Setting Expectations for Authentic Engagement in Coaching

Written By Diane Sweeney And Ann Mausbach
Excerpted From Leading Student-Centered Coaching (Corwin, Forthcoming)

“Should coaching be voluntary or mandatory?” It’s a question that we hear from principals on a regular basis. It’s also a question that rests on the broader issue of how we set expectations for participation in a coaching effort. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could hire a coach and then watch teachers engage, learn, and grow from this valuable resource? Yet we know that it takes a bit more strategy than that.

How we set expectations for participation varies from school to school. Some principals take an invitational approach, directing coaches to work with teachers who request their assistance. This may create conditions where some teachers will engage and others may never get off the sidelines. Other schools assign coaching to teachers who ‘need it’. Possibly those who are new to the profession or are struggling. In a perfect world this strategy would be effective. But in reality, it leads to a myriad of challenges. Let’s say we assign coaching to teachers who are new to the profession. Other staff members may assume that coaching isn’t for them. Or, assigning coaching to teachers who are struggling may make coaching feel evaluative.

The good news is there is an alternative path to setting expectations for participation in coaching. If we frame coaching as being inclusive, or for all teachers, then we build on the belief that coaching is about partnering to meet the needs of each and every student. Like so many things, it’s about finding the right balance.

Remember that Coaches are a Valuable Resource
Engaging teachers in coaching rests squarely on understanding how adult learners create meaning in their day-to-day work. Without this understanding, we run the risk of creating conditions where teachers comply, but may not do so authentically or with any real intention of putting their learning into practice.

Teacher engagement is also a matter of using our resources to their full potential. In a recent panel discussion, an assistant superintendent shared some great advice. She said if we don’t use our coaches to their full potential, then they are just highly paid paraprofessionals. We couldn’t agree more. We believe that leveraging our coaching team means that school leaders are strategic about setting expectations for participation.

It’s Not about Compliance – Adult Learners Need Choice, Ownership, and Autonomy
Creating conditions for authentic engagement in coaching means we have to steer clear of a compliance-driven approach. Compliance takes coaching from a place of inspiration and learning, to one in which teachers are there for all the wrong reasons.

The more that teachers can own their own learning, the more authentic their engagement will be. Much of this comes down to choice. We know it’s paramount for students to have choice, but we’d argue that it is equally important for adult learners because choice is about providing teachers with autonomy over their work. This is the beginning to authentic engagement.

In the bestselling book Drive (2009), Daniel Pink explains that we can build autonomy by providing choice around task, time, technique, and team. The figure below provides examples of how choice, ownership, and autonomy can be provided in each of these areas.

Providing Choice, Ownership, and Autonomy to Teachers

Where Choice Can Be ProvidedHow Choice Can Be Provided
TaskTeachers set their own goals for coaching cycles. Goals focus on student learning and begin with, ‘Students will…’ Putting the goal-setting process under the control of teachers sends the message, ‘I am here to help you reach your goals for student learning.’
TimeTeachers choose when they will participate in a coaching cycle. Using a scheduling structure with a variety of entry points provides teachers with ownership regarding when they would like to engage.
TechniqueTeachers choose the instructional practices that they will integrate into their coaching cycle. This provides the opportunity to implement instruction that aligns with both the students’ needs, as well as the needs of the school.
TeamTeachers choose who they will collaborate with during coaching cycles. This breaks up existing structures such as PLCs, departments, and grade level teams, and provides fresh and purpose-driven groupings.

Accountability Matters
Pink also suggests that accountability is necessary for authentic engagement. He writes, “Encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean discouraging accountability. Whatever operating system is in place, people must be accountable for their work” (2009, p. 105). Accountability and expectations go hand-in-hand. We don’t have to be heavy handed or top down. Rather, it is our job to compel teachers to engage because it just makes sense to do so.

It won’t mean a whole lot if we set expectations and then don’t hold teachers accountable for following through. Sure we give lots of autonomy and choice, but when it comes to leading the coaching effort, we need the principal to ensure that the coach is being used to the full potential. This may come in the form of informal check-ins where the principal asks teachers how they’ve been partnering with the coach. It can be communicated during staff meetings and in other communications. Or the principal may join coaching sessions to send the message that coaching is valued. In the end, what’s most important is for the principal to create the conditions for teachers to make the most from this important resource.