How to Coach a “Resistant” Teacher – reblog from EdWeek

Shane Safir was a guest blogger for EdWeek’s The Art of Coaching Teachers blog by Elena Aguilar.  Elena writes,

“There’s one request for advice that I receive more than any other from coaches: How can I coach a resistant teacher?”

Shane questions the term “resistant” and turns it back to a series of questions for the coach, encouraging coaches to first question where this label came from by investigating the context, getting to know the story of the teacher, and looking in the mirror to examine one’s own emotional reactions to coaching, change, peers, etc.

Tips for Coaching a Resistant Teacher
Reblog from

In my years as a principal, coach, and professional developer, I’ve lived this question dozens of times and have learned to adjust my perception of the problem and the strategies I use to respond.

The Pitfalls of Perception
The answer to this perennial coaching question–how can I coach a resistant teacher?–actually sits inside the question itself in the word “resistant.” When we label a client “resistant,” we create a psychological and even moral distance that can undermine our goals. Resistant means “refusing to accept new ideas or changes.” This label carries a layer of judgment that may prevent us from trying to understand our coachee’s reality, dilemmas, competing commitments, or even aspirations.

How can we really determine that a coachee has refused to work toward change? What if 90% of her has refused, but a hopeful, dormant 10% is open to your support? What if she is actually fearful, mistrusting, under-confident, distracted by competing priorities, or so burned by previous ‘interventions’ that she can’t yet engage in the opportunity you’re offering?

How To Approach a “Resistant Teacher”

Here are a few tips for approaching your coachee that might soften her resistance and foster relational trust.

1. Look in the mirror. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to look “out the window” for external sources of our current challenges. Resist that tendency, and take a moment to notice your own reactions to this coachee. Do you have a physiological response as you prepare to coach him or her? Does your body become tense or rigid? What emotions come up when you think about this person – fear, anger, distress, frustration? All of these reactions can distort the way you perceive and approach your coachee. Simply noticing your own physical and emotional signals and taking a deep breath may be enough to interrupt the auto-pilot response and shift to a more “distress-free” stance…

2. Take an inquiry stance. Inquiry is an ongoing process of asking questions and examining evidence in order to improve our practice. Taking an inquiry stance means letting go of judgment for curiosity. Replacing answers with questions. Eschewing superficial or dismissive explanations (“This teacher must not care about kids”) and digging for deeper ones. As you shift into an inquiry stance, you can ask yourself:

    • What might be underneath the resistance I’m feeling?
    • What have been this teacher’s previous experiences with coaching or other improvement initiatives, and how might they be influencing her response to me?
    • How connected does she feel to the school community and its leaders?
    • How safe does she feel to discuss weaknesses in her practice?

3. Invite your coachee’s story. Everyone comes with a story, but rarely are people asked to share it. A key strategy for transforming “resistance” into openness is to invite your coachee to share his or her story as an educator and as a person. This might not feel like traditional coaching at first blush, but remember that it’s in the service of building trust and relationship, which allow you to get enrolled to do the hard work of capacity-building.

Schedule time-perhaps even off-site with fewer distractions- to simply connect with your coachee and hear her story. You might ask:

    • How and why did you become an educator?
    • What are your fears about engaging in this coaching work together?
    • If you opened yourself to coaching, what do you think might be possible? What could we achieve together?
    • What’s been your best experience of support or mentoring?
    • How can I best support you?

Here are a few additional tips I’ve picked up along the way:

Don’t Take it Personally
As coaches, we sometimes personalize behaviors that we perceive as resistant. When teachers didn’t immediately welcome my support, I wondered what I had done to merit this response. Here I was, organizing myself professionally, showing up with respect and humility, investing my time in this person’s growth. And they didn’t want me around? The truth is, nine times out of ten it’s not about you at all!

Assuming it’s personal initiates a mental spiral of self-doubt and blame that, similar to the psychology of labels like ‘resistant,’ keeps you from unearthing the deeper factors at play. Your role as the coach is to understand who this person is, what makes her tick, and to build a strong enough relationship that you can become a catalyst for change.

When you find yourself personalizing, it’s important to take a step back, notice your response, and detach enough to see yourself participating in this psychodrama rather than holding the bigger picture for yourself and the coachee. Only then can you re-engage with compassion and genuine curiosity about what is causing the behavior and how to help the client get past it.

