One of the things I’m enjoying most about being on our coaching team here at ISB is the opportunity to openly share our challenges so that we can all work together to improve our practice. This week we had our first book club meeting to discuss the first chapter of Coaching: Approaches and Perspectives edited by Jim Knight.

To facilitate our conversation, we followed the Final Word protocol. Each of us selected a particular section of the text which stood out during our reading, and following the protocol process, discussed what was so important about that statement in a round-robin format. Although we all selected different sections, they seemed to have a common element: how to move beyond simply supporting teachers to increase their comfort level within our curricular areas to implementing changed practices with all faculty members to improve student learning.

The section of the book that we ended up focusing on the most was about Coaching Heavy and Coaching Light. The author of this chapter, Joellen Killion

assert[s] that there are two kinds of coaching – coaching light and coaching heavy. The difference essentially is the coaches’ perspective, beliefs, role decisions, and goals, rather than what coaches do… Coaching light occurs when coaches want to build and maintain relationships more than they want to improve teaching and learning. From this perspective, coaches act to increase their perceived value to teachers by providing resources and avoiding challenging conversations. (p. 22)

Coaching heavy, on the other hand, includes high-stakes interactions between coaches and teachers, such as curriculum analysis, data analysis, instruction, assessment, and personal and professional beliefs and how they influence practice… Coaching heavy requires coaches to say “no” to trivial requests for support and to turn their attention to those high-leverage services that have the greatest potential for teaching and learning. Coaching heavy requires coaches to work with all teachers in a school, not just those who volunteer for coaching services. Coaching heavy requires coaches to seek and use data about their work and regularly analyze their decisions about time allocation, services and impact. (p. 23 -24)

Reading this section I realized that often times I am coaching light, but not always because of a decision I’ve consciously made. I am hyper-aware of the anxiety level most teachers have when dealing with technology, which often results in focusing more on making teachers comfortable with the tools than initiating difficult conversations about changing practice. I wonder if this issue is specific to those of us working in the technology area, or if it’s really just the same as coaches helping to implement a new math, reading or science program?

I do believe that those difficult conversations are much easier once you’ve developed a trusting relationship and that only happens when teachers feel supported. Killion mentions that it often takes coaches a whole year to move from coaching light to coaching heavy because of all the ground-work required to build trusting relationships, but that they can also get trapped into coaching light indefinitely if they are not careful.

I’m wondering now, how can coaches tell when it’s time to move from coaching light to coaching heavy? I’m also conscious of the fact that those deeper conversations don’t always have to happen in a formal setting, they can be quick snippets in the hallway that build upon previous sessions or discussions over lunch or even in a social setting. Do coaches keep track of where they are with each teacher, as you would with a class of students, so that you have a running record of what step to take next?

The other issue that jumped out at me was that coaches are required and expected to work with all teachers. This directly contradicts my long-held belief in working with the willing. Perhaps I simply need to adjust that to: we should start with the willing, but know that eventually we do have to work with everyone. I do still firmly believe that to work with everyone, with the focus on improving student learning (which may entail changing teaching practice), requires clear and transparent communication from administrators about our roles and purpose.

Perhaps the most reassuring sentence (for me) in this particular set of paragraphs is that coaching heavy requires coaches to say “no” to trivial requests for support in favor of more meaningful actions that will have a deeper impact on student learning. One of the biggest challenges for me has always been saying no. I like to believe I can do everything, and that I can make everyone’s job easier by supporting everyone, everywhere at any time. It’s important for me to remind myself that this only ends up diluting the impact I can make on both student and teacher learning. I need to remember that I am in control of my time and that I need to prioritize which tasks I undertake on a daily basis. Letting my day get carried away with the little things is not fulfilling my role, and it’s not helping my school move forward. (Maybe I should post this above my desk?).

Saying that a coach’s role is to support teachers misleads teachers. A coach’s primary responsibility is to improve student learning. (p. 27, point #3)

Reading this, I wonder what most teachers would think. I know that I have often been referred to as a “support” person or a “resource” person, and to be honest, I never felt the term was quite right, but I didn’t know why. Now I do. A “resource” is something to be used (or not) and then tossed aside. A “resource” is not something that might cause you to change deeply held beliefs or to re-evaluate your practice. A “resource” is not challenging. If teachers see us as “resources” or “support” people, they will not understand the work we are trying to do or how we fit into the school’s vision and purpose.

