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Avoid a Common Coaching Mistake: Talking About Rather Than Talking With

June 16, 2010

Bethany is an excellent teacher with a lively, engaging classroom. Most of this is due to her personality and talent as a teacher, but a small part of it has been the inviting learning environment that she created in her classroom, including lots of children’s work on the walls, curtains on the windows, and attractive spaces for different kinds of engagements. Well, that part of her effectiveness changed last year when the fire marshal in her community decided to inspect the school’s classrooms for fire dangers.

You see, in Bethany’s state, there is a statute prohibiting teachers from hanging on their classroom walls and windows too much flammable material. (My own surprise at this statute—one I had never heard of, even after many years serving as a teacher and administrator myself—led me to investigate and learn that quite a few states have similar laws.)

Bethany was required to remove 2/3 of the student work and all of the curtains from her walls and windows. Her classroom is still pleasant, and she is still an excellent teacher, but the classroom does feel different, less engaging.

The entire experience was upsetting for Bethany, but not really because she had to change her classroom décor. Yes, that matters to her, but the way she learned about the rule was what really upset her.

The principal at Bethany’s school made a classroom observation early last year, then left without a word. Somehow, though, Bethany got a negative vibe, and throughout that day she felt people were whispering about her. This was uncommon in Bethany’s school and unfamiliar to Bethany, who is well-liked and has a good relationship with the principal. She tried to see the principal later in the day but had no luck. Finally, Bethany visited with the custodian who, after some hesitation, said that the principal had told him that Bethany had too many flammable materials on her walls and would be in trouble with the fire marshal.

In other words, Bethany was talked about rather than talked with. Finding herself talked about was far more upsetting than having to remove items from the walls. When one is not treated like a professional peer, whether the news is good or bad, one feels less-than. It is a shaky ground to be upon and leaves one wondering what else is being said. It limits trust, challenges relationships, and reduces communication.

Unfortunately, educational coaches sometimes fall into the trap of talking about teachers rather than with them. Coaches talk to principals, other coaches, other teachers, even their spouses, but sometimes avoid talking with the teacher that is the focus of all this talk. In such cases coaches are sometimes fearful of the conversation they might have with the teacher in question, nervous that whatever topic they broach will be poorly received by that teacher. In other cases coaches may be saying things about a teacher that they would never say to that teacher’s face.

If you find yourself talking about teachers, stop and consider: Would you be more of a partner to that teacher if you talked with him or her? If the answer is yes, then find a way to have the conversation. If the answer is no, then whatever you are saying is likely not helpful when you say it about that teacher, either. It is probably wisest to stop such talk entirely.

I urge you to be a true professional and avoid this trap.

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