Don’t Overemphasize Technical Issues

One final tip is not to enter with a technical approach when the client data (body language, words, feedback from colleagues) calls for a relational one. It’s so tempting to grab a tried-and-true lesson plan or pressure-tested “best practice” and offer it as a way to enroll your coachee in a new direction or change agenda. Sometimes, in particular with new teachers who may be struggling to stay above water, a technical offering is spot-on, gaining you credibility and a platform for future coaching. However, I would offer that our prototypical “resistant teacher” requires a more relational approach that moves us safely past the emotional landmines and into the fertile zone of coaching and learning together.

Above all else, approach your coachee with humility. Having coached people both much less and much more experienced than me, and educators of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I’ve landed on humility as a core value and facet of my approach. When I arrive at coaching with equal parts humility and confidence in what I have to offer, I inevitably can see past “resistance” to the person in front of me – with her own unique story, values, and capacities to build from.

Develop your coaching practice and more at the National Equity Project’s Coaching for Equity Institute.

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5 Coaching Skills Every Manager Should Use

1. Listen without judgment. Being able to listen without judgment is key to any relationship – coaching or otherwise. Two forms of listening we encourage coaches and managers to employ are constructivist listening and active / reflective listening. Constructivist listening is effective for engaging in conversations that are both intellectually demanding and emotionally challenging.  Active/reflective listening helps ensure mutual understanding.  Both forms of listening are extremely beneficial for the talker as they provide emotional release and reassurance that you’re willing to listen to their point of view.

2. Get permission to coach. Whether you are a coach or a manager, you can set the stage for a successful partnership with your colleagues by outlining at the outset mutual goals, expected outcomes, and potential obstacles.  These shared agreements help to build relationship, and are helpful to revisit as obstacles inevitably arise. As a manager you may assume that you already have permission to tell your colleagues what to do or how to change (a “Wag the Finger” mentality)– but doing the work of identifying shared agreements and outcomes will help you all to be more effective.

Stephen Colbert - Wag The Finger

Stephen Colbert/Wag The Finger

3. Ask probing questions. There’s a difference between clarifying questions and probing questions.  Clarifying questions are simple questions of fact – like “did you do this?” or “do you understand?” But probing questions are intended to help your colleagues to think more deeply.  There’s no “right” answer to a probing question, and they can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”.  Good probing questions help create a paradigm shift, empower your colleagues to solve their own problems without deferring to you or another “expert”, and move their thinking from reaction to reflection.

4. Be mindful when giving feedback. Feedback is useful when it is audible, credible, and actionable (see CES National’s Principles of Giving Feedback).  Give it with care, let the recipient invite it, be specific, avoid evaluative judgments, and always speak for yourself.

“The mere phrase ‘Can I give you some advice?’ puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

– David Rock, “Managing With the Brain in Mind”

 5. Develop your own emotional intelligence.  Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional intelligence” in 1995.  Since then, he’s identified five key components of emotional intelligence in the workplace: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill (Goleman 2004).  Coaches and managers must be able to manage their own emotional responses and make strategic choices about when and how to share their own feelings and thoughts according to the goals they are trying to accomplish.

Learn these skills and more at the National Equity Project’s Coaching for Equity Institute.  

Posted in Coaching, Conferences & Events, Constructivist Listening, Emotional Intelligence, Managers, National Equity Project, Neuroscience, Relationships, school coaching | 1 Comment

Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys

This month National Equity Project board member Gregory Hodge will participate on a panel at the Foundation Center in San Francisco on “Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys: Where Do We Go From Here?”  Other panelists represent organizations including PolicyLink, REDF, and the California Endowment.  Details and registration info for the event on March 21, 2013 can be found at the Grant Space site here.

Greg recently authored a report for the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) titled “Current Black Men and Boys Investments in California: A Landscape Scan.”  The report surveys current major funding efforts and makes recommendations for greater coordination using some of the framework of “collective impact.”

We are very fortunate to have Greg as a board member. He is an activist, educator, researcher, former school board member, and an organization and community development consultant working with Black Men and Boys (BMB) initiatives around the country.  (This 2003 SF Chronicle profile of Greg is dated in obvious ways but conveys a lot of his generous spirit.)

Posted in Bias, Changing the Discourse, Education Funding, education reform, Leadership, National Equity Project Board Members, racial equity, school reform | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Federal Equity and Excellence Commission Report

Last week the federal report on equity in education was released by the congressionally mandated Equity and Excellence Commission. Entitled “For Each And Every Child,” it focuses more explicitly on educational opportunity and the role of poverty in student achievement than most official reports, and makes many useful recommendations. It remains to be seen to what extent the report will shift the national conversation on education and equity and inspire new action.

