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Linguistic coaching: helping beginning teachers defeat discouragement.

A new slant on coaching - which focuses on partnership, open dialogue, and continuous learning - helps novices through those particularly challenging first days. It also helps seasoned teachers improve their performance.

A novice teacher starts the school year full of enthusiasm and ambition. A few months, or even weeks, later that same teacher has sunk into discouragement about ever becoming successful in the profession. Sound familiar?

I have witnessed high hopes degenerate into despair several times during my career as a teacher trainer and administrator. Most recently, I've seen it at the inner-city elementary school where I was assistant principal and where I now serve on an executive board.

Our beginning teachers' main problem was an inability to cope with challenges to their authority. Frequent power struggles with students gradually bogged down teachers in what they saw as a daily succession of failures. I suggested to my principal that we try linguistic coaching to help our new teachers develop greater practical competence and maintain their initial enthusiasm.

I first began using linguistic coaching, a comprehensive approach to effective communication, in 1990 in a mentoring program for novice teachers. The success of that program and subsequent programs designed for veteran teachers has convinced me that this approach has many benefits. For example, it helps teachers cope more effectively with stress, establish authority for themselves in their teaching roles, and improve their overall outlook and performance.

Looking at Linguistic Coaching

In developing this system of conversational analysis and communication Fernando Flores (Flores 1982, Flores and Winogrand 1986), drew on the Theory of Speech Acts pioneered by philosopher John Austin (1962) and later refined by his student John Searle (1969, 1979). The premise underlying their work is that all speaking and listening can be categorized as some kind of action - stating, promising, requesting, asserting, declaring, deciding, replying - in which the speaker makes a commitment with the listener.

In Austin and Searle's view of communication, the critical actions involved in, for example, constructing the Empire State Building would include not only excavating, lifting, and hammering, but also making assessments, requests, offers, and promises. Flores realized that looking at communication in this way opened up new possibilities for helping people avoid misunderstandings and work together more effectively. He applied Austin and Searle's categories of speech acts to make practical improvements in training personnel, designing software products, and managing a staff (Flores 1982).

From Flores's approach, my point of departure in linguistic coaching is the premise that all speaking and listening arise from a pre-existing background of beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and emotions. Whenever teachers do their jobs - plan lessons, handle student misbehavior, interact with administrators and fellow teachers - they bring much more than just their professional training to what they are doing. A host of personal and cultural interpretations influence teachers' frames of reference for understanding and reacting to each teaching situation. Some of these are valid and some are not. Invalid interpretations make it difficult for teachers to adapt and to perform effectively on the job. An example will illustrate how linguistic coaching works in practice.

Establishing the Coaching Relationship

Mike, a first-year teacher, believed that "strong teachers handle their own problems."(1) To Mike, sending a student to the timeout room or asking for help in managing a class was a sign of weakness. As he explained to me later, "If I couldn't handle classes on my own ... well ... then what was I doing here in the first place?"

Mike struggled through his first weeks trying to be strong the best way he knew how. He isolated himself from the expertise and support of his colleagues. Behind his perpetually closed classroom door, he resorted to a mix of sarcasm, argument, and manipulation to manage his students.

For those of us who don't share Mike's beliefs and interpretations, it's easy to see how they could hinder his efforts to teach effectively. But because beliefs and interpretations such as these are part of the background a teacher brings to the job, he or she either doesn't notice them or mistakes them for truths that need to be dealt with in some specific way ("Tell me how you get them to keep quiet"). I am not saying that Mike or any of the other new teachers didn't know the difference between facts and interpretations, but in my experience, most of us sometimes blur this distinction as we go about the business of everyday living.

This brings us to an essential element of linguistic coaching: people cannot learn to communicate more effectively unless they become skillful at making rigorous distinctions between facts and interpretations. For example, Mike's conception of his students as 28 perpetual threats to his authority to teach - his own belief and not a fact - would continue to undermine every method he employed in his efforts to establish good discipline.

Indeed, I have observed beginning teachers produce mayhem using exactly the same words and gestures that a seasoned teacher uses to establish order. Why? Because beginning teachers use these methods without a veteran's understandings, and therefore less effectively. By giving priority to externals - techniques and methods - many beginning teachers remain trapped in a struggle to reach a preconceived solution without recognizing that their difficulties stem from their perception of the problem itself - like people in the 1400s trying to figure out how far it was to the edge of the earth.

Mike, for example, asked me for techniques that would keep him from getting drawn into arguments with students. Even if I had given him specific methods for avoiding arguments during his first weeks of teaching, I doubt that they would have had much impact on his overall effectiveness. To me, Mike's reliance on arguing and sarcasm wasn't the problem but, rather, a symptom of the real issue: a lack of awareness of how his notion of strong teaching was causing him to communicate with students in ways that perpetuated his discipline problems.

In order to coach Mike, I first had to gain his trust and confidence - trust that my sole purpose was to support him in achieving success as a teacher, and confidence in my ability to help him realize his goals. When I felt we had established enough rapport, I formally offered to coach Mike, explaining what our relationship would be and what he could expect from it. He accepted.

I did not take Mike's acceptance as blanket permission to tell him what to do. From experience, I knew that coaching exists in name only unless the coach and the person being coached share a continuing trust and sense of purpose. I frequently checked with Mike to make sure that we were still in agreement about our coaching project.

Coaching, then, is a partnership that hinges on two prerequisites: The person being coached must agree to be coached, and the coach must have an unswerving commitment to that person's performance.

