Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Who Should Coach? Three Essential Traits for Professional Development Coaches

“Who do you think should be our coach?” I get this question from administrators in schools that invite me to lead professional development events. There is an assumption that after a few days of working with teachers I’ll have a good sense of who could coach colleagues effectively. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t feel confident in making a recommendation. I’ve had teachers in these events who seemed resistant but on a return visit had become a new initiative’s supporter and best practitioner. Conversely, I’ve experienced teachers who seemed receptive and motivated during training but who resisted actually making changes to their practice. The training event is not the best setting for identifying potential coaches.

What, then, should we look for? What traits does a successful coach possess? While a lengthy list could easily be developed, let’s examine three that are critical.

First, an effective coach possesses a passion for and a deep understanding of the new initiative. Genuine passion is contagious. It acts like a magnet, drawing others to its energy, but it rarely manifests itself as a cheerleader. A quiet dedication to doing something right, to working with excellence even while learning, marks the teacher who attracts others to a new initiative. An effective coach will help colleagues see the value of new ideas through actions more than words. Does the teacher take an initiative to make changes to her practice? Does she seem concerned about getting it right, about trying out the initiative as designed? Does the teacher pursue more knowledge and better ways of implementation?

Implementing a new initiative is an act of transfer—the applying of new ideas and methods to actual classroom practice. Coaching others is a step beyond that: equipping and enabling others to be successful in their transfer of new ideas and methods to their classrooms. “The first factor that influences successful transfer is degree of mastery of the original subject,” conclude Bransford, Brown, and Cocking. “Without an adequate level of initial learning, transfer cannot be expected. This point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked…Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures [italics added].”1

Just attending the same training event everyone else attended does not equip someone to coach colleagues successfully. Deeper understanding must be constructed so that the coach can adapt the initiative to various teachers, various classrooms, and to best serve various students. An effective coach seeks additional learning and, if available, additional training in the new initiative.

Second, an effective coach knows how to strategically handle difficult conversations. If the training event went well and the administration has been open with teachers prior to it, difficult conversations may be few in number, but they will still happen. At some point, the coach encounters a colleague who is overwhelmed and feels stressed and defensive about making changes, or a colleague who feels threatened by the idea of having a coach in the classroom, or even a colleague who would like to be left alone to use the same approaches that have been used before. All these conversations occur in every type of school.

After explaining the importance of self-respect and respect for one’s counterpart, Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, explains how a successful coach perceives difficult conversations:

Self-respect and respect help us frame the problem between us and figure out how to talk about it. Meanwhile, respecting the landscape of a tough conversation assumes there will be problems ahead. Rather than put our heads down and start to plow through, we will do better to step back, take a satellite view, and think about the lay of the land. That is, think about the problems we are likely to encounter and look for a good path through them.2

A good coach will approach difficult conversations with such a “satellite view,” rather than a perspective of “the problem is you.” A good coach stays focused on solving problems and supporting progress, avoiding and ignoring personal attacks.

Finally, a good coach focuses on improving thinking. The goal with any major professional development initiative should not be to produce robots who follow formulas to plan teaching. The goal should be to help teachers understand what works and why it works, to deepen teacher thinking about teaching and to increase teacher intentionality. A good coach aids colleagues’ thinking, often using questions to support teacher thinking rather than short-circuiting thinking by always giving answers. Questioning helps others discover insights for themselves. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, explains:

…it’s time to give up second guessing what people’s brains need and become masters of helping others think for themselves. The best way to do that is by defining solutions rather than problems, and helping people identify for themselves new habits they could develop to bring those solutions closer. Pivotal to all this is the art of enabling other people to have their own insights. Once people have had new insights for themselves, our job as quiet leaders is to provide the encouragement, ongoing support and belief in people, over time, to ensure they develop the new habits that are possible. Then we will be truly bringing out the best in others.3

Certainly more contributes to successful coaching, but these three traits are where I’d begin my search, either for a coach or to determine my potential as a coach. Here are some guiding questions based on these thoughts:

  • With whom does the new initiative seem to resonate? Who holds the same values as those advocated by the new approach? Who shows an authentic dedication to the new ideas?
  • Who is skilled at navigating difficult conversations? Who can calm others in the midst of heated interaction? Who maintains a focus on finding solutions? Who seems capable of equipping and encouraging colleagues?
  • Who is skilled at engaging others in thinking? Who asks great questions? Who can use questioning to help others think things through for themselves? Who works with colleagues to think things through rather than assigning blame or taking resistance personally?
The professional development event may be great. The presenter may be dynamic, engaging, and informative. But after the event, the real work begins. The coach plays a pivotal role and directly influences the success of a new initiative. Effective coaches know the program, know the people, and know the processes that will optimize success. When asked for my recommendations, the best advice I can offer administrators is, “Choose wisely.”

  1. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 41, 43.
  2. Weeks, H., Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008), 45.
  3. Rock, D., Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 27.