The report addresses finance, teaching and learning, early childhood education, poverty, and accountability. The section on teaching and learning opportunities  identifies a number of areas we address in our work with school district and other partners. The report notes that “too often, schools codify low expectations for some students by denying them the instructional content needed to prepare them for college and careers.” Three key ways of institutionalizing this inequity are mentioned:

  • Tracking
  • Watered down coursework, including:
      • “Leveled” texts that do not stretch students
      • Mismatched interventions
      • Overemphasis on decoding texts, minimizing comprehension
      • Lack of AP and other rigorous courses
  • Disparities in suspensions and expulsions

What kind of professional development can support the development of higher expectations embodied in rigorous instruction? The report makes several recommendations regarding the professionalization of teaching and the need to invest in quality professional development:

Professional development must be embedded in the workday, deepen and broaden teacher knowledge, be rooted in best practice, allow for collaborative efforts, be aligned to the Common Core State Standards and provide the supports, time and resources to enable teachers to master new content, pedagogy and learning tools and incorporate them in their practice.

This touches on some key areas that we emphasize in our services. Professional development should be embedded, deep rather than superficial, collaborative, and be provided consistent time and space. The report makes some international comparisons but could say more, as Linda Darling Hammond, a member of the Commission, does in her book The Flat World and Education, about the systemic lack of investment in time for educators to plan, collaborate, and develop.

In the US, typically teachers will have three to five hours per week scheduled for individual planning. In most high-performing European and Asian schools, teachers have 15 to 20 hours a week for a combination of individual collaborative planning— engaging in lesson study, action research, peer study, and collaboration—as well as meeting with parents and students one on one.

Further, only 15% of teachers report that they work in a collaborative environment. Teachers and other leaders can easily get trapped in the tyranny of the immediate, especially in communities dealing with poverty-based stressors. And when personnel turnover is considered as well (from superintendents to principals to teachers, tenure averages less than three years in urban districts), it is clear why it is so difficult to make lasting improvements to systems where constant churn and stress are the norm.

At the National Equity Project we believe that managing stress is a key leadership and organizational development skill, including healing from the effects of working and living in oppressive conditions. We teach approaches to managing these stresses in our institutes and embedded coaching services.

The report also urges districts to audit the level of instructional rigor in its schools and classrooms more thoroughly and consistently. Performance assessments in the current, largely punitive atmosphere of accountability also adds stress. Instruction can be assessed in ways that are productive, fostering learning and motivation among individuals and build positive school communities, rather than often unproductive top-down sanction-based approaches. Districts and other systems need time and support to learn how to do this.

An easy way to begin is to focus on listening. When we teach people listening techniques, they often report that this was the first time they had felt truly listened to in a long time. Being recognized and listened to reduces stress and gives a sense of connection and trust, making people more open to constructive input. We can make all the policy and practice recommendations we like but if we don’t take concrete steps to improve system conditions for learning and collaboration on the ground, equity and excellence will be hard to achieve.

Posted in Bias, Changing the Discourse, Constructivist Listening, education reform, Effective Teaching, Equity Pedagogy, Leadership, National Equity Project, school improvement, school reform, Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Widely Misunderstood Aspect of Leadership

Leadership is not about control, argues Mike Myatt in Forbes recently. It is about surrender.

A leader simply operates at their best when they understand their ability to influence is much more fruitful than their ability to control. Here’s the thing – the purpose of leadership is not to shine the spotlight on yourself, but to unlock the potential of others so they can in turn shine the spotlight on countless more. Control is about power – not leadership. Surrender allows a leader to get out of their own way and focus on adding value to those whom they serve.

Surrender allows the savvy leader to serve where control demands the ego-centric leader be served. Surrender allows leadership to scale and a culture of leadership to be established. Surrender prefers loose collaborative networks over rigid hierarchical structures allowing information to be more readily shared and distributed. Leaders who understand surrender think community, ecosystem, and culture – not org chart. Surrender is what not only allows the dots to be connected, but it’s what allows to dots to be multiplied.

Maybe surrender really isn’t the best word — we don’t want to give in to the status quo where we see inequity. But the insight here is that control only goes so far. Many education leaders deploy a hierarchical control model with good intentions, and may see some short-term results. But that approach isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t democratic or empowering – whatever the intentions, it reproduces the same kinds of dynamics that create inequity.  So let’s resolve to focus on the art of influence and surrender in the new year!

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The Common Core, Pre-Reading, and Equity

Our Curriculum Developer Zaretta Hammond co-authored an article for the new issue of Phi Delta Kappan titled “Text and Truth: Reading, student experience, and the Common Core” (requires subscription).

