A Coaching Mindset

Can you relate to the following scenario?

The clock was ticking.  We were about 10 minutes away from the next class change, and I was struggling to get to a good place with the teacher sitting across from me.  She was relatively low in experience but not exactly new.  A number of questions were swirling in my head:  Was she new enough that she was having a hard time coming up with strategies and just wanted me to tell her?  Would it insult her if I told her what to do to improve?  Wouldn’t it save us both time if I just told her what I wanted to see?

When considering how to grow an educator or employee, many consider willingness and ability when determining how to improve staff performance.  Essentially, where an individual sits on the spectrum of willingness (attitude) and ability (competence) helps determine the manner in which to address them.  For those more willing and able, they receive more professional latitude and greater autonomy.  For those less willing and able, more directive and prescribing.

Willing and Able

It would be incorrect to assume all staff can be divided into 25% segments.  Rather, very few need the directive approach required by the unwilling/unable box.  Expectations of high quality instruction aren’t negotiable, as all students deserve a first-rate learning experience.

Teachers make scores of instant decisions during every class period impacting the learning experience for students.  While many of these decisions are pre-planned, many are reactions borne from prior experience or developed beliefs of the teacher.  A reflective conversation helps illuminate and examine the beliefs driving teacher behavior.  A directive conversation impacts the behavior only, leaving decision-making consciously and subconsciously prone to unexamined beliefs.

Directives temporarily work, but often fade away without accountability and may potentially erode feelings of trust.  Instead of issuing declaratives, administrators using artful listening and thoughtful questioning help the teacher mediate their own thinking.   Simply put, helping the teacher reflect about his or her own performance helps them grow as a professional and a thinker.

In Cognitive Coaching, the authors use the term “mediate” to describe this process.

“The word mediate is derived from the word middle.  Therefore, mediators interpose themselves between a person and some event, problem, conflict, challenge, or other perplexing situation.  The mediator intervenes in such a way as to enhance another person’s self-directed learning.” (Costa and Garmston, 2002, p. 56)

Using the mindset of the appraiser as mediator, these questions provide a starting point to encourage a conversation for the teacher.

  • How does the teacher perceive his or her own performance in contrast to a stated expectation?
  • What aspect of instruction would provide the most meaningful discussion for the teacher?
  • What is the teacher’s desired outcome for this aspect of instruction?
  • Does the teacher perceive a gap between where they are and where they could be as a teacher?

A coaching mindset refrains from identifying and solving the problems for teachers.  While solving problems helps the school leader feel like things are better, this often does not allow the teacher to fully understand or address deeper beliefs behind the behavior.  By allowing teachers to grapple with problems through reflection by using artful questioning and listening skills, teachers become better problem solvers for their future instructional growth needs.

In some circumstances, an advising and direct approach is necessary. For all other circumstances, school leaders help teachers foster a sense of self-growth by supporting and extending the teacher’s own thinking.   Although the conversation revolves around a common campus expectation for instruction, the teacher creates his or her own improvement.  Conversation examining beliefs, allowing the teacher to self problem-solve, results in stronger, authentic, and more permanent change.


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