Written by Lucy West, author of Agents of Change
I recently received this question about coaching on my website:
Is it the coach's responsibility to report the teachers' flaws to the principal? This "tattle-tailing" is not supportive of the teachers, especially after they are reprimanded by the principal because of the coach's report. This makes many teachers fearful of working with the coach. This is occurring at my school and many teachers are upset.
Remember, coaching in education is about improving teaching to improve student learning—it is not therapy. Coaching acknowledges that skillful teaching is complex. In order to master teaching so that ALL students learn well, teachers need to commit to their own learning throughout their careers. Learning is not always easy or comfortable, and coaches often become the scapegoats for the frustration and discomfort teachers feel when receiving feedback from colleagues or principals. Which is not to say that principals always handle situations with grace and wisdom. Principals are people, too. Sometimes they react rather than take time to investigate and carefully consider. Which is why it is critical to create a learning culture.
A Culture of Learning
The scenario in this question points to a culture that is not yet a learning culture. Terms like "tattle-tailing", "teacher’s flaws", and "reprimanding" describe a culture where trust is lacking. What is meant by “flaws”? Personal flaws or flaws in lesson design? What is meant by “tattle-telling”? What is fair to share with a principal about a teacher’s progress and efforts and what is off limits? Who decides? Is the coach gossiping? Is she complaining that the teacher is not cooperating? If so, has she addressed this issue directly with the teacher prior to involving the principal? Does the principal know whether what the coach is “reporting” is true? Or does she act on this “report” without gathering further information from the teacher? Are the principal’s actions making matters worse? Is the teacher telling stories to other teachers and inflaming the situation further?
From the very little bit offered in this scenario, it sounds like it’s time to gather facts to put out a fire that is burning out of control.
Important Considerations for Coaches
In most schools and districts the roles and responsibilities of coaches, principals, and teachers who are engaging in coaching have not been carefully thought through or widely discussed in advance. Coaching is not something most teachers are eager to engage in. Principals are not clear what their role is. Coaches may be new in the position and feeling their way.
Teachers tend to think that coaching should be kept confidential. Principals believe they have a responsibility to ensure that each teacher is growing and improving her practice and, therefore, that they have a right to know. Coaches often feel torn and are uncertain about what to tell principals when they ask how the work is going or how well a particular teacher is progressing. There are myriad historical and political reasons for these differing perspectives and attitudes. Suffice it to say, this is a cultural issue that must be addressed if coaching is going to have a positive impact on teaching and learning.
It sounds like coaching may be a relatively new practice in this school. It sounds like no agreements have been made as to the roles of each participant and how information about teacher development is to be shared. It sounds like no one has asked whether coaches and principals and teachers should meet periodically as a team. These are things that the faculty and the administration need to discuss and work through if coaching is to become a valued process in improving teaching and learning.
Make Time to Talk
So here is one suggestion for our anonymous interlocutor: Talk to one another. Sounds simple, but is rarely easy in practice. The principal, coach, and teacher could have a three-way conversation. They could establish at the outset their intent to resolve the conflict and come to a mutual agreement they can all live by. They can own their own part in inflaming a situation that has damaged the trust among teachers, coach and principal. They can discuss roles and responsibilities, share their perspectives, and come to an agreement about how to handle situations when the coach and teacher don’t see eye to eye. This means having the kind of productive difficult conversation that many of us avoid in favor of telling stories to third parties and getting upset with one another.
For this to work, everyone—including the principal and the coach—needs to take a learning stance. All of us, me included, have something to learn and something to contribute. It would behoove all the adults in the school to find out what each person would like to learn and what each person feels they can contribute to improving teaching practices across the school.
Learning From Each Other
Learning to openly engage with colleagues and administrators in diagnostic conversations centered on the complexity of teaching means becoming more self-aware and more committed to the collective improvement of the faculty. Challenging our own and each other’s beliefs and practices—including the beliefs and practices of administrators and of coaches—requires a willingness to learn to engage skillfully, candidly, and with a clear intention to learn from and with one another. No gossip. No finger pointing. No story telling. It’s not about hierarchy, it’s about caring professional relationships and a shared commitment to learn and grow so that the students in our care learn from the example of the educators who serve them.
Lucy West is the Founding Director of Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities and the coauthor of Agents of Change: How Content Coaching Transforms Teaching and Learning. She is the former Director of Mathematics Instruction in New York City’s Community School District 2 and Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Grades K-12, for nearly 200 schools in New York City’s Region 9. Lucy is an international speaker and consultant best known for her innovative, cutting-edge approaches to transforming schools into multi-generational learning communities.
Photo credit: Jian Xhin