Zaretta and her co-author Susan Sandler write that the Common Core State Standards do not, as some have said, ban the technique known as prereading. On the contrary, the Common Core heightens the importance of strategically leveraging existing knowledge in creating new knowledge.

This is important for equity. The authors describe the “powerful utility of students’ prior knowledge” as illustrated by students at an underachieving urban high school who developed a strong mastery of literary analysis and reasoning through “a culturally responsive scaffolding technique called cultural modeling,” developed by Carol D. Lee. Lee’s strategies are quite similar to the higher-order strategies built into the Common Core. Her students began by reading popular texts (music, film) for literary strategies such as satire and symbolism, and developed analytical habits of mind. They moved on to complex texts, such as Toni Morrison novels, whose social codes and contexts were still familiar to them. By the end of the year, they were confidently reading and analyizing Dante and Shakespeare.

It is Lee’s contention that the “achievement gap is, at least in part, influenced by the limitations of the knowledge base and assumptions that inform decisions about curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, teacher credentialing, and the conditions under which teachers work.”  Hammond and Sandler write:

If the misinterpretation of the Common Core guidance among principals, coaches,  curriculum specialists, and others is allowed to ossify, and teachers internalize the idea that students’ prior knowledge doesn’t count, students themselves will get the same message loud and clear… Students living in poverty and students in underserved racial groups already receive so many messages that academic success is not for them. If they come to believe that academic learning has no connection to their lives, then learning will become less relevant and interesting, with a corresponding loss of motivation to do the hard work of mastering challenging skills.

“If,” they conclude, “education is a construction project — a structure being built piece by piece as we help students learn new things and fit them together — then the foundation of student knowledge underneath holds it all up.”

Posted in achievement gap, Bias, Changing the Discourse, Effective Teaching, Equity Pedagogy, National Equity Project, school reform, student engagement | Leave a comment

Change the Odds this #GivingTuesday

Giving TuesdayWe have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals. Now we have a day for giving back.

Today is Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to supporting positive change in the world.

Will you help us deliver on the promise of a quality education for every child by making a donation? The National Equity Project works with educators to help them become the leaders who make good on that promise. Your support helps us expand our services across the country.

It’s not enough for some kids to beat the odds — we work to change the odds. We and our partners do this by building people-centered public school systems across the country.  In many urban schools, students are forced into one-size and one-culture-fits-all schools and curricula. Teacher and school success are reduced to test scores. Students are expected to be passive learners, teachers to be passive presenters, and communities to be just passive.

What does a people-centered system look like? It’s emerging in many places where our dedicated partners work.

My coach and I worked on engaging students more fully in their learning and encouraging them to take more ownership of their learning. At the end of the year, my strategic students performed at the same level as the core students, effectively closing the historic achievement gap in Algebra. It was a tremendous success and it’s renewed my motivation for being in the classroom. – Beginning Math Teacher

Equity is not mere diversity, it means dramatically improving educational outcomes for students of color and other marginalized students.

I feel like this was a missing piece from teacher training. Many teachers go into the field with social justice and equity on the forefront of their mind, yet are unequipped to really affect change. This training gave me the tools and framework to couple with my emotions and intentions.  – Special Education Teacher

To achieve equity, intentions are not enough.  The National Equity Project provides practical tools and approaches to change the ways that people work together in school systems.

They facilitated real, sometimes tough, conversations about race and equity within our schools. The experience gave me a lot of information on how to promote social justice in my role as a white teacher of many students of color. They are amazing!  – Elementary School Teacher

We help leaders hold productive conversations about race and equity, not to lay blame, but to find better ways to educate every child.

The National Equity Project was pivotal to our state completing the revision of statewide standards for development, birth through grade 3. The process was initially highly charged with communities of color feeling left out and unvalued. NEP staff listened, created honest conversations, and teamed with our committee to create a powerful, useful, inclusive process and product. – State Agency Director

We help education systems partner more effectively with other agencies and with parents and families.

The NEP team helped us successfully work through tough issues and conflicting opinions, better understand how to apply a racial equity lens to our work, and develop a new vision and guidelines. Because of their training, I truly believe that we moved beyond the rhetoric to actually making investments in communities that are taking productive steps toward transformation in racial equity! – Foundation Program Officer

We help organizations develop better relationships and more effective teams in replicable, measurable ways to make needed big changes for equity.

Please support the National Equity Project this Giving Tuesday by making a tax-deductible contribution to our work at our donation page:

Thank you for all you do.

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