By making observations, stating their point of view, and inquiring into practice, coaches erode stagnant practice and unchallenged routines to spark analysis, reflection, and appropriate change. In this role, a coach is not about change for change sake, but rather for continuous improvement and fine-tuning to meet clearly articulated goals. (p. 13)

All too often it feels like teachers view technology as yet another swing in the pendulum of education, something they have to adopt because it’s the “cool new thing,” but not because they really believe in the impact it can have on student learning. It’s reassuring to me to see that other instructional coaches face this same dilemma.

One of the most difficult conversations that seems to come along frequently in technology is when teachers want to replicate what they always do (for example, a poster) “on the computer” because it will look cooler to the parents (or to their administrators) – not because of the potential that technology might have to offer. I’m thinking that effective questioning strategies, as part of coaching heavy, are what can move the conversation along from substitution to transformation. I’m also wondering if distributing a LOTI survey can help begin to plant the seeds in teachers’ minds about the different levels of technology implementation?

Final Thoughts

Once again, I am impressed by the value of looking at other, more established, fields in education to understand more deeply and improve my practice in the area of technology facilitation. Considering we’re only on the first chapter of the book, I’m sure coaching is going to provide a lot of room for growth!

22 thoughts on “Difficult Conversations

  1. I just started year 5 of my instructional technology specialist role at an elementary school, and I, too, have been reevaluating priorities.

    I agree that relationships are key! Now, that the comfort and respect have been established it’s time to move to another level. Just like with students, I want to see independence and risk taking skills blooming in teachers when it comes to technology. I am psyched when a teacher reports to me (proudly!) that a lesson was completed on her own in the classroom utilizing the laptops (or their own machine) or integrating a web 2.0 tool to teach a curriculum concept. Thinking about heavy and light coaching, this is the perfect opportunity for me to have a conversation that can move them forward beyond “the cool new tool” aspect.

    I further agree that “support” is not the correct term for those of us who collaborate with teachers. Some staff still are confused by my role and what I have to offer. This year, I am making sure that true tech support is being contacted for “fix it” issues, so I have more time to develop projects, explore tools and have “shifting” conversations with teachers.

  2. Kim, you are absolutely killing me here! You’re writing a definitive “How To Effectively Implement a Technology Coach/Mentor/Facilitator in Your School” guide and it is helping me enormously.

    A few comments:
    1. I like the distinction between coaching light and coaching heavy. I think there is a natural tendency to coach light in technology areas because lack of basic skills/fluency = inefficient. I know I am focusing on improving efficiency in routine tasks to free people up to learn/do something new.

    2. In a classroom you cannot immediately ignore the unwilling students. You coax, cajole, and try to engage. If you don’t succeed, you try harder the next day. I guess, to a certain extent, it must be the same with unwilling teachers. You try to give them something they’re going to want to do. If it doesn’t spark their interest, you’ll come up with something new tomorrow.

    3. I know you’ve only presented excerpts, but it is important to remember that as a coach, teachers are your students. And in any set of students there will be a wide range of abilities: differentiation is key. What may be trivial to the coach may not be trivial to the teacher. If you aren’t sensitive to that then you will lose that teacher forever.

  3. Wow, this post has exploded in my mind!! Every word of it spoke to me directly and really illuminated the challenges I face. I am coaching WAY light as I begin year 4 in the same position. If anything, I have stepped back some, as we have hired a 21st Century Learning Specialist to take over more of the “coaching” with teachers. I am hanging back more into the “resource teacher” role, enjoying my work with the students and working with the willing. I am strongly refusing to enable teachers, ie: I will not do something for you, I will teach you (again and again, how many times???) HOW to do it. But I am avoiding those difficult conversations, avoiding pushing people out of their comfort zones, avoiding calling people on their dependence and pushing them toward independence.
    I guess I should read this book! Unfortunately, my role at the school is not the role of a coach who moves learning forward. My role, what others expect of me, is as resource teacher, to work with students in the lab so that the “real” teachers can have a little break. I have felt frustrated with this role since day one and have tried to move into more of a coaching or even co-teaching role. I have to say that in some ways I have seen change, in other ways, no.
    thanks for a really thought-provoking post.

