classroom with the people you coach.

Be willing to let student data disrupt your own assumptions and cause you to rethink your approach. For example, one time I was in a classroom watching a teacher facilitate academic conversations using response frames, a linguistic scaffold I’d trained the whole staff in how to use. The students I watched had a high-level conversation about the text before he posted the response frames, and then once they used the posted response frames shifted to a stilted conversation that ended quickly.

It was humbling to see a strategy I had shared as a solution actually get in the way. I made that humility public by writing down my evidence of the shift in conversations and sharing it with the teacher to invite reflection. With so much to take notes on in a lesson, I could have easily focused on other elements or simply written down teacher actions (e.g., “structured peer conversations” and “used scaffolds”), but this was important both to show what students could do and to invite deep reflection about when our scaffolds can get in students’ way. Being willing to seek out, share, and discuss data that disrupts your assumptions of the best strategies is a way to keep learning as a teacher and also model the very type of reflective practice that is central to transformational teaching.

Whenever a coach tells me, “Teachers don’t follow my advice” or “don’t do the strategies I recommend,” I know there is a deeper issue to address. Yes, it is frustrating to try to lead adult learning and get resistance. I can relate to both the desire to give advice and the desire to have people always apply it.

However, coaching is really not about giving advice. It’s about leading learning. There is a deep difference rooted in humility. Compare these two scenarios:

A. When I give you advice of a solution I want you to implement, I have already arrived at a place of knowing the answer and am transferring this knowledge to you. All you need to do is follow me and you’ll arrive, too. With advice-based coaching, I’m most likely to give you a set of silver-bullet strategies that I model, you try, and then I follow up to see you are using well. The impact on students isn’t actually our focus as much as you doing what I recommend.

B. When I lead learning, I invite you to set an ambitious goal that is relevant to you and your students. I don’t steer you away from student learning goals we have yet to solve as a school, or ambitious goals for which I don’t have answers. With a shared focus on student outcomes, we connect and collaborate so that you are empowered to help your students realize those goals. While I may give advice or share some strategies that may help you, I don’t treat these as the “silver bullet” end goal for our coaching. They are theories of action to try with humility and curiosity to see if they have the result you seek. The ultimate measure of any strategy is the impact on your students to realize your ambitious goals. My role as a leader of learning is to help you reflect, “Is this strategy working? If not, what will we change?”

It takes courage and humility to coach with student outcomes as the main measure of success. Coaches who lead as learners invite the deepest learning and reflection. They create a safe climate for risk-taking and imperfection, necessary elements in teaching to transform schools.

Response From Margie Kirstein

Margie Kirstein has worked in bilingual and English as a second language education for over 30 years as a teacher, coordinator, and instructional coach and has taught ESL at every level from grade 1 to adult. In her work as a Confianza Consultant, her speciality is assessment practices to benefit English-learners and bilingual learners alike. Margie currently teaches Assessment for Equity and Inclusion of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners at Lesley University. Marjorie holds a B.S. in English, M.A. in applied linguistic,s and Ed.D. in leadership in urban schools. She is also a certified Rethinking Equity and Teaching of English Language Learners (RETELL) Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) Endorsement instructor in Massachusetts:

I recently saw a video from Donald Miller explaining the two qualities that great salespeople must have. They are empathy and authority. These two qualities are also necessary for great instructional coaches. Teaching is a demanding and often solitary job, and teachers need feedback and support in order to be effective. Instructional coaches can best work with teachers by showing empathy for the teacher’s struggle and respect for the teacher’s expertise while demonstrating that the coaching advice is both proven and practical. As an instructional coach, my message is, “Not only am I going to show you how you can teach your students better, but also I am going to help you do it.” I’m going to get in the classroom, get my hands dirty, and acknowledge the messiness of change. During the 15-plus years I was a classroom teacher, how I would have loved someone to do that with me.

Teachers can best work with instructional coaches by being active participants in coaching. Teachers can make sure that coaches understand the expectations teachers face and the rationales for their instructional decisions. When teachers don’t understand a coach’s guidance, or see ways the guidance is unhelpful or must be modified, they can let the coach know. Teachers can be prepared to provide any information the coach might miss in an observation and ask for feedback in the areas that are of most concern to them. I recently had a teacher thank me because through coaching and seeing the results in her classroom, her passion for teaching was reignited. Ultimately, the judge of whether or not the coaching was successful will be the teachers who are being coached, based on the results they see in themselves and in their students.

Thanks to Laura, Rita, Michele, Irina, Cindi, Tonya, and Margie for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin the School Year

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Look for Part Three in a few days.

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