A Coaching Conversation With a Disengaged Teacher

Here’s another transcript of a coaching conversation! This is the follow up to a blog in which I shared the plan for a conversation I had with a teacher whom I called, “John.” Here’s how it went, along with my thoughts during the conversation. You won’t read the whole thing – just about ten minute of the conversation.

E: John, today, for this conversation, I want to talk about what happened this week in terms of your implementation of the new writing resources that you agreed to start on Monday. I didn’t see it happening when I came in to visit on Monday. Can you help me understand that decision?

J: Well, I was going to, but there was this story I was supposed to teach before we started the writing. I started to do that, but these kids take forever, so we spent the whole week reading it and wrote a summary. We’ll get to the writing next.

E: Ok, I’m hearing that it sounds like you modified the plans to meet the needs of your students. Is that accurate?

J: Um hum.

E: I’m wondering if this happen in part because of your transition to teaching 6th grade. Did you underestimate the time it would take to read? Is that part of what’s going on?

J: No, I mean, this writing is just too hard. They just need more time.

E: So, in other words, the pacing guide doesn’t match your students’ needs? It isn’t accurate to what the kids in your class need?

J: Um hum.

E: So again, I’m hearing a decision that is based on an intention to meet the needs of your kids in reading. I’m trying to figure out how I can be most helpful. Can I look at your lesson plans and unit plans to think about your pacing? Would that be helpful?

J: I mean, I read a couple days ahead, so I kind of know where I’m going. I don’t really know if that would be useful, but maybe it would help.

E: I’ll take note of that. One way I might help is to look at unit plans and how they are aligned to the pacing guide and the timing of your lessons.

I’m noticing his nonverbals. His face has little expression. His whole body is still. He seems disengaged to me. I feel like I’m fishing for entry points and I’m wondering if I should keep doing this? Or do I say, “I’m feeling like you don’t want to have this conversation with me?” Which would be confrontational. I’m not sure if that’s the right strategy right now because I’m not sure that would our build relationship. I feel like the relationship is weak, tenuous. He seems like he’s barely tolerating sitting here with me. So I’m in a quandary. I think, I’m going to stay in a facilitative stance with an intent to understand him and to build relationship and see where it goes.

I also need to acknowledge that a part of me is irritated and annoyed and thinking, well, if he doesn’t want to work with me then I’ll just go and work with someone who does! So I know this means I need to manage my own feelings. I know that his response to me has nothing to do with me. I’m not going to take this personally.

E: Ok, so, that doesn’t sound like looking at lesson plans and the pacing guide would be the most useful place for us. How can I help you to start using our writing resources? What would be helpful?

J: I’m just not sure how to use them.

TIME OUT–MY THINKING RIGHT NOW: I’m so glad I didn’t go on the attack! That I didn’t get confrontational. That was good. The last thing he said was really honest and it’s what I suspected–that he doesn’t know how to use the resources. This might be easier than I thought! I’d set myself up thinking that this conversation was going to be so hard, but really, it might not be. I’m taking his last response as an indicator that I do need to keep building relationship, keep offering him places where he can take charge of his learning and direct it. Stay facilitative.

E: So, ok, that’s helpful for me to hear that you aren’t sure how to use it. I appreciate your honesty. This is a challenging curriculum. I just want to check one thing. I hope this is okay. I want to check in on your willingness to have me support you in learning this curriculum. I want to make sure you have the will.

J: Sure. (Shrugs).

E: Ok, that’s helpful. Sometimes I can’t tell when we’re in a conversation–I have a hard time reading your nonverbal. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m annoying you and then sometimes I get the strong feeling that there is willingness on your part.

J: (Nods a little but doesn’t respond).

E: Can you tell me more about what feels hard about the curriculum?

J: Like I said, I haven’t really looked at it. It just seems hard. It doesn’t make sense. It seems too hard for our kids. I’d rather just do my own thing.

E: Ok, thanks. I just heard a couple of important things: It seems hard, and you haven’t looked at it.

TIMEOUT–MY THINKING: When I said this last part, “you haven’t looked at it,” I wasn’t making eye contact. The tone of my voice was fairly serious, but to decrease the confrontational potential (although I did intend it to be slightly confrontational) I didn’t look at him. I wanted to let that statement sink in without putting him on the spot to respond. I waited a second or two and then continued.

E: So, John, this is what I can support you on: I can help you to make the curriculum accessible to kids. I know you’ve heard our principal talk about how writing is a huge focus for us this year and how when she comes to our classrooms to visit and for our evaluations, she’s going to be looking at our use of these writing resources that we’ve invested in. Thinking forward to our evaluation in May, what are you hoping our principal will say about your use of the writing resources?

J: I want her to see some improvement. I want to get a good eval. That would be great.

E: I hear that you want to improve your eval and you’ve talked about this before. I can definitely help you with that. That sounds important to you. So what do you hope will be documented of your use of the writing resources?

J: I mean, I guess I want her to see me use them the right way.

E: Okay, so using them, and using them the right way. I’m just jotting down that we need to spell out what that will look like to set you up for success. I want to make sure we’re really concrete and clear about this.

