How can coaches effectively foster learning-focused relationships with educators and support them in best practices for instruction, especially in remote learning or blended learning environments?
As I explored my inquiry question for module 1, I focused my investigation on the first indicator from ISTE Coaching Standard 3.
3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.
In investigating a solution for my inquiry question, I wanted to partner the knowledge I recently gained from OSPI’s BEST Mentor Academy 101 with research on how coaches can effectively foster learning-focused relationships. This coming school year I am anticipating my role as a mentor and coach will continue to expand as my school prepares for remote and blended learning. With this realization, I began researching more about effective ways to establish trust in coaching relationships and build learning-focused relationships, all while holding students at the center of learning.
What are Learning-Focused Relationships?
So what are learning-focused relationships, and how do coaches foster these relationships with educators they coach? In their book Mentoring Matters: A practical guide to learning-focused relationships, Humbard, Lipton, and Wellman (2018) explain that, “Learning-focused relationships balance the support function with cognitive challenge to promote continual attention to improvements in practice” (p.4). By establishing and maintaining a relationship with a learning focus, coaches and educators can move through coaching conversations with student learning at the center. Within learning-focused relationships, there is a balance from the coach or mentor in offering support, creativing cognitive challenge, and facilitating a professional vision. In this relationship, it is vital for coaches to consider power dynamics (i.e. race, culture, values, biases) and to utilize an equity-driven view. Recognizing these power dynamics and implicit biases, as well as leaving your preferences at the door, and then actively reflecting on this through coaching conversations can work to build trust and reassure educators that their professional growth and their students are driving the conversation. Utilizing an equity-driven view when offering support for an educator might look like creating space for marginalized voices to be amplified or developing formative assessments that reach all students’ learning needs. In the area of coaches functioning to create cognitive challenge, an equity-driven view might focus on supporting educators in having social justice conversations with their students. Lastly, within facilitating professional vision, this might look like coaches supporting educators in thinking about culturally responsive teaching practices. By considering power dynamics and implicit biases, coaches can reflect on where they enter into that conversation with educators and how to do so in an authentic way.
Through the lens of learning-focused relationships, coaches should also work to always maintain positive presupposition. By always assuming positive intent, coaches work to provide support and create a safe space for educators in these conversations. Heather Dowd (2019) reminds us that, “As an instructional coach, you need to assume positive intent from your teachers, and trust that teachers are making the best decisions for their students based on their current needs, whether or not that aligns with your own bias” (n.p.). Vulnerability is at the forefront of any coaching conversations, especially when thinking about these conversations in virtually or in-regards to remote learning. In these moments, it is even more critical that coaches maintain positive presupposition.
How can Learning-Focused Relationships be Fostered in Remote Learning & Blended Learning Environments?
The infographic below outlines Elena Aguiar’s Ten Steps to Building Trust, from her book The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation. These steps are essential for coaches to reflect on when fostering trust and learning-focused relationships with educators. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these steps, and how coaches can utilize them to continue to strengthen connections with educators in remote and blended learning environments.