Three Tenets of Coaching

Once Mike agreed to let me coach him, we had several conversations in which I began to show him that his understanding of strong teaching was just that - his understanding, not some immutable truth. Next, I asked questions designed to help him see how his conception of "strong" was actually the source of his "weak" performance.

Finally, I suggested a different interpretation of strong teaching, which included asking for help, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. In asking Mike to try this new interpretation with his students, I warned him that initially it wouldn't feel "strong" at all, but that it would gradually help him develop the authority he desired.

Each time Mike reported back to me, I asked him to state the relevant facts ("A student slammed her notebook shut just as I was about to check her work"); his reaction ("I was mad; I thought she was trying to make me look bad"); and his action ("I made a sarcastic remark"). I used Mike's comments and others like them as a basis for coaching him to develop new interpretations and to take more effective actions.

For example, in the case of the student slamming shut her notebook, Mike's use of sarcasm was based on the premise "never let students know they got to you." I pointed out how this premise undermined his purpose as a teacher. What alternatives, I asked, might he have employed if it had been OK to let the student know she got to him? He agreed to try them out in a follow-up conversation with the student. After speaking to her, Mike reported back to me that instead of "playing mind games," he had been able to tell her frankly what he did and did not want. As a result, he was able to listen to her version of the matter with an open mind.

As the coaching continued, Mike became less sarcastic and more direct with students. He also began to use routine discipline procedures, such as sending disruptive students to the timeout room, instead of trying to manage everything on his own. Consequently, Mike had more time and energy to focus on teaching, and as the year progressed his true strengths began to emerge. He organized a chess team, began teaching math and science more innovatively, and served as a mentor for troubled students.

These accomplishments were the result of the gifts Mike brought to the job of teaching, not of the coaching I gave him. The coaching did, however, allow him to develop the resilience, clarity of purpose, and authority he needed to bring those gifts to light.

In summary, the fundamental elements of coaching for improved communication performance are:

1. identify the performance to be improved (Mike's manner of dealing with student misbehavior);

2. establish the interpretations behind the performance ("A strong teacher handles his own problems"); and

3. intervene by coaching for new interpretations and actions.

Not Just for Beginning Teachers

The beginning teachers I coached achieved better results than other new teachers who were not coached. Where their predecessors had struggled just to get through their first year of teaching, the coached novices maintained a more positive outlook and, as the year went on, made consistent progress in establishing authority and autonomy.

In accounting for their successes, they all made specific references to linguistic coaching. For example, one teacher wrote:

Coaching helped me see the connection between what I think of myself and what the students (and others) think of me. You made me observe myself in a new way: I was able to see that I have certain ways of thinking and acting that don't get the results I want, but that doesn't make me a bad person or even a bad teacher.

Since my initial work with beginning teachers, I have seen how linguistic coaching can help improve the performance of administrators and experienced teachers. For example, my principal said that she learned to communicate more effectively with parents - to better manage complaints and to elicit greater cooperation - as a result of being coached. In another case, a skilled veteran teacher found herself enjoying her students more because she had gained greater fluency in communicating with them.

Linguistic coaching can also be an effective tool for intervening in serious professional breakdowns, such as job burnout. When John, a teacher from another school, came to me complaining that he sometimes woke up on school days "sorry I'm still alive," I proposed that learning to communicate more effectively might help him overcome his feelings of frustration and powerlessness.

During the six months that I coached John, he learned to communicate in ways that led to more effective action. For example, he began to participate in what he had considered to be "waste of time" faculty meetings instead of sitting in the back of the room reading the newspaper. He also learned to make direct requests of students, parents, and administrators instead of airing vague complaints.

As John tried my recommendations, he reported that his mood of apathy and hopelessness lifted. To his amazement, he began working late into the evening creating his own lessons, parents acknowledged him as "a teacher who cares," and colleagues began seeking his advice because they saw him as an exemplary teacher.

Creating a Climate for Learning

The significant contributions of linguistic coaching to the practice of teaching extend not only to the individual being coached but to others throughout the building. I, for one, received as much benefit from coaching as the new teachers did from being coached. Establishing and maintaining a coaching relationship with them forced me to deal with the same issues of authority, self-confidence, and self-awareness that they were facing with their students. In order to coach them to continually improve their communication performance, I had to keep improving my ability to communicate with them. The overall effect was a feedback loop: the more they learned, the more I learned, and so on.

Further, the project motivated everyone involved to work to create a climate in which coaching could take place. While our school has long been blessed with a cohesive, hard-working faculty, as a group we became more ambitious and proactive in coming together to deal with problems and in forming teams to achieve specific goals. This outcome leads me to believe that coaching, with its emphasis on partnership, open communication, and continuous learning, could serve as a practical model for implementing site-based management, improving school climate, and achieving many of the goals of educational reform.

1 Mike and John are pseudonyms.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Flores, C. F. (1982). Management and Communication in the Office of the Future. Doctoral diss., University of California, Berkeley. (Bound copies are available from Carlos F. Flores, Business Design Associates, Alameda, Calif., (510) 814-1900.)

Flores, C. F., and T. Winogrand. (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition. New York: Addison.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech Acts. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. (1979). Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press.

Paul F. Caccia is a freelance educational consultant. He may be contacted at Paul F. Caccia/Education Consulting and Staff Development, 5937 N. Kenneth Ave., Chicago, IL 60646.
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Author:Caccia, Paul F.
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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