The Coach’s Dilemma


By Art Costa

Mark is a mentor/coach in a regional service center in a midwestern state. He was invited to take this position because of his vast experience not only as a High School math teacher but also as a teacher of special education. One of his sons is dyslectic and Mark developed great interest in and earned a second credential in special education.

As a coach, the service center sponsored his enrollment in coach’s training. The training impressed upon him that a coach’s goal was to create autonomous self-directed teachers who grow in their ability to manage, monitor and modify themselves. The training provided language skills and strategies that coaches could use to avoid advice-giving and instead to use questions which invite the teacher to think and solve problems for themselves.

In the realities of Mark’s coaching experiences however, he found that what teachers wanted and expected from him was advice—steps and strategies to solve their problems and the challenges that students were facing as they struggled with mastering new and often complex mathematical concepts.

He found in a magazine a quote by Jim Knight (2019) that pretty much summed up his dilemma:

“When school leaders and coaches dismiss the importance of teacher autonomy, they usually do so because they are so concerned about students’ needs that they just can’t feel at ease giving up control”

On the one hand his values drove him to help teachers solve their own problems and learn from the experiences and instructional decision making. On the other he was being paid and called upon to enhance teachers’ learning of effective instructional strategies.

“Is there not a middle ground?” he pondered. While I want teachers to solve their own problems and coach themselves, at the same time I want to give them my advice from years of experience about how to solve some of the problems they raise and advanced students learning.

He became aware of the language cues that teachers use that requested his advice:

  • “When kids act this way what should I do next?”
  • “The text seems very confusing to the students. I don’t know what to do about…”
  • “when I see the kids just don’t get it, how should I respond…”

He tried to temper his a advice-giving with more subtle responses.

  • “I suggest you have…”
  • “Pair work would be good here”
  • “I was wondering if…”
  • “Most teachers like to have them…”
  • “What do you think about…”

Such responses however, merely seemed to be more subtle ways of disguising advice-giving that teachers would see through.

Mark returned to the materials and texts of his coaching training. He found some answers there. When teachers make such requests as:

  • What should I do next….?”
  • “I don’t know what to do about…”
  • “How should I respond when the kids…?”

He should start with paraphrasing: “So you’re unsure of next steps.” (A paraphrase lets the teacher know the coach understands and empathizes with the concern.)

The paraphrase might be followed with such questions as:

  • What occurs to you first?”
  • “What benefits do you want to achieve from the next activity?”
  • “What criteria might you use for your decision?”

This type of questioning lets the teacher choose or construct actions based on a sequential analysis, long-range outcomes, school values and beliefs about children’s self-concept and/or social emotional learnings.

1. One rule of thumb before responding to a request for help is to ask permission:

“Would you like some suggestions?” If yes, then give at least three options to promote choice making. (It’s their decision not yours. Three is legitimate choice, two feels like manipulation.)

2. Invite recall of past experiences that most teachers have had. Honor them by surfacing and applying their previous experiences and knowledge:

  • “When you have been in a situation like this before…”
  • “Recalling what you were taught in your methods classes…”
  • “How did your master teacher handle situations like this…”
  • “When you were going to school how did your teachers…”

3. Start with a positive presupposition, provide some data, and then invite an inference:

  • As you know, adolescents at this age are very sensitive to what their peers think about them. What does this suggest to you about handling discipline problems…?”
  • “Given that Rinaldo’s first language is Spanish, what are some strategies you might use with him when giving directions?”
  • “Given your experience and knowledge of different learning styles, what are some of your ideas about engaging Sarah in this activity?”

When the coach uses positive presuppositions, it communicates that “You are experienced, your experience has value because you have reflected on and grown from it, you know about learning styles, you can generate ideas; your ideas have value.” The phrase, “your experience and knowledge of learning styles,” tends to pull into short-term memory content with which to process the question.

Does It REALLY Matter?

“Why does it matter how a mentee is coached, with suggestions or inquiries to activate their experience, knowledge and thinking?” The larger reasons are:

  • As one of the major learning outcomes for students as citizens of the 21st-century the coach is modeling one of the school’s major cultural values. Today’s employers are searching for workers who are capable of self-direction in learning and who enjoy the disposition of reflecting on and modifying their own learning once a task has been performed.

And because of this value, the coach might end the coaching conversation with questions, intended to surface the benefits and values of self-directed learning such as:

  • “As you reflect on this coaching process, what insights have you gained?”
  • “What were you aware of in our interaction that produced those insights?”
  • “What coaching questions might you ask yourself?”
  • “If, for some reason I was unavailable to you, what parts of this coaching process might you conduct on your own?”

And finally, remember, “Giving advice is like being scratched where you don’t itch.”


Read more from Art Costa.


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