Plan and Prepare
When thinking about coaching and effective building relationships in remote and blended learning environments, it is essential for coaches to plan and prepare for these coaching conversations. Planning and being prepared for initial meetings with educators is always important, but it becomes even more vital when these first meetings are happening digitally. As coaches complete a few meetings with an educator and begin to build rapport, past meetings will help to drive future conversations, and coaches can more effectively plan and prepare by anticipating questions and thinking about their coaching moves. Planning and preparing can support coaches in fostering trust by demonstrating competency and integrity. This step can also provide coaches with transparency for educators and ensure trust. Whether coaches are supporting educators in-person, remotely, or in blended learning settings, sharing out notes from coaching conversations can be really beneficial. OSPI’s BEST Mentor Academy has put together the Mentor-Mentee Conference Conversation Template below. I worked to recreate this template in Google Docs to allow for ease of use in filling out this conversation template and in sharing it with educators I coach/mentor. Filling out and sharing this conference template with educators can help coaches to increase momentum of coaching conversations no matter the setting.Mentor-Mentee-Conference-Conversation-Template
In addition to the benefits transparency of coaching conversations can provide in building trust with educators, so too can coaches developing a confident, clear understanding of coaching stances. Coaches continue to foster learning-focused relationships through the use of the four coaching stances: coach, collaborate, consult, and calibrate. As a coach’s understanding of these stances continues to develop and the educators they are coaching become more familiar with the use of these stances, movement along this continuum can become more fluid and flexible. This fluidity and flexibility provides a coach with the ability to effectively respond to the educators’ emotional and cognitive needs. As Humbard, Lipton, and Wellman explain, “Versatility with, and intentional use of, all four stances are essential resources for customizing interactions” (p. 40). Learning-focused interactions also feel more personalized when coaches share with educators they’re coaching what stance they’re providing support for them in and when they move to a different stance. By making this information accessible to educators, coaches are able to strengthen trust through demonstrating that they are planned and prepared, as well as highlighting that the educator’s professional goals, and most important student learning, are driving the conversation.Learning-focused_Conversations-The_Continuum_of_Interaction
Figure 3. Learning-focused Conversations: The Continuum of Interaction Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.sanjuan.edu/cms/lib8/CA01902727/Centricity/domain/2638/standard%202-gen%20ed/Learning-focused_Conversations-The_Continuum_of_Interaction.pdf
Coaching confidentiality, especially in remote learning, is an important focus for instructional coaches to think about as they are creating a safe, supportive learning environment and building learning-focused relationships. Effective, engaging coaching conversations require built trust and vulnerability shown by both the coach and educator. For vulnerability to be present, established trust and confidentiality must exist. In thinking back to my own experience with remote learning this past spring, there were several moments where I felt inadequate and defeated in my teaching. These would have been really necessary, meaningful conversations to connect with a learning coach about, but also really vulnerable moments for me as a teacher. In recognizing the areas of growth and learning I was experiencing, as well as the emotional and cognitive support, it would have been essential for me to have established confidentiality with a learning coach in order to open up about these experiences. That reflection has helped me to think intentionally about how I want to establish confidentiality for educators I coach in the future. Moir and Gless (2017) state that, “Trust is essential to creating these mentoring relationships. The development of trust comes through a commitment to confidentiality and is an essential component of mentoring” (p.17). In thinking about the role of establishing confidentiality in learning-focused relationships, a learning coach should take a position of listening and supporting in order to maximize the potential of these conversations.
As learning coaches committed to learning-focused relationships, we must reflect intentionally and critically to recognize our own listening tendencies. Working to refine our listening and shift away from “I” listening will help coaches more effectively support educators in coaching conversations. One of the most meaningful exercises for me in OSPI’s BEST Mentor Academy was to read through the four types of “I” Listening: personal listening, detail listening, predictive listening, and certainty listening, to identify my listening tendencies. I found that I am often a detail listener, who tends to ask questions around details to build understanding, but I realized that this is disruptive and non-productive to the educator I’m coaching. Through this realization, I now recognize my own preference and tendency for listening, a need to leave these at the door, and a requirement for me to build new, purposeful listening habits in the learning-focused relationships. Elena Aguilar (2013) shares that, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand” (p. 148). When fostering learning-focused relationships to support educators for instruction, it stems from being listened to. It is essential that we listen without judgment or attachment, and that we are accepting of what educators share with us. Additionally, just because we are silent does not mean that we are fully attending either. Humbard, Lipton, and Wellman (2018) remind us that, “Not interrupting doesn’t necessarily equate to listening. Often, silent individuals may have either mentally checked out or are composing their next remark” (p. 21). When connecting remotely, it can be even easier to slip into some of our listening tendencies or to have spaces where we mentally check out. As listeners, we tend to fill space with our own thoughts, and it’s important to recognize these internal distractions, and then actively check ourselves to prevent this from continuing to occur. When connecting in coaching conversations in-person, it can be effective to set aside technology and other items to focus on the educator sharing. In remote learning environments it can be important to set aside other items aside as well, and also to close out unnecessary tabs to limit additional distractions.
