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  • Writer's pictureThe Curious Coach

Confidentiality and Coaching

What should the relationship be?

A flamenco dancer from behind the railings in Plaza de España, Seville

When I look back over the past 10 years of my coaching life on paper, something pops up regularly: the word confidentiality. In my first years, I read about it and found it to be synonymous with trust - relationships in coaching depended on me ensuring that what happened in a cycle stayed in a cycle, the only exception being if there were issues with safety and wellbeing.  I had a wonderful team-mate who arrived in my second year - a veteran coach - and she helped me form a narrative around confidentiality to share with leaders when they questioned me about coaching and cycles with faculty:

"You should go and ask Sarah about that!"

It served me well for a while and was often met with a wry smile.

It is true that alongside the narrative of confidentiality runs a fundamental challenge faced by most coaches at some stage: being nudged into more supervisory tasks. Coaches are great at building relationships and have a unique window into the real goings-on of the classroom. When coaches walk in, teachers are usually clear of their intentions, and there is no special performance, as might be the case when a supervisor or principal enters the room.  Busy principals may also struggle to get into classrooms as much as they'd like and here you are, with a regular 'in' - so it stands to reason that they may want to leverage your all-access pass.

Mostly, when I was asked about cycles, intentions were good; sometimes, though, there was a more ominous motive. It was a strange tension for me - I didn't want to feel like I was breaking the rules, but I also wanted coaching to be celebrated. I've written previously about what qualities coachees bring to a coaching partnership: being growth-oriented and curious about their students and being risk-takers who are collaborative and reflective. These are contrary to the concept of coachees as teachers who need to be fixed because they aren't meeting the standard, so why would I keep coaching a secret?

Diane Sweeney explores this tension through another useful lens:

"What if we started the school year assuming that every teacher will need support in meeting their students’ needs? This is quite different than thinking that some teachers are okay and others need help. Teaching is hard. Expect that there will be challenges. This is where respect begins." (2017)

As time wore on, I began to feel that my narrative was problematic.  Confidentiality meant keeping secrets, and secrets suggest there is something that needs to be hidden. By doing this, I was perpetuating the myth I was trying hard to smash: that coaching was about fixing teachers, and was therefore only for some, not all. And then there was another byproduct:  I started to feel like there was a game of 'us' and 'them' happening between coaches, teachers, and administrators, and I definitely did not want that. 

So, what to do?

This depends on levels of trust in your school: teacher-coach, coach-principal, teacher-principal. It also depends on the expectations that have been communicated around coaching - is it completely invitational, and anyone can work with a coach (or not)? Or is it presumed that everyone will work with a coach? Once you've set your lens on the above, here are a few approaches to consider:

  • This one covers all bases: swap-out the word confidential with consent.  In this approach, we check in with coachees about what they'd like to share with administrators and ask if they have any wonderings or concerns (or even things they'd like to add!). 

  • De-privatise the relationship between coaches and principals.  As coaches, we try hard to communicate what our relationship with teachers is like and what they can expect from us, but teachers are often unsure how we fit in the web of interactions in a school. Opening the door on the ways administrators and coaches work together legitimises coaching: if the principal is making time for it, then teachers will, too.

  • If coaching has been a part of the school for some time, it is worth pulling some real data on practices/behaviours that help to describe where the community is with confidentiality. What evidence do we have that suggests people's comfort already? Does this match our perception? What shifts can we make to bring the what (coaching), the why (for improved student learning), and the how (our behaviors around confidentiality) into sharper focus?

So where have I ended up? For me, coaching is not just reserved for a select few; it is for all teachers, because it signifies our commitment to providing our students with the support they deserve. When a school invests in coaches, it has expectations for their impact. Coaches should engage in meaningful conversations with administrators about their coaching work, not in a supervisory capacity, but as collaborative partners. Equally important is creating opportunities for teachers to have conversations with principals about their coaching cycles, fostering a culture of open dialogue and shared growth. By prioritizing these conversations, we can create a collaborative and supportive environment that enhances the coaching experience and ultimately benefits our students.

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