In a previous article, The Three Key Roles of an Instructional Coach, I talked about the different stances that coaches may take in a single coaching conversation or cycle: the consultant, the collaborator, or the coach (based on Laura Lipton’s work on The Continuum of Practice for Instructional Coaches).
Navigating your coaching partner’s needs during a single coaching conversation is a fine balance. We need to support teachers in the stance that they need in that moment, but knowing how to tell which stance they need and then how to switch is a very specific challenge - and one that we may face even right in the very moment when we’re having that conversation. For example, if we started in the consulting stance and we need to transition to coaching, what is the phrasing that we might use in that moment?
Here are four important elements to knowing how to switch stances as an instructional coach.
When you’re not sure what support your coaching partner may need, you might start by putting yourself in their shoes. You can start by thinking about what they need right now or consider where they were right before your conversation and where they’re going after. Putting yourself in your coaching partner’s frame of mind can help you consider the support that will resonate at this very moment.
To ensure that you’re on the right track, you can ask your coaching partner directly. This works best if your coaching partner is familiar with the three stances. If you have a coaching menu, you may choose to include the three stances as part of your documentation so teachers can be aware of the different ways you can support them while having a coaching conversation.
If you are using the “ask your coaching partner strategy,” you might say something like:
- How are things going?
- What’s on your mind?
- What do you need today?
- What are some burning issues?
And then, if appropriate, follow up with a question about which stance would be most supportive. You could say, “How can I best support you today?” If needed, you might clarify the three stances and some specific actions you can take to support them in each stance so they can make a choice. As you listen to their responses, you can begin to support them in the stance that matches best with their frame of mind and needs for the moment.
2: Listen for Cues
You may find that as you ask one of the introductory questions above, your coaching partner starts providing some cues to help you determine the support they need for the day. You might hear a certain emotion in their voice (excitement, stress, pride, frustration, satisfaction, anger). They might be excited about something, and you can tell that they’re ready to dig deeper into it and they have lots of ideas. Or you might hear stress and frustration, and you can see that they might be at the end of their rope, and they really just need a consultant to help them answer those questions.
You can also listen for the types of stories they’re telling and the types of stories that resonate with them. To dig deeper into this idea, listen to this early episode of the #coachbetter podcast with Steve Barkley where he talked about how identifying the kinds of stories that teachers resonate with or respond to is one of the ways that he can tell how to make the next move in his coaching conversation.
You might also listen for how your coaching partners ask their questions. Notice things like what kind of language they are using, what’s their tone of voice, what level of urgency are they demonstrating, are they demonstrating other resources, experiences, or ideas they can pull from to take the next step? As they share their thinking, you can take your cues from the way they’re communicating with you.
3: Consider Timing
As you are listening for cues, you may also want to consider the timing of this conversation, or stress that this teacher might be facing. As coaches, we tend to lean into longer, more reflective conversations but as we know, teachers are increasingly busy and time poor, and we don’t want that to have a negative impact on their experience with coaching. Being intentionally aware of the urgency around the conversation, particularly due to issues outside of their control is essential.
- When are you having this conversation: is it reporting season, or end of the year, or parent teacher conferences? Or did you happen to see them in the hallway and you’re having a quick conversation, or are you sitting down at lunch and actually taking some time to have a deeper conversation?
- You might want to think about what’s next for this teacher: where are they going after this meeting? What is their day or their week or this month like? Is it a really stressful time for them? Are they running to another class?
- In the big picture, what is the timeline for the support they need? Is this a project they started six weeks ago and it’s due for the students tomorrow and they just need to tweak a tiny thing? Or is it something that’s going to happen a couple of weeks from now and they have time to work more deeply with you to build something more substantial in terms of your coaching relationship?
All of these are clues to help you figure out if they just need a five-minute support conversation or if they have a little bit more time to have a coaching conversation.
4: Offer to Make a Transition
As you are going through your conversation, you might notice that you need to switch stances. You can always offer the opportunity to choose the direction of the conversation to the teacher mid conversation. If you sense that they came into this meeting wanting a coaching conversation but you can sense they’re really just looking for an answer right now, you might just say, “I have an idea. Would you like me to share?” Or if they want to be a collaborator, you might say, “let’s work through this together.” Those kinds of transition phrases can help both you and the teacher recognize that you’re moving through different roles as a coach. Find out more about these transition statements on another early episode of the #coachbetter podcast where I spoke with James Dalziel.
Navigate All Three Stances With Ease!
As an instructional coach, you’ll be moving between these three stances within a single coaching conversation, and throughout a coaching style. Being able to navigate between them with ease is a complex skill.
In an upcoming episode of the #coachbetter podcast, experienced instructional coach, Nicola Millward noted, “The coaching stances were a big “aha” moment for me during the course: moving in between collaborator, coach, and consultant. I was very cautious not to be in consultant mode all the time because I knew I didn’t want to be seen as an expert. Collaborator was the role that I was so comfortable with, but I noticed from the course that being a collaborator led to me taking on a lot more of the load. Once I realized that, I tried to sit more in the coaching stance more often. Otherwise, I would take on too much of the load.”
It’s easy to get “stuck” in the stance that feels most comfortable for you - and your coaching partner - but this is not always the support that they actually need at the time. Being able to adapt and navigate between all three stances, using the strategies shared in this article (and more!), are key to developing your coaching practice.
Cofino, K. (Host). (2019, Oct 2). How to Personalize Instructional Coaching with Steve Barkley (55). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-55/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2020, Mar 10). Building a Coaching Culture with James Dalziel (72). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-72/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2022, February 23). The Continuum of Practice for Instructional Coaches with Laura Lipton (150). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-150/
Cofino, K. (Host). (2024, January 2024). Building an Instructional Coaching Program from Scratch: A Coaching Case Study with Nicola Millward (228). [Audio podcast episode]. In #coachbetter. Eduro Learning. https://coachbetter.tv/episode-228/
Kim Cofino has been an educator in international schools since August 2000. Having lived and worked in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, Kim has had a variety of roles in international schools, including (her favorite) instructional coach. Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Kim is the Founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, author of Finding Your Path as a Woman in School Leadership (Routledge), host of the #coachbetter podcast, and the creator of the Eduro Learning The Coach, Women Who Lead, and COETAIL certificate programs. Find out more about Kim and Eduro at: https://www.edurolearning.com.