When we feel truly validated, we feel seen and heard as our authentic selves. In coaching conversations, we build trusting connections with educators when we make them feel validated. One of the ways we can validate educators in learning-focused interactions is by paraphrasing instead of questioning. Through paraphrasing, we are removing “I,” “me,” and “my” statements, and instead paraphrasing by affirming, acknowledging, and clarifying. By withholding questioning entirely, or at the very least until we have paraphrased several times, coaches demonstrate trust and an intention to listen deeply. Only once we have paraphrased do we then have space to inquire and ask effective questions, but still, in this space these inquiries should be real, honest, and open-ended. Figure 4 below shows suggested sentence stems for coaches to use in practice paraphrasing and effective questioning during coaching conversations.
Paraphrasing provides validation for the educators you are connecting with, and also offers space for coaches to think and process before responding. In demonstrating pausing, thinking, and then responding without an immediate question, coaches are able to show that they value what the educator is sharing.
Validating educators in learning-focused interactions is also extremely important when connecting in remote learning environments. One area I am continuing to grow in as a coach is recognizing spaces to validate and praise, and balancing that with a fear of overpraising. However, I feel that especially in the unprecedented time we are put in that has required the shift to remote learning, that it is important to amplify this praise and validation. Educators are working exceptionally hard to start thinking about learning in the fall. In virtual coaching conversations, we can validate and praise our fellow educators and highlight the amazing work they are doing with students by showing work samples, video clips, or lesson plans they have developed.
“We support our clients along the arduous journey of change, encouraging them when they tire, cheering for them when they succeed. When we can invite teachers, principals, vice-principals, and others who work in schools into the vulnerable space of growth, when we elicit trust and maintain our integrity, our coachees will join us eagerly on the journey to transform schools. The success of this endeavor hinges on trust” (Aguilar, 2013, p.93).
Ensuring that coaches keep scheduled commitments is an integral part of fostering trust with educators. Often we can get inundated with tasks, meetings, and other life obligations, but it is important to meet the commitments that we scheduled with the individuals we are coaching. This can become especially tricky when engaging in these coaching conversations digitally, when technology coaches may be called upon to assist in technology troubleshooting, answer emails that require urgency, or are planning meetings around remote learning schedules. A strategy that can be useful for keeping commitments and supporting coaching conversations is creating a virtual coaching hub to connect with educators. One example of this is using Google Classroom as a virtual coaching hub to connect with individuals or teams, connect meetings to Google Calendar, post relevant content to coaching conversations to the classroom stream or directly to individuals, share out resources, and so much more. By setting up this virtual coaching hub and setting up systems and norms for keeping commitments, coaches can foster trustworthiness, accountability, and credibility, all while strengthening their learning-focused relationships with the educators they coach.
As I continue to grow in my practice as a digital coach, and as we as educators continue to learn from and adapt to these ever-changing times, the necessity for fostering learning-focused relationships increases. What are some ways you build learning-focused relationships with educators and support them in best practices for instruction, especially in remote learning or blended learning environments? Please share them, as well as any feedback or questions you have, in the comment section below!
Aguilar, E. (2016). The art of coaching teams: Building resilient communities that transform schools. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.spu.edu
Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: Effective strategies for school transformation. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.spu.edu
Dowd, H. (2020, March 31). How to Build Trust with Teachers: 5 Easy Steps for Instructional Coaches. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.edtechteam.com/blog/2019/12/how-to-build-trust-with-teachers-5-easy-steps-for-instructional-coaches/
ISTE Standards for Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
Humbard, C., Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. M. (2018). Mentoring matters: A practical guide to learning-focused relationships. Sherman, CT: MiraVia, LCC.
McGrath, S. (2019, June 05). 5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/5-relationship-building-tips-instructional-coaches
Racines, D. (2019, August 23). 4 Tips for Instructional Coaches. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-tips-instructional-coaches