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Where does the magic happen in coaching?

Updated: Jul 2

As I write this, it’s summer break in the US. For many of us, it’s the time of year when we start dreaming up how next year can be even more impactful for the teachers and students we serve. I find myself looking back and asking myself:

  • What worked?

  • For whom?

  • How do I know?

  • What were the missed opportunities?

  • How will I apply my learning forward next year?

But when I look back at the coaching work that really shifted practices and mindsets, and the resulted in the most benefits for students, I also ask myself:

Where did the magic happen?

And the pattern seems to be this:

The magic happens in conversations built on trust, with teachers who are doing the cognitive and emotional work of refining their practice and shifting outcomes for kids.

And when I think about my moves, my decisions, and my mindsets as an instructional coach there are some key components that come up over and over as contributing to the biggest impacts:

When my work with someone can start with connection, with exploring a teacher's why, their vision, their values, their hopes and dreams for their class and each of their students, then we have a solid foundation to anchor our work. When I think of the most transformational moments and shifts I've supported teachers with through coaching, they were grounded in the teacher's aspirations for their students and themself, they emerged from a need to reconcile the dissonance between a teacher's stated values and their practices, or they grew from a place of connecting short term needs to a long-term vision. In this way, the magic happens through a well-crafted initial meeting.

Getting started: In your initial meeting, model sharing your why, and invite the teacher to share more about their purpose, hopes, and aspirations.

The Beginning of Each Meeting

In coach-speak, the process of contracting - or setting specific agreements, for each conversation (not just the coaching relationship as a whole) can be the difference between an impactful coaching session and a supportive conversation. When we start our meetings with a clear set of agreements for the outcome of the session, it provides the space for the teacher and the coach to make decisions about how the time will be used, and ensures that the meeting is purposeful. It takes the guesswork out of the agenda, and provides an opportunity for the teacher to activate their agency and decision-making with the coach as a partner towards their goals. It also acknowledges the reality that not everything can be addressed in a given coaching conversation, creating a mindful moment for prioritizing, while tabling other items with intention. The magic happens, then, by ensuring that every single coaching meeting is focused on the most important work through shared desired outcomes.

Getting started: At the beginning of each meeting ask a version of, "As you think about [our long-term goal], what would be the best possible use of the next [x] minutes?". Ask follow-up questions to help the teacher ensure they are working towards a specific outcome that is focused on students and is within the teacher's control or influence.

Genuine Partnering & Deep Listening

When we show up as partners in the work and we listen for more than just the face-value message, we can help draw out and attend to shifts in emotion, values, and ways of being. The magic happens when we make space for these aspects of a teacher's work .

Getting started: Listen without interruption, attending to body language, word choice, and tone of voice. Rather than assuming, ask questions with genuine curiosity and hold up a mirror to shifts in thinking or expression. For example, "What are you noticing now about your thinking?", "It sounds like you're considering ____", or "That was a long sigh. What's coming up for you right now?"

The Details of Teaching & Learning

When I attended Standards Institute in 2019, Lacey Robinson stated that "justice can be found in the details of teaching and learning". I'm a huge believer in the need to get into the weeds with folx side-by-side. As coaches, the magic also happens when we partner with teachers to analyze student work, practice instructional moves, anticipate student misconceptions, rehearse our responses to student behaviors, and do other work to sweat the technique and the details of teaching and learning.

Getting started: Ensure that every meeting involves attention to the technique of teaching, beyond mentioning strategies. Provide options and recommendations of activities that ensure that a teacher isn't just completing action steps, but is supported to accomplish them with attention to precision and excellence. Importantly, as a coach this means managing time appropriately in the meeting, so there is time to do the work, not just talk about it.

The Strategic Work

Coaching is one lever for teacher support and development. But the magic really happens when coaching is part of a broader strategy, connected to other professional learning initiatives and school-wide goals.

Getting started: Start by getting clear on the instructional priorities for the school/network. Depending on your role, look at all of the ways that teachers participate in professional learning: cadence throughout the year, professional learning days, opt-in vs school-wide, conferences, PLCs, different configurations like departments and grade levels, and differentiated learning along a career trajectory, such as training for new teachers vs leadership development opportunities for experienced teachers or mentors. If you are someone with the authority to make decisions about professional learning time and foci, craft a scope and sequence that supports the school's priorities, and make explicit what role coaching plays relative to other initiatives. If you're not in a position to directly affect such a scope & sequence, engage leaders who do have that positional power in conversations about bringing coherence and focus so that the pieces are working together as part of a larger whole, including coaching.

When we can identify the components that can make the magic happen and lead to impactful coaching, we're more likely to be able to replicate and amplify those efforts and increase the predictability of success through our work as coaches. I hope you enjoy dreaming up your next moves.

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