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How Instructional Coaches Can Build Teachers’ Trust

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Thank You So Much for the Truth!” by Carla Finkelstein in Phi Delta Kappan, April 2016 (Vol. 97, #7, p. 19-24),; Finkelstein is at
In this Kappan article, Carla Finkelstein (Towson University) examines the delicate process of establishing trust with teachers. There are plenty of reasons for resistance to being “helped” by an instructional coach, she says, often manifested in shallow acquiescence, avoidance, or overt hostility:
- Teachers believing (not without reason) that they’ve been singled out as deficient;
- Fear of being judged and exposed as ineffective with students;
- Fear that deficiencies unrelated to the presenting issue will be revealed;
- A belief that the instructional coach may report on them to the principal;
- Worries about being admonished by the principal;
- Discomfort examining their own practice;
- Anxiety about having to change.
“The coach is responsible for mitigating resistance,” says Finkelstein. “Unless the coach successfully does this, many teachers never sincerely engage in the learning process.” Based on her own work as a literacy coach, she offers the following recommendations:
• Let the teacher “drive” the process. “This does not mean that the coach cedes all input,” says Finkelstein, “rather that the coach’s job in goal-setting is to search for points of agreement with the teacher and to direct her in ways likely to produce positive results.” Finkelstein describes how she got off on the wrong foot in an early meeting with a young second-grade teacher by asking what her goals were for their work together. When the teacher hesitated, Finkelstein regrouped: “What would you like to see your students be able to do this year in reading and writing?” This got the teacher talking energetically about wanting students to read books they enjoyed, practice how good readers think, write about their reading, show deeper comprehension, and engage in meaningful conversations about their reading. “That’s fantastic!” said Finkelstein. “Our coaching goals can fit right in with your ideas. I’d love for us to launch a reading workshop in your classroom. Can we talk about how that might go?”
Finkelstein notes that she had already made two low-key visits to the teacher’s classroom before this discussion, one to lead a readaloud with students and one to watch a reading lesson. This allowed her to learn more about the teacher’s “turf” and acknowledge the teacher’s knowledge about instruction and her students. “The coach also needs to respect the teacher’s autonomy by offering feedback only on agreed-upon goals,” adds Finkelstein. “As tempting as it can be for coaches to identify areas for improvement, unsolicited suggestions can arouse defensiveness.”
• Adopt a curious, problem-solving stance. The coach’s role, she says, “is not to fix lessons or teachers but to support teachers’ abilities to meet students’ needs. This view is critical to mitigating teacher resistance to feedback, which most teachers expect will be evaluative.” A smart strategy is to focus on what students have learned rather than the teacher’s skill executing lessons. “Collaboratively examining student performance can provide an effective third space for this kind of non-evaluative feedback,” she says. “Coaches can frame the job of educators as continual problem solvers who recognize that surfacing dilemmas does not indicate a teacher’s deficiency; it is an essential part of teaching and learning.” It’s also effective for the coach to invite the teacher to comment on lessons the coach teaches, focusing on how students reacted and behaved.
• Walk the walk. “Coaches need to work as hard as teachers in every phase of planning, teaching, and assessment,” says Finkelstein. “It is the coach’s responsibility to dispel any perception that her job is easier or more relaxed than the teacher’s.” This means writing lesson plans, citing standards, teaching lessons, collecting books and materials, helping with assessments, doing grading, and helping with other paperwork. At the same time, the coach needs to think strategically about the teacher’s growth and development and ultimate independence.
“Coaches also walk the walk by using their access to authority in schools to advocate for teachers,” says Finkelstein – for example, improvements in working conditions, additional planning time, and more instructional materials. “Such actions may gain coaches credibility and build trust with often overburdened teachers.”
• Communicate clearly and transparently. Right from the start, coaches need to spell out key details of the partnership, including:
- The goals and time frame;
- When, why, and how the coach will observe in the classroom;
- What non-evaluative feedback will look and sound like;
- With whom the coach will (and will not) share feedback.
“Coaches must be particularly sensitive about writing down anything while visiting a classroom,” says Finkelstein, “because many teachers associate this with evaluations, which are often viewed as reductive or dismissive of the rich complexity of their practice.” One way out of this bind is to share with the teacher any notes taken during observations.
Coaches also need to deal with teachers suspecting they are spies for the administration. Trying to get too buddy-buddy with teachers may inadvertently reinforce that suspicion: “If you gossip about the principal with teachers, won’t the teachers wonder if you gossip with the principal about them?” says author Katherine Casey. In addition, coaches need to be sensitive to the potential impact of differences in educational background, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and cultural background compared to their coachees.
“Trust is not something coaches can achieve at some magical point and then ignore,” Finkelstein concludes. “These recommendations are ongoing, recursive, and interconnected. Effective coaches attend to trust building at all times.”

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