Coaching Chameleon: being a credible coach
Updated: Apr 25, 2020
In his blog Finding Common Ground in EdWeek this week, Peter DeWitt wrote about 6 obstacles facing instructional coaches. In reading it I was reminded of another blog post he wrote back in 2015: 4 reasons instructional coaching won't work. The latter was shared with me by a teaching colleague at the beginning of my first year as a coach; I tried to embrace it as well-intentioned but the truth is, it stung. Whilst I felt some comfort with 3 of the reasons, the post named rather starkly what might be my biggest challenge as a new coach: establishing my credibility.
As a teacher, my credibility was in plain-sight. I had a long, rich track-record as a teacher in many domains, a broad international network of colleagues, principals and peers as advocates, and many past students who could (and did) attest to my impact. As a coach, I felt a bit like a contestant on Survivor, with nothing but my wits to make it in the jungle. I didn't fully understand what it even meant to be credible as a coach. DeWitt's 2015 post named experience as important, but that it shouldn't be confused with expertise (which was also important). This was a scary prospect for me as I was a teaching and learning coach, preK-12...what expertise would people expect from me? I had no experience of being a teacher below Grade 4. I had taught many subjects but never Maths. I had employed coaching techniques but what did it mean to be an experienced coach? Was it different? Yikes!!
Luckily, I had plenty of people willing to help me out with these questions.
Over the years, colleagues have named a variety of qualities that make a coach credible, such as:
"Training - you're qualified to be a coach"
"You connect practice to research"
"You are a master-listener and have the skills to organise thinking without telling me what to do"
"I can trust you to have me - and my students' growth - at heart"
"Experience - you share how your work has made an impact on others"
"You are a learner. You talk about what you are learning: from our work together, your work with others, and the PD or study you are doing."
That's quite a list. And perhaps a greater challenge than being all the things on the list is recognising that a favourable quality for one person may be perceived entirely differently for someone else.
For example, DeWitt's warns in this week's post:
[Coaches] have a strong desire to be the best in their jobs, which means understanding research and knowing the names of experts in the field. This can sometimes be the very behavior that puts off their colleagues because the instructional coach name drops or unknowingly (or knowingly) talks down to their teacher colleagues. Meet people where they are, and this issue will likely go away.
I value research. I read the work of experts in education and keep up with trends as much as I can; even more so since being a coach and being in the realm of professional growth. I engage whether the ideas align with mine or not - ignorance is ignorance in my book. I'm kind of horrified that me 'dropping names' might be perceived as talking down to my colleagues, because my motivation is ethical - if an idea or approach is something I learned through a coaching cycle, a conversation, a course or a conference, I want to credit the source. But I see what DeWitt is saying - there is a whole lot of 'me' in that list. I did a coaching cycle. I had a conversation with someone. I studied something. I attended a conference. Knowing that framing my thoughts in this way might put-off my colleagues makes me cautious of naming names from now on.
Having spent some time mulling it over this week, what are my takeaways? That what defines credibility is in the eye of the beholder, and because of this I will always be working on it as I move to new schools, and welcome new teachers to coaching. And maybe this helps me to define what it takes to be credible as a coach: it is my ability to navigate expectations, work out what teachers need of me and value, and don the right cap for the job, so that I can meet them where they are.