Expert Viewpoint

How Coaching Helps Teachers and Leaders Reduce Stress and Build Trust

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how we teach and lead. From book drop-offs to hotspots for families, the past school year required tremendous amounts of flexibility and adaptation as schools switched between in-person and remote learning environments.

In the center of it all has been K–12 school administrators — keeping lines of communication open with families, keeping in touch with local health workers, and ensuring students succeed.

In times of crisis, making decisions and shifting priorities can feel monumental. Taking a moment to collect and reflect on data can help leaders manage time and effort more effectively. When leaders share this data in supportive coaching relationships, it builds trust among staff.

As an instructional coach, I work closely with teachers and leaders as they develop these reflective practices in schools. Below are three key lessons I learned during the 2020–2021 school year. Education leaders are encouraged to use these lessons to support teachers and other leaders.

Lesson 1: Support teacher planning with data

Adam* was having difficulty balancing planning, teaching and grading duties for his multiple high school language classes. Despite his strong passion for teaching, a disorganized schedule and unclear learning targets meant confusion from students.

We used the Try-Measure-Learn (TML) approach to establish an organization system in Adam’s classroom. TML creates change in teachers' classroom practice one step at a time, by identifying a high-impact strategy specifically related to a teacher's classroom needs, supporting the teacher in implementing that strategy, and immediately measuring its impact to determine next steps. This cycle makes significant shifts in practice actionable using a change-over-time method.

As a first step, Adam created and shared a to-do list in Google Docs to help him predict (and meet) his planning and grading deadlines each week. From there, Adam reflected on what worked and what obstacles he continued to face.

The shared to-do list helped ensure accountability and guided our conversations. For example, when he missed multiple deadlines, Adam realized that he was trying to accomplish too many tasks simultaneously — often not finishing any of them.

Adam and I worked together to block time on his calendar each week to focus on one task: whether it be grading, planning or responding to emails. As a result, his stress was reduced, and students were receiving more consistent feedback. The cycle Adam established with his students was especially useful when remote learning was instituted later that school year.

Lesson 2: Connect with teachers to spur engagement

Rachel*, an experienced middle school leader, started in a new role at an elementary school toward the beginning of the pandemic. After her school shifted to remote instruction, Rachel put together a variety of digital resources meant to support teachers.

She found that in addition to not using the resources, teachers weren’t responding to her emails or participating in surveys she put together to source feedback. In October 2020, Rachel and I began working together to identify a new way to communicate.

We decided to have Rachel schedule time to attend each grade level meeting — where she learned that anxiety around the pandemic was overwhelming teachers. She then reached out to teachers to gather feedback that helped her identify more personalized approaches for teacher support.

Rachel discovered that connecting face-to-face through video calls or classroom walk-throughs was a more effective way to communicate her goals and respond to teachers’ needs.

Lesson 3: Using Data to Manage Leadership Roles

When we first met in September 2020, Allison* explained that her role “had changed on a dime”. In addition to working as a literacy specialist, she was the sole support for her district’s dual language and immersion programs. These responsibilities were compounded by new duties brought on by the pandemic.

Allison’s central office team was tasked with designing and creating remote ELA units in Canvas for the entire district. She was working days, nights and weekends to keep her head above water.

In our coaching conversation, Allison and I identified the main source of this problem: she had two separate supervisors for her two primary roles, and each person was unaware of the extent of her workload in the other area.

Allison started by collecting data on her workload for one week, noting how much time she was spending to complete each project. She then shared that data with both supervisors to collaborate on a more manageable balance of distributed leadership.

As a result, her supervisors reassigned projects, adjusted priorities and engaged in more proactive planning to ensure that Allison would maintain a more reasonable balance. This process also enabled Allison to advocate for herself, which, in turn, reduced her stress and gave her more time to recharge. With more balance, Allison can bring her best self to all her work responsibilities.

Putting lessons learned into practice

The pandemic has transformed what it means to teach and lead. Regardless of your specific role, taking small moments to collect and reflect on data with an experienced coach can lead to big, positive changes.

*Names have been changed

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