Q: I’m an instructional coach. I work with teachers mostly one-on-one to help them increase student engagement and achievement. The fact is that there are not enough of us, so we typically work with teachers who are struggling in some way. They may need to get student scores up or they may be resisting implementation of a new curriculum, but it can be any type of problem, really. I don’t decide whom to work with —I’m told who needs coaching. In any case, I’m an experienced teacher. I have a decade of solid student outcomes behind me, and I got the coaching job because I earned it. But lately I’ve found myself working with teachers who are a good deal older than I am. Maybe they have 20 or 25 years of experience to my 12 years. Two in particular have flat-out resented me. They don’t want or think they need the help. Our demographics have changed a lot over the years, and we have more English learners. One of the two teachers isn’t rolling well with those changes and won’t adjust his approach to meet these kids’ needs. The other one doesn’t want to learn how to teach the new curriculum. I honestly don’t think she even glanced at it until I put it under her nose. Neither of them thinks I can teach them anything, and they both keep mentioning my age. I’m about 15 years younger than they are, and their contempt and resistance is getting to me. I want to make this as positive an experience as possible for all of us. Do you have any tips for me?
A: Ideally, all teachers should see themselves as ongoing learners and view coaching as a chance to learn more about themselves and to reflect on their teaching. And ideally, there would be enough coaching resources for everyone. If that were the case, my guess is that many teachers would seek out extra help. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why getting “assigned” a coach feels more like a consequence than professional development. That’s too bad.
I’d acknowledge their lack of agency and be clear that you know they don’t want to be there. You can even matter-of-factly acknowledge the age difference but don’t get defensive about it. And know that when they say, “I’m fine and don’t need your help,” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t know you and I don’t trust you.” It doesn’t have anything to do with you personally. So start from square one and work on building the relationship. That part of your job is no different than what you did as a classroom teacher.
Treat them with respect, honor their extensive experience and validate that change is hard. Tell them you hope to work together to make it a positive experience for all parties. You also can point out that you expect to learn from them, too. In general, focus on their strengths and the assets they bring to the table. And just as you did as a teacher, spend time in advance planning for these meetings. What are your intentions? What do you want them to take away from the coaching session? How will you know you were successful? What do you think might engage them? After each session, reflect on whether you made a connection. Are you trending in the right direction or moving backward? Are their defenses still up, or are they willing to identify any growth edges? Is there anything you’d do differently the next time? Ask the teachers for regular feedback, as well, and then incorporate their suggestions. You’ll model vulnerability and demonstrate a willingness to adapt.
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