Three Coaching Approaches That Empower Teachers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAElena Aguilar is an instructional and leadership coach in the Oakland Unified School District. Elena writes about education for Edutopia and for Education Week’s Teacher Magazine, and she is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network ( In addition, Elena provides consulting services to schools. She is the author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation.

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Three Coaching Approaches That Empower Teachers

Our mental models are sometimes invisible to us. We might notice that we feel ‘‘stuck’’ in an area of our life, but not quite sure how to get out of bad habits or negative trains of thoughts. Drath and Van Veslor (2006) use the term webs of belief to describe the interconnected threads of beliefs that are mutually reinforcing and that guide our actions. These threads form a mind-set—an overall habitual way of understanding and approaching the world around us. After a while, we don’t even notice them—they are so deeply embedded in the way that we think.

Robert Hargrove offers another way to think about mental models: We all tell stories about our lives, he explains; stories are our interpretations of what happens. Some are very helpful—he calls these ‘‘river stories,’’ but others limit and define our way of being as well as how we think about and interact with others—he calls those ‘‘rut stories’’ (Hargrove, 2003, p. 87). A river story reflects a commitment to learn and grow. For example, ‘‘My first year of teaching was brutal but I was so ready for the second year.’’ A river story doesn’t limit us. A rut story, however, uses defensive reasoning to protect one’s self. Daniela’s rut story, ‘‘my teachers don’t respect me’’ was a classic example. A rut story is constricting, cuts us off from other people and usually leaves us feeling somewhat powerless. This is an extremely useful framework for a coach. It is our role to listen for and then surface, test, and revise rut stories: they usually reflect a mental model that is getting in the way of our success.

When a coach recognizes a fixed mental model, a rut story, or a paralyzing web of belief, a directive (or authoritative) coaching stance can be very effective. From this stance, a coach pushes a client in her learning. In order for us to be successful, however, we need to be artful and skilled—pushing is delicate business. Within masterful coaches, Robert Hargrove identifies a ‘‘potent combination of toughness and compassion’’ (Hargrove, 2003, p. 18). This is what we’ll need to access when we take an authoritative stance in coaching. Heron’s framework names three directive approaches: confrontational, instructive, and prescriptive. Each is distinct in how it’s delivered, and can have different effects on shifting a client’s behavior, beliefs, and being. As with the facilitative coaching stances, we often move back and forth between approaches in response to how a client engages. Let’s start by taking a close look at confrontational coaching.


A confrontational approach can raise awareness, challenge the client’s assumptions, or stimulate awareness of behavior, beliefs, or being. It can also help a client see the consequences of an action or boost the client’s confidence by affirming success.

This term—confrontation—makes many of us uncomfortable. Confrontation is often seen as a negative thing and it seems very uncoachlike. I think of it as an interrupting stance to use when I need to mediate a behavior, mind frame, belief, or way of being; it’s a way to generate a little cognitive dissonance. Coaches are often positioned ideally to use this strategy. We get to know a client very well, we see him in many different contexts, we’ve heard his stories, we care about him and he trusts us. It is our responsibility to our client, as well as to the larger change efforts to interrupt behavior, beliefs, or being which are not leading to transformation.

Tips for Using a Confrontational Approach

• Listen for rut stories and interrupt them.

• Guide clients down the Ladder of Inference; present data that they’re not noticing.

• Identify mental models that are fixed and constricting.

• Rebuild models and mind-sets, and create river stories.


The informative stance (and the prescriptive, which follows this one) is the approach that new teachers often want a coach to take. ‘‘Just tell me what to do!’’ they ask, with justified need as they recognize the limitations to their knowledge bank about teaching. In this approach, a coach imparts knowledge and information. We provide curriculum, lesson plans, templates for agendas, books, and so on. We supply missing facts, (‘‘Report cards are due a week before the date on the calendar’’); tell clients where they can get extra help (‘‘Ms. Sanchez is a fantastic math teacher; try to observe her’’); and explain events that the client might not understand (‘‘Last year the union negotiated . . . and so now . . . ’’). In an informative approach, a coach can be a ‘‘thinking partner.’’

Most coaches play this role at some point with most clients. Hopefully, coaches are experts in their fields and have deep resource banks to draw from. We should know about best practices and should share them. However, there are dangers lurking in this stance and we must proceed with caution. Because our clients—especially new teachers and leaders—have such great need, and because a coach is usually a kind, caring person who wants to help, it is easy for this role to be the only one that a coach plays and for our clients to become dependent on us playing this role. The problem is that when we use an informative and prescriptive approach exclusively we may not build someone else’s capacity. If we find our clients wanting us to engage in this way, it can be helpful to use a gradual release model to support the development of their autonomy.

Tips for Using an Informative Approach

• Be sure to coach within the client’s zone of proximal development (ZPD).

• Release responsibility gradually, but as soon as possible.

• Offer a selection of resources and guide the client to make decisions.


From a prescriptive stance, a coach gives directions, recommendations, or advice; we direct behavior—not beliefs or being. This is another stance to take very rarely and with caution, but it is appropriate when the client lacks confidence, is unable to direct her own learning yet, or if there are legal, safety, or ethical guidelines which are not being followed.

Sometimes from this stance we might need to give advice. Robert Hargrove offers some useful tips for giving advice, suggesting that it must be caring, candid, practical, wise, and well-timed—given only when a client is open to hearing it. Hargrove reminds us to ask for permission to give advice and recommends that if we hear a lot of ‘‘yes, but’’ comments or if a client debates everything we say, we need to stop giving advice. Our client can no longer hear us (Hargrove, 2003, p. 75).

Tips for Using a Prescriptive Approach

• Use the prescriptive approach to direct behavior around legal, safety, or ethical issues.

• Use when client lacks confidence or can’t direct her own learning.

• Use with caution.

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