The best gifts are reminders that someone sees us and that who we are is valued. Similarly, the best advice comes from someone who cares enough to notice the small things even while listening to the big ones. That’s why the best way to make progress in any coaching relationship is by dialing into the personal first.

The April 2022 issue of The Learning Professional, which focused on the theme of “coaching for change,” highlighted many promising approaches to coaching during the stressful times we’re all living in. They all have one thing in common: a focus on relationships.

Sometimes, developing an authentic relationship with a coachee can be challenging, especially when schools require coaching cycles for new educators or struggling educators who may not be attending voluntarily. In these situations, building relationships is especially important.

Here are some strategies that help, based on my experiences and reflections as a coach. They can support all of the coaching approaches described in The Learning Professional issue – and any coaching effort you undertake.

Sometimes developing an authentic relationship with a coachee can be challenging. Here are seven strategies that can help. Share on X

1. Start with an honest conversation

Sometimes, honesty means acknowledging elephants in the room. For example, supporting educators who are working to improve based on a tough evaluation is one of the most important roles we play as coaches, but it is stressful and daunting for the teacher. I find it is best to acknowledge that.

In one situation with a teacher who was struggling to demonstrate enough progress to remain on the job, I started our first meeting by just talking. I told my colleague how sorry I was that we were in this situation, acknowledged that it must have been hard and overwhelming, and communicated that I believed in what we could do together. Addressing the truth of the situation was a way to build trust and begin with the most important part of our relationship: understanding. In the end, that understanding paid off. The teacher improved and stayed in the job, we shared the joy of that success.

2. Find common ground

In our role as coaches, we often work with educators whose jobs are very different from our own. When I collaborated with K-6 Physical Education teachers to help realign their curriculum to new state standards, I thought a lot about where to start. My classroom experience was 14 years in high school ELA, so I wondered, how could I earn their trust and understand their needs?

I decided to try finding common ground by introducing an activity that was new for all of us, and I brought watercolor paints to one of our meetings. I don’t remember what we painted that afternoon, but I do remember how everyone laughed and felt a little silly as we shared a new experience, talked about the meaning of what we’d made, and broke the ice. Time and again, I have found that games and team challenges have the power to break tense moments and serve as dialogue openers so that groups can collaborate effectively.

3. Personalize the coaching experience

There’s a reason algorithmic streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, and YouTube are so popular: the expert curation personalizes the results to our unique needs and interests. Coaches can offer the same feeling by personalizing our support. Strategies include gathering preferences in a pre-session survey, modify learning experiences in the moment based on educators’ needs, and recognizing when a particular topic or task we’ve planned turns out to be a poor fit for the individual we’re working with.

4. Reserve judgment

As educators, we’re constantly assessing, and the habit of viewing progress through objective measures is all around us. But in a coaching session, the best mindset we can convey is one that reserves judgment. To build that kind of supportive space, I try to remember to focus on the current challenge and provide the support that is needed in the moment. It doesn’t matter whether this is the fourth year that a particular classroom reports low math scores or the third year a school pulls in the highest discipline referrals. Nor does it matter if the same educator asks me the same question every year. It matters that right now, this educator is reaching out for support.

5. Keep well-being at the forefront

Grand gestures are great for marriage proposals and milestone birthdays, but as a strategy for morale and motivation, they lose steam fast. Large gestures can be viewed as “one and done.” Plus, they take an unsustainable amount of energy and cost for leaders or colleagues who are facing their own challenges. Instead, leaders can generate a climate that prioritizes well-being in small, regular moments.

To build that climate, I start meetings with an activity that encourages social connection, coping skills, or personal reflection. In a recent grade-level leader meeting, we started with a conversation about emotional triggers, strategizing how to handle negative behaviors in our environment. By placing educator wellness as the starting point each time we meet, we’re building a climate of compassion.

6. Study the art of delicacy

Coaching adults requires great nuance, because it’s harder for adults to accept guidance and counsel than it is for children. This is especially true if the support is unsolicited, as it often is when teachers are required, rather than invited, to participate in coaching cycles. Coaches need not only perceptive listening skills, but also tact, diplomacy, and discretion.

Those who mentor coaches, whether they are teacher leaders or administrators, can help by offering their coaches opportunities to develop and practice vulnerability, trust-building, and navigating complex conversations. And coaches can reach out to their experienced colleagues for advice and modeling in these valuable skills.

7. Build a team, and lean on it

Just as teachers can’t thrive in isolation, neither can coaches. The relationships we build with coaching colleagues are just as important as the relationships we build with the teachers we support. Building a team helps us build our knowledge, develop new insights, get unstuck, and do our jobs better, and that, in turn, helps teachers learn more and do their jobs better. We will never accomplish as much alone as we can with a compassionate team.

Research outlines many components of effective teams