The Friendly Resister

By Lori Cohen, a Bright Morning Associate and contributing blogger

Nils was a great conversationalist—and quite a talker. He loved talking about all things teaching, and he openly welcomed me into his classroom. As a department chair, Nils wanted to experience what it was like to be coached so he could be a model for his team. For a coach like me, Nils was a dream to work with. But as soon as we started talking about growth or improvement, Nils’ responses went far off topic, often times involving animated gestures and passionate claims about what students need most from us as teachers. When our time was up, Nils always shared that he felt better. I felt increasingly frustrated. 

After several coaching sessions of this same pattern, I felt like we needed to change tack. On the one hand, we were building trust in our coaching dynamic (or so I thought), but on the other hand, I didn’t think we were getting anywhere deeper. As I reviewed my notes from our time together, I perceived a pattern of avoidance. And avoidance, more often than not, means resistance.

I knew I needed to interrupt this pattern we developed, to confront what I noticed with skill and compassion. But first, I needed to do some of my own reflection about my triggers and why I was so frustrated.

I returned to my series of coaching documents, ones I always used (and still use) in my practice: 

I knew the answer to my frustration existed somewhere in these documents, because so much of planning for a coaching conversation is reflecting about ourselves. And then I found it: the Stage of Exploration tool. As I reviewed the questions, I zeroed in on the following two:

  • Who does this client need me to be? What would that look like, sound like, feel like—to me and the client? Can I visualize being that person? Am I willing to be this person?
  • Who does this school-community need me to be? What would that look like, sound like, feel like to me and the school-community? Am I willing to be this person?

I had spent so much time focusing on Nils and what he was and wasn’t saying that I neglected reflecting on my own behaviors. So I spent some time thinking, writing, and visualizing my responses to these questions.

I first started with who the school-community needed me to be. We invested in coaching at our site because we believed in everyone’s capacity for growth; coaching was a way to support that growth. As a school we also invested in interrupting inequity when we saw it, and in independent schools, the culture of “niceness” tends to be an overlay for perpetuating the dominant culture. By keeping conversations with Nils status quo and “nice,” by not digging further into growth and improvement, I was working against what my school charged me to do. 

I then focused on me and how I needed to show up in our next session; I imagined what I would say, and I channeled my school’s mission and values in the process. After careful preparation and reflection time, I approached my next conversation with Nils from the lens of emotional intelligence. I used a directive coaching approach with interrupting stems, and I embodied who I needed to be: a mirror, a compassionate advocate, and a bit of a nudger. When we finally had our conversation, it went something like this:

“Nils, before we dive into our conversation today, I want to mirror something back to you and get your take on it, to see if what I’m experiencing is similar to your experience; would you be willing to explore this with me?” I asked.

“Sure, absolutely,” he responded.

“I notice that when we talk about your teaching, you are enthusiastic about successes and student outcomes, which is fantastic. But when we talk about growth, your responses get longer and go off topic. And I’m not sure you’re fully addressing the question. Does my assessment match what’s happening?”

“I never thought about that. I guess it could be true. But I’m always talking about my practice. I’m always talking about growth.”

“Nils, I would love to know how you define growth just to make sure we’re working from common definitions. I realize we never did that and that might be a good place to start.”

“Growth is continual improvement of my teaching and leadership. And if you see the way I’ve set up today’s learning stations, you’ll see how much time I spent making sure students have what they need.” He then went on to talk about the organization of each station.

And there it was. An opening. 

At that moment, I interrupted the pattern I was noticing. When the words “growth” or “improvement” came up, Nils focused on his own practice. The phrase  “how much time I spent” indicated something deeper to me about his beliefs. And then I knew it was time to do some exploration about beliefs, about what “time spent” meant and how that factored into who Nils was as a teacher. 

Initially, even though Nils seemed willing to shift our approach, it took some time. We talked about trust and ways I could ensure there was a strong trusting relationship between us. We did a lot of storytelling, talked about identity development, how education was viewed in Nils’ household, and how his identifying markers shaped his beliefs as a teacher. We talked about his first years teaching, the early years of experimentation and challenge. And eventually, we defined growth and made sure our definitions aligned with our school’s expectations.

From my experience coaching Nils, it became clear to me that resistance doesn’t always come from overt obstinance or rancor; resistance isn’t always charged. Sometimes it comes in the form of kindness, charm, positivity, or excessive talk—all of which can mask some of the things we struggle to share and examine. And I learned a lot about me as a coach as well, particularly the following core lessons:

  • Never underestimate the power of your coaching tools. Even when you have been coaching for a long time or working with someone for a while, it’s important to do some preparation, particularly if hard conversations or resistance may come up. It’s helpful not only to support your client in how they show up, but to reflect on how you’ll show up, who you need to be, who your site needs you to be, and ultimately, who students need you to be. It’s also important to reflect, before and after coaching sessions, on a daily or weekly basis. 
  • Carefully tend to relationships through meaningful conversation. Coaching is a lot of things, and just as we need to put a primacy on student-teacher relationships to build trust and make space for learning, our coaching relationships need to mirror that same ethos. Sometimes it may seem that relationship-building deflects from the more measurable aspects of coaching, but the slow work of tending to relationships—the time spent in conversation—allows for trust to deepen, for practices to be transformational. When we have strong levels of trust, we are better equipped to have honest and authentic interactions, to interrupt unhelpful patterns when they arise, and to truly make changes in our practice. (The relationship to self is also important in this same regard.)
  • Listen for openings—and follow them. Sometimes in coaching we can be so fixed on our larger goals (improve student achievement, engage in more interactive strategies) that we forget the messages embedded within the conversation: the words people use, the nonverbal cues they make, the things unsaid. Listen for these moments; pay attention to nonverbals. Mirror back what you see and hear on occasion and check the assumptions or perceptions you’re having. Those implicit moments can be the openings that melt layers of resistance and offer opportunities for greater transformation. 

As coaches, we’re always going to encounter resistance, whether within ourselves or from those we coach. Even the friendliest and most willing clients will be resistant. Our goal is to be unwavering in our belief that change is possible, that through compassion, skill, and openness, we can peel away the layers of resistance in service of  transformation. These practices will ensure you stay focused not only on the goals of your coachee, but on the goals that center around building healthy, resilient, thriving schools. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.