By Tom Many, EdD
“To succeed at anything, you have to prepare yourself. That means you have to be open, be coachable, and willing to learn.” – Tammi Fugitt
In a PLC, the difference between a good team and a great team is often the team’s willingness to improve, and the best way for teams to improve is to be coachable. The great thing about being coachable is that collaborative teams have complete control over how coachable they are because coachability is a manifestation of the team’s attitude, not their experience or expertise.
It’s easy to spot an uncoachable team. When they receive feedback or constructive criticism, they engage in all manner of unproductive behaviors. Dr. Tesha Thomas, an author and consultant from Michigan, describes it as CBD—Complaining, Blaming, and Defending. Instead of reflecting on the merits of an idea, uncoachable teams find fault, make excuses, and oppose. Not only are these teams difficult to coach, but their conduct hinders their ability to improve.
Coachable teams have a different perspective. They view challenges as opportunities for new learning and believe problems are best addressed collectively through careful study and reflection. Coachable teams are open-minded and willing to make changes that result in higher levels of student learning. They seek out feedback and understand constructive criticism is not personal; it is meant to help them improve.
Coachability is the product of a team’s receptivity to feedback and their commitment to act on that feedback to improve their practice. Coachable teams welcome feedback and are inclined to act. Uncoachable teams are just the opposite; they are averse to feedback and reluctant to act. In its simplest form, coachability equals receptivity to feedback plus a commitment to act.
Why does being coachable matter? In a 2009 study, McKenna and Davis found that, “40% of the impact of coaching is dependent upon the learner’s readiness for coaching.” The implications for our practice become self-evident by substituting the word “team” for “learner.” When collaborative teams become more coachable, the likelihood that coaching will result in improved professional practice increases exponentially! Coaching and coachability are complimentary.
Being open, vulnerable, and ready to go deep aren’t just qualities we should admire in introspective people; they’re necessary prerequisites for all of us to be coachable.”- Khurram Masood, 2020
In the most effective schools, coaches do not work exclusively with the coachable teams while waiting for the uncoachable teams to come around (or worse yet, ignore the uncoachable teams altogether). Instead, they try to understand how best to work differently with teams in different stages of becoming more coachable. Collaborative teams typically have characteristics that are reflected in one of four stages of coachability.
High Levels of Coachability: Teams that are receptive to feedback and committed to action are the most coachable. The teachers on these teams want to learn and grow, are aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities, and believe there is always room for improvement. These teams embrace feedback regardless of whether it is offered by an administrator, coach or colleague, and coaches can best support these teams by providing lots of opportunities for self-reflection.
Moderate Levels of Coachability: Some teams are action oriented but are not interested in feedback. This situation may be the result of previous negative experiences with coaching. It can also signal a lack of acceptance and/or respect for the person delivering the feedback. Coaches can help these teams by working on relationships, building trust, and overcoming feelings of vulnerability that team members may have. Shanita Williams and Stacey-Marie Ishmael suggest using the SIFT strategy (Source, Impact, Frequency, and Trends) to help teams become more receptive to feedback. (LifeKit, 2021)
Moderate Levels of Coachability: Other teams may be open and receptive to feedback but unwilling (or unable) to act. This condition may signal the need for greater clarity of the task, or it could be the product of too many initiatives. The best way to help these teams is to focus on how they respond to feedback. In addition to revisiting the impact of effective PDSA (Plan, Study, Do, Act) cycles. Williams and Ishmael recommend introducing the OPEN strategy (Observe, Probe, Express, and Next steps) to generate ownership and assist in the development of action plans. (LifeKit, 2021)
Low Levels of Coachability: Finally, some teams are not open to feedback, nor are they willing to operationalize feedback in their classrooms. Some might label these teams as resistors and while these teams may initially be uncoachable, nothing shifts attitudes faster than seeing colleagues, other teachers just like them, being successful. Exposure to others being successful is a good way to help teams become more coachable.
These characteristics, receptivity to feedback and commitment to action, are not the same on every team, nor are they fixed or static, and both can be improved. Different teams are in different stages of development but principals, coaches, and teacher leaders (department chairs, team leads, and teachers in similar roles), can help teams become more coachable by exploring how open a team is to receiving feedback and how willing they are to act.
“In the most successful PLCs, everyone is willing to coach and be coached in the name of improving our collective professional practice.”
Principals and teacher leaders can promote the development of coachable teams in other ways. One of the best is simply to support the coaching process. When the importance of teams being coachable is celebrated, schools simultaneously support coaching while encouraging teachers to be receptive to feedback and more action oriented. Choosing not to support the coaching process creates teams that are challenging to coach but, principals and teacher leaders must also understand that when they fail to reinforce the value of feedback, it negatively impacts how teams will receive and respond to future feedback from others, including themselves.
A growing number of schools recognize the value of coaching collaborative teams. Leaders in these schools understand that a coached team will go further faster than an uncoached team and as a result, are shifting coaching resources from individual teachers to collaborative teams. Coaches play a significant role in successful coaching experiences, but coaches can’t do it alone. Teams must also shoulder some of the responsibility by working to become more coachable.
Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.
McKenna, D. & Davis, S. (2009). Hidden In Plain Sight: The Active Ingredients of Executive Coaching. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, v. 2, pp 244-260.
Masood, K. (2020). What is Coachability and how can I embrace it? Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from www.forbes.com/sites/khurrammasood/2020/11/19.
Williams, S., Ishmael, S. & Furlan, J. (2021). Receiving Feedback Doesn’t Have to Be Scary. NPR Life Kit. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1030659507.
TEPSA News, November/December 2021, Vol 78, No 6
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