Instructional Coaching 101: The Importance of Listening and Being Vulnerable

Instructional Coaching 101_Listening & Vulnerability

Written By Niki Gaines of The “Innovative Friends” Blog

I am often asked how it is that I am able to get invited into so many classes to teach math lessons. I believe it is for two reasons: vulnerability and listening.

As a math coach, my willingness to make myself vulnerable has opened doors for me, literally. What teacher is willing to teach in a fishbowl, if I am not willing to do the same?

The craft of teaching, and our connections with our own students, are so personal that trust is paramount when building relationships with coaches. I was on the teaching side of this design for 22 years, so I get it. Now, as a coach, I work to build that trust by making myself vulnerable.

I often tease that my willingness to have one of my lessons go awry is just a service I provide. If I can’t meet with a teacher about the ways I can improve my practice, or reflect on my lesson, then I have no business doing the same for others. Our best approach towards building trust is showing our teaching partners that we are teachers first. Sometimes I snicker at the term “model lessons.” Yes, I push into classrooms and teach “model lessons,” but who really knows what I will be modeling? Kids, after all, are unpredictable critters.

Spanning all my years as a classroom teacher, I didn’t want to learn about hypothetical practices, detailed in a grown-up, sterile, after-school environment. And I certainly didn’t want to hear about how some strategy SHOULD work in a classroom. I wanted to be shown in a real life setting, with my 32 fidgety kiddos.

I always hate watching training videos when there is a total of five students sitting on the carpet. That doesn’t help me. When I am differentiating for 30+ kids, I need to see someone modeling that for me in a real-life working classroom, not some simulation. That, I believe, is the power of coaching. And, understanding this helps me get invitations into classrooms.

When teachers know that coaches are real people who are willing to be in the trenches with them, learning together, real growth happens. Stuff gets done because authentic collaboration is happening. We can’t ask teachers what we can learn from their lessons until we ask them what we can learn from our lessons.

In addition to allowing myself to be vulnerable, I perhaps get invited into classrooms because I try to listen. The key word here is “try.”

Of course, I am opinionated. I have many years of teaching behind me, and I have my way of doing things; but the inquiry model is so much more powerful towards soliciting real change. It also helps me side-step out of the professional ruts I sometimes find myself in. Of course I fall short at times, but I try to keep conversations and collaboration focused on the teacher’s goals by asking what it is they want to see or have help with? In what capacity do they want to grow in their pedagogy? What is it about their class this year, or in their own teaching practice, that they need support with?

The teacher gets to decide the direction of their own growth. I can gently nudge, but I try to adhere to following their lead.

Teacher needs can change from lesson to lesson and class to class. Sometimes they want help teaching from a new curriculum adoption, or planning for differentiation. Other times, they may wish to learn how to supplement with quality math tasks or, frankly, just to run to the restroom. Whatever it may be, the goal is up to them, and it is my responsibility to listen. As someone who is deeply excited about education, that does not always come easy.

I was sitting with a teacher one evening, helping her plan lessons on division with decimals. I thought I was listening and supporting, but while I was trying to “help” her map out all of the different ways she could organize her lessons, she became more and more frustrated and upset.

I finally stopped what I was doing, looked at her, and said, “I am not understanding what you need, am I? Tell me what it is you need, and I will try to listen better.”

Through her tears, she confessed, “I, myself, need to be reminded how to divide with decimals!”

She had forgotten what to do when there was a decimal in both the dividend and the divisor. And, why wouldn’t she? The fifth grade was a long time ago for her.

After a quick reminder on how to do the math, we were back on track with smiles. But it took me stopping to listen, and not make assumptions, in order for us to move forward.

Teachers are overwhelmed. The task of educating a classroom full of children is daunting, to say the least. We don’t need added stress. We need someone to stand with us so we can learn together.

Coaching is not a model of, “I show you what to do,” or, “I tell you how this should be done.” We are colleagues, and colleagues work together for the good of the whole.

As coaches, we need to be willing to stand alongside our partners and teach. We need to look them in the eye and listen with the purpose of understanding.

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