Monday, July 20, 2015

Building Relationships

“Building Relationships”
(This is the third in a series of articles about our first year of TLC in Iowa)

After our initial instructional coach training sessions, it became clear that the first thing we needed to do to bring our teachers on board with us was to build a relationship with each of them.  We decided to do this primarily by spending time in their classrooms and touching base with every teacher afterwards.  After each of us spent the better part of two months observing all 92 teachers and meeting with them individually, it was evident how much dedication and passion they brought to their classrooms every day. It was quite inspiring to see the many excellent things that were happening on a daily basis at the school. It was also evident in our classroom observations that teachers had built strong relationships with their students, knowing that cultivating an environment of trust will allow students to attain high levels of academic achievement. This is exactly the type of environment we were looking to cultivate with our teachers.  As a coach, we wanted them to continue to develop these types of relationships. 


At our post-observation conferences, we approached each teacher with positive feedback on the good things we observed and then asked if there was anything they wanted to improve.  For some teachers, this led to teacher-driven topics of discussion.  With those teachers, we then implemented a strategy, often based on some of the observational tools we had from our instructional coach training.  We always focused on the teacher-chosen topics without reference to other things happening in the classroom.  Doing this guided what we would measure and how we would approach the topic of concern.  This built trust that we weren’t there to judge, evaluate or criticize, but rather to focus on the teacher’s identified goal, facilitate their decision-making and reflection, and help them grow and become even more effective in the classroom.

It is important to understand that this process is not one of “us over them” or “us having all the answers”.  In fact, we found out very early in the year that we seldom have the answer! Instead, our job is to focus on the needs of our teachers, listen carefully to what they are saying, and ask reflective questions to facilitate their learning and to ultimately help them reach their desired outcome. It was just as important to "not observe" some things as it was to focus on the pre-determined topic.  When teachers saw that we were truly there to support them, not “fix” them (as they had previously feared), the teacher-coach relationship was greatly strengthened. 

We also built relationships by helping teachers connect with each other, sometimes in ways that we had not anticipated.  For example, some teachers were in competition for funds in their departments, which created some adversity between them.  We helped those teachers by co-writing grants for some of the new initiatives, thus spreading their funds further.  The writing of grants was time-consuming and not a high priority for teachers.  Even if the grant isn't accepted, this act of support creates solidarity among the teachers involved.  The coach can help in the writing and researching the grant so those teachers can see it as a viable solution to their funding problems.  Those teachers are now more united and appreciate the work of new initiatives instead of resenting the spending of funds.  

Another way that we built relationships was to foster collaboration among teachers who taught the same course.  By coaching teachers to work together, we were able to help them divide the planning load to free some time for them to focus on the individual needs of their students.  They shared strategies with each other so they could implement the best approaches in their classroom.  They also split the load and shared their talents while building a better product.  In short, their joint effort was greater than the sum of each part.  This fostering of collaboration helped the teachers appreciate our new role as facilitators of professional growth instead of being apprehensive about criticizing their performance.

Also, teachers who taught a course that was not taught by any other teacher now had someone available for collaboration.  We had time to spend on discussions of assessments, observations of classroom management strategies, construction of curriculum, and any other aspects of their teaching that they used to do in isolation.  We found that when their content area was outside of ours, it was helpful for them to explain what they were doing so we could give a unique and fresh perspective.  We, the coaches, particularly benefited from this type of collaboration as we often learned more than the teacher during these interactions.  Most importantly, it served as yet another way to build relationships with our teachers and provide support for their work with students.

“You’ve got to go slow to go fast” describes how we approached relationship building.  Mis-steps like violating trust, being judgmental, or pushing a personal agenda can have adverse effects that take a long time and much effort to undo.  So far, we have taken our time and established working relationships with our teachers, one at a time.  We are working with people, not tractors (John Deere) or aluminum (Alcoa).  Trust can’t be mass-produced or cast from the same mold.  We know that taking the time to carefully make those relationships will pay off in the long run, and we want to be side by side with our teachers every step of the way.

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