  4. On of the roles that I describe for coaches is that they need to bring discomfort to those they coach. That discomfort comes from recognizing the opportunity to be producing richer or deeper learning than my current practice.

    To be effective coaches need to provide support and encouragement to create a climate where teachers are comfortable with the discomfort.

    And ultimately, create a climate where teachers are uncomfortable with comfort.. in other words I seek my coach to find a new groth spot when I’m feeling to comfortable.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post on coaching – especially the quote about the coach’s job being to improve student learning. In working with librarians, I also find that people see us as support, rather than an integral part of the instructional process. It’s been a perception that I have been trying to change for the past seven years in my district. While it’s slow going, I have begun to see a change, which is exciting!

    I also love the Final Word protocol that you mentioned and hope to try it with a book study that I am leading this fall. Thanks for that as well!

  6. Thanks for writing such thought provoking pieces. They are helpful to so many of us.

    I am starting my third year in an elementary school and the district just changed my title from CTC (Campus Technology Coordinator) to TIP (Technology Instructional Partner). They have hired Instructional Partners for each school and so it is being emphasized that our roles are very similar. It is SO great to learn from each other and to support each other. Starting this third year seems different. I feel past the building relationships and getting to know you phase and ready to work more together.

    My IP came up with a spreadsheet that I have started using that I think will be really helpful. There is one worksheet for each grade level and then the four teachers in each grade level are listed on it. Across the top are listed things that we hope to happen (model lessons, planning together, observation, etc…) and so in the cells below we can take notes about what we are doing. I think this will help me to see really clearly who I am not working with at all and which of the coaching methods I am avoiding.

    We will see….

  7. Kim, great post. You captured the essence of the chapter, but more so you captured the angst going on in my head too about coaching and whether my focus has been on trust or on student learning.

    @Clint H, I think one of the keys in the book is that as a coach teachers are NOT our students, but instead student learning is still our focus. We must do everything in our power to make teachers better so that students will learn, not for the purpose of making teachers better. It’s a small distinction, but a fundamentally powerful one when you consider its implications on whether I feel like I have the “authority” to do something or not.

    As always Kim…spot on.

  8. I have had the good fortune of being with Joellen Killion in several literacy coaching workshops. One vivid memory is her pushing pantomime with another teacher. As they confront each other, eventually one gives up and the other moves forward. Coaches apply gentle pressure and eventually find opportunities to engage in light or heavy coaching. We found in our school district that the process takes several years before a school staff reaches a convincing tipping point where many opportunities for cross curricular literacy enrichment takes place.

    1. @lsanderson

      A good reminder to be more patient, considering you’re on year 5 and some of your staff are still confused by your role. I wonder if there’s anything schools can do to be more transparent about coaching responsibilities and goals so that it doesn’t take quite so long? Definitely something for our team to think about…


      Glad the posts are helpful! You make such a good point about not ignoring the unwilling students. We do have to find the hook that will get teachers interested, just like we do with students. I guess that our challenge – finding out what motivates our teachers and collaborating from that angle.


      I’ve been thinking a lot about this post since last week and I’m wondering if sometimes having those difficult conversations actually makes you more valuable and more respected because I do think that most teachers want to move forward. I know I appreciate it when my thinking is challenged, if done in the right way, especially when it helps me do my job better. I wonder if I shy away from those conversations because I’m worried about my relationships with those teachers suffering, when actually they might make my relationships stronger. No answers, just some thoughts your comment brought to my mind.

      Also, I wonder if you do have the power to change your position just by what you do on a day to day basis. I have no idea what the structure of your school is like, but I have been working on trying to do this myself: focusing on what is important and valuable and demonstrating that that’s where you’re time is going to be spent – instead of only doing what other’s expect. I don’t know if that’s feasible or not, but I just thought I’d throw it out there.


