By Diane Hubona, CIU10 PIIC mentor and Stacy Ricciotti, CIU10 PIIC coach
When coaches begin their coaching journey, administrators as well as coaching mentors, such as myself, emphasize the positive impact coaching will have on improving relationships and collegiality among their peers. Educational researcher, Roland Barth, categorizes educator relationships as running the gamut from “vigorously healthy to dangerously competitive.” So how does an instructional coach help foster healthy, collegial relationships while navigating the potentially landmine-filled field of isolation and competition?
Baseball manager Casey Stengel once noted “Getting good players is easy. Getting ‘em to play together is the hard part.” Schools are full of good players, but getting teachers to function and grow as a professional learning community is not a simple task. I remember my first year as an instructional coach that I had a major breakthrough with a traditional, lecture-based teacher. Our co-planning session was productive, and I was asked to collect student data while visiting the classroom concerning teacher vs student talk. The lesson was a success, and in our lesson debriefing I was encouraged by her positive response to the formative assessment techniques she used and the amount of student talk and interaction that occurred. In my excitement, I suggested that she share her success at our next faculty meeting. I was met with immediate resistance and was shocked, to say the least. “No way”, she retorted. “If I share what I’m doing, then everyone else will use it too.”
Lesson learned: Don’t assume that teachers naturally are wired to collaborate. Particularly at the secondary level, teachers have been conditioned to close their classroom doors and hoard rather than share best practices. So how does a coach foster collegiality?
Something that has really worked well for Stacy Ricciotti, one of my veteran PIIC instructional coaches, is including ALL of the adult learners in the district. “This year, more than any other, we have had more and more of our paraprofessionals and aides attend our professional learning sessions. It really builds collegiality when every adult is a part of the learning. It strengthens the work we all do with our students”, Ricciotti comments. So mentors work with coaches to create these opportunities for collaboration and sharing, rather than hoping that all adult learners will naturally be inclined to work productively as a team.
Another essential point to keep in mind as a coach is to honor adult learners. Teachers flourish when they are treated with small but thoughtful acts of kindness from their coaches. When teachers have their parent/teacher conferences, Ricciotti and her fellow coach have coach/teacher conferences. “We offer an open door policy all evening, and teachers come to have coaching conversations with us throughout the evening. It is a time when we have “before” conversations for the B-D-A cycle of effective coaching or troubleshoot problems and solutions for instruction.” Ricciotti’s found simple acts of coaching kindness go a long way towards breaking down the walls of isolation and encouraging teachers to work not only with the coaches, but also with each other.
The journey to collegiality doesn’t happen quickly for many teachers, particularly for veteran teachers who might have spent much of their teaching career working in their classrooms alone. It’s helpful if coaches acknowledge that they have struggles, too. The impactful instructional coach may not have an immediate solution to every issue that arises; rather, an effective coach provides opportunities for teachers to share and problem solve with their coach as well as other teachers. Small steps such as lunchroom conversations, sharing organized sweets and strategies, ten-minute takeaways, and small article-study groups for teachers are all foundational steps to shift from the traditional sit and get professional development into deeper professional learning. While developing relationships and trust takes time, the rewards of establishing a collegial, collaborative mindset is well worth the coaching effort.