TIME OUT–MY THINKING: I’m thinking about strategy, how to get invested in this conversation, how to get him to care about this coaching work we can do together. This is a strategy I use a lot–asking someone to think about the future, to identify a motivation that will have impact. When you start asking someone to imagine the future, that let’s them be the driver of their learning. You can generate more energy and excitement. I’m really keeping in mind the emotional state of this teacher: he seems checked out, seems flat. We have to work to shift that energy because a learner needs it–needs some intrinsic motivation–in order to take risks and make change. I want to find a place for hope and inspiration, because where there is hope, there is energy.

E: Ok, let’s go back to using the curriculum the right way. That’s what you want our principal to see. What is your understanding of using it and using it the right way? I want to be clear on that.

J: I mean, teaching the lessons that are in it. The kids writing what they are supposed to be writing.

E: So here’s what I’m wondering: If that’s your commitment, and what you want to make happen–for the kids to write what they are supposed to write and for you to teach the lessons in it, then when I don’t see you doing this, and I don’t see it happening, how do you want me to respond as a coach? What do you want me to say or do?

TIME OUT–MY THINKING: I’m going back to the need that adults have to be in some control of our own learning, and to the fact that I can’t make him do anything. I want him to think about he contradiction he’s expressing.

J: Sometimes things happen, you know. I have to give my kids the teaching they need. I need you to be understanding of that.

E: I hear that you want me to be understanding. I get that, I understand that. How can I also simultaneously make sure you are working toward a positive eval? Is there anything else I can do?

J: I don’t know.

E: Well, I have to say, I’m not sure how I can best help you reach your goal. I think I need your thoughts and partnership on this. You say it seems hard, but you haven’t looked at it yet. Do any ideas come to mind of how I can help you?

TIMEOUT–MY THINKING: He has to identify some ways that we can work together. If he doesn’t, I don’t know if my efforts will be effective. I am pushing him hard to take some responsibility for our learnig, for his teaching, for his eval.

J: Maybe we can start looking at it together.

E: That sounds great!

J: (Nods)

E: I have some other ideas. I’ll throw them out. Let me know what sounds good to you. We could look at the materials together, we could lesson plan together, I can help you break down lessons and think about the additional scaffolding that some of them need so that they’re accessible to your English Learners and your kids who are writing far below grade level. I can help you figure out how to differentiate lessons, we could do some co-teaching, I could teach so you can observe my differentiation, we could go see another teacher at 6th grade using these materials, I can video tape your lessons and we can watch them together. Do any of these ideas sound helpful?

J: Not really, but maybe if you can observe me and give me feedback so I can see how I’m doing for my evaluation, that would be good.

E: Ok, that sounds great. I can definitely do that. As we work together if you help me learn about you as a learner, it will help me more. My role is to help support you as a learner. So if you can give me insights into how you learn, I will be more effective. Do you learn by watching someone model, by being observed, and so on. If you’re saying that getting feedback is helpful, I can start there. Would it be helpful for us to start by looking at the lessons together? Do you have any thoughts?

J: No.

E: Ok, then are you ok with me making suggestions?

J: Yeah. Whatever.

E: Ok, so if I make suggestions, you are sort of willing to try them?

J: (Shrugs)

E: On a scale of 1-10, how willing are you to try my suggestions?

J: Six.

E: Oh, 6 is great. That’s great. I’m having a hard time reading your nonverbals, I’m just trying to get to know you. But a 6 is pretty good.

TIMEOUT–MY THINKING: During this conversation I’ve been cautious about interpreting John’s lack of nonverbal cues and his brief responses. I could interpret them as an indicator that he’s not engaged, that he’s disconnected. I could interpret them as he doesn’t want to talk to me or is annoyed by me. But this might also be a personality trait–he may just be a less-verbal kind of person. I am aware that for me, this kind of personality, or when someone communicates this way, I can feel a little triggered. I like passionate, deeply engaged, verbally reflective people. John seems so disconnected. I can feel like I have to pull teeth, beg for engagement, constantly fish for entry points. I need to make sure I don’t get hooked into my own triggers. I think I need to get to know him more and build relationship with him.

I definitely flagged his “these kids” comments and will come back to them–but come back when we have a little stronger relationship, otherwise I’m pretty sure that he’d just shut down and totally check out.

Right now I think he doesn’t feel confident that he can meet the needs of his students–he’s basically said that. In that case, for many people, it’s easier to blame others–in this case, for him to blame his students for the fact that he can’t meet their needs (they’re slow readers, they’re below). Next time we meet I’ll ask about how he differentiates and we’ll work on this.

At this point in the conversation, I’d get out the resources and do something together. It feels like we need to DO something and that I need to step back from reflective questioning. I will keep bringing his evaluation into our conversation, weaving in prompts such as, “What would you like our principal to see when she observes this lesson?” because if there’s investment and energy there, I’ll use it.

One thing I want to communicate is that I’m not going away. That I’m not going to give up on him, or feel frustrated by his low verbal engagement. I’m going to keep pushing and nudging and making suggestions and asking him about his will level. In this conversation, he may have been testing the waters to see how much I’d persist in working with him. I definitely need to get to know him better so that I can understand his way of engaging.