      Your comment really resonates with me – and I’ve got your book on my bedside table, so that’s my next coaching read for sure. We frequently talk about discomfort equaling learning. I wonder why it’s so hard for us (well, me) to be the cause of that kind of discomfort, especially when I do know how powerful it is?

      I’m going to bring up the idea of creating a climate where teachers feel comfortable with discomfort at our next coaches meeting. That’s clearly going to be so important for us to move forward.


      I think there are lots of parallels to librarians here. It is interesting to see how often people in schools are referred to as resources, rather than collaborators. I guess it’s slow going in many areas… You might also find some other interesting protocols at the Teachers College Press (from the book The Power of Protocols).


      I love your spreadsheet idea! In fact, I have been starting to work on something similar (just by random chance) myself and I love how thoughtfully you have yours outlined. I’m going to do a little revising on mine to match my coaching goals as well. Thanks so much for the great tip!


      Thanks! Angst pretty much sums up my feelings as well. Thanks for defining that very important distinction between students as teachers vs improving student learning. I do think that will help us make decisions about where and how to spend our time.

      @Paul C

      I absolutely love that visual, it certainly does help explain how a coach can make the transition from light to heavy. I totally agree that it takes a lot of time to move a whole school community forward. It’s a good reminder to take things slow.

  9. The comments about teachers’ and IT issues ring light and heavy in ears. Our son is an IT specialist and skill-wise the best thing he did at the turn of the Millennium was to encourage me to embrace the 21st century!
    Read more on my blog. on the post entitled “Just a bucket of sand!”
    I train and coach in schools in UK and overseas and the issues that come up as often if not more than matters IT are time management and work life balance.
    There are a couple free downloads on my website which maybe useful. Stress Audit and Lifestyle Assessment. Hope they prove useful.
    Teaching is a fantastic profession! Enjoy the journey :)

  10. Kim,
    I am Joellen Killion, the author of the chapter your book club discusses on coaching heavy and coaching light. How are things at ISB? Please give Ann Staub by regards. It has been a while since I visited ISB.

    You have raised some wonderful questions in your blog about whether coaching in technology is different from coaching in other areas. I want to ponder this and engage with coaches I work with to inquire about their perspectives. I have a perfect opportunity since Jim Knight and I, along with three other faculty members of the NSDC Coaches Academy are together in Casper, Wyoming, at the Wyoming Instructional Facilitators Conference.

    As I talk with coaches about coaching heavy and coaching light as I did yesterday, I find that this distinction is like fingernails screeching down a chalkboard. Mostly, I think, it is because coaches know that they want to do more and yet they are walking the tightrope between maintaining a healthy relationship and the challenging work of focusing and refining teaching. The tendency to interpret heavy as difficult is common, yet you made the distinction very clear in your description. I appreciate your thought reflection on this section of the chapter.

    Thanks, Kim. I look forward to reading more about your experiences as a coach.

  11. @Eilidh

    Thanks for sharing those resources.


    Thanks so much for reading and commenting on this post!

    I look forward to hearing more about what comes out of the Instructional Facilitators Conference. I wonder if other, more experienced coaches, also feel that there might be something different about technology – or if it’s just because I’ve come from a Technology Facilitation background rather than Instructional Coaching.

    I’m also wondering about your thoughts on how to transition from coaching light to coaching heavy. Do you have any specific advice for those new to the coaching model?

  12. WOW I stumbled onto a great blog! I read the article on Coaching Heavy /Light and it opened my eyes. I shared the article with several teachers I coach and told them- it’s time to move into the deep water. Now one of those great teachers says I “irritate” her – in a good way! I am in my third year as a math coach and here is my question. In a quest for data to show results what data should a coach record to show the good that we do? I have some narratives from teachers saying ” I never thought of that!” in reference to math content. But do any of you have this problem- your supervisors asking for data to keep your job?

    1. @Janie,

      Congratulations! It sounds like you’re making a lot of progress in your school! In terms of data, we are recording the hours we spend: in the classroom co-teaching, with teachers co-planning, in the classroom modeling lessons, prepping for coaching related duties, professional development we offer and receive, and general nuts and bolts. In the comments above, Janice also describes some great ways for tracking time. All of these can be used to demonstrate to your supervisors the time you spend coaching. Good luck!

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