Guest Post: Who Sits In the Big Chair? Reflections on Building Collaborative Partnerships with Teachers

Last spring, I attended a day-long session facilitated by Jim Knight on using video as a tool for instructional coaching. Jim started the day with his Partnership Principles. I was equally inspired and mortified. I was inspired to learn more about how I can strengthen the partnerships with teachers I support, but mortified to think of all the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years in my practice as an instructional coach.

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                                     Photo by Federica Campanaro    Otranto, Italy    unsplash.com

Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles include these “touchstones” that guide the work of instructional coaches: Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Reflection, Praxis, and Reciprocity. I want to be able to carry these profound principles with me into each coaching session, so I’ve organized them into three memorable tips.

A Firm Belief in Equality

With each opportunity to work alongside a teacher, I am reminded that I learn as much, maybe more, as the individual sitting at the table with me. Coaching is not an exercise in educational arm-twisting. It’s not my job to convert a teacher to my way of thinking.

In this partnership, I fully expect to discover the strengths and distinctive values of the teacher, and how she approaches instruction and learning for her students. The primary responsibility for me as a coach is to listen and respond with thought-provoking questions so the lion’s share of the work is done in a collaborative manner.

Four years ago, when I went through a multi-day coaching institute, I remember balking a little at the idea that all the heavy work was to be done by the teacher. “It’s imperative that the coach ask questions that allow the teacher to choose the path for change.”

I’ll admit I struggled with that idea.

Why are they calling in the “experts” to coach and then empowering the teacher to choose? Shouldn’t I be leading the teacher to make the changes I decide should be made in the classroom instruction and practice?

It’s really difficult to admit my arrogance as a “newbie” instructional coach. Thank goodness I quickly realized the expert is and always will be the teacher in that classroom.

Jim Knight paints a compelling picture with his description of the relationship between teacher and instructional coach: “The teacher sits in the big chair and the coach willingly chooses the little chair.”

A Commitment to Choice and Voice

Implicit in this equal partnership is the idea that coaches work collaboratively to ensure teachers make their own personal, values-driven choices. The intentional way I communicate as a coach should empower the teacher to express her opinion about the solutions to specific instructional, management or assessment issues in the classroom.

Recently, I met with a third-grade team and their campus instructional specialist. We took a look at their most recent data and then I asked them to consider some instructional implications based on their analysis of the data.

The response from one of the teachers caught me a little off guard. She made an altogether different connection between the data and instruction than I would have. I was equally surprised at my initial inward response. I found myself thinking, “That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that.”

In the past, my heart rate would have quickened, my scalp would’ve tightened and I would have struggled to control my facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

Instead, I found myself asking questions that facilitated their design of a multi-week unit to support students in mastery of a difficult standard in the language arts curriculum. As I drove home, I was amused at the fact that it’s only taken me four years to learn it’s not my job as an instructional coach to “manipulate” the teachers I support.

(Patience, please–I’m a slow learner.)

An Emphasis on Reflective Dialogue

An effective instructional coach is clear on the importance of dialogue that promotes reflection. Teachers must have the freedom and encouragement to think through solutions and weigh the factors involved in important changes (however small) in their practice.

There’s inestimable wisdom in offering teachers the ability to embrace or reject instructional practices. True, transparent partnerships are defined by the freedom to consider and cast-off. The choice to redesign and individualize content in ways that are most valuable for the individual is critical.

It makes no sense whatsoever for a coach to dictate practices and/or classroom procedures that are an uncomfortable fit for the teacher and her students.

I had the privilege of working with a grade level team last year that was made up of first year teachers. I worried that the pressure of accountability and responsibility for this team would be crushing.

What I observed over the weeks we were together was the sagacity these ladies possessed. They had an uncanny ability to take the ridiculous amount of information and overwhelming tasks for classroom teachers and distill it to the most important bits. They asked thoughtful, discerning questions and then made decisions that simultaneously challenged and supported their young learners.

Amazed and inspired each time I left a planning session with these amazing women, I now consider them as heroes and mentors.

Instructional coaching is tricky work. I’m tempted to fret over the fact that I’m not doing my best to maintain authentic collaborative partnerships.

Not to worry.

Now that I know who sits in the big chair, I think I’ve got this.

About our Guest Author: Valinda Kimmel has flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. For the past 7 years, she’s worked as a K-6 facilitator/instructional coach in a large school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in conversations with her on Twitter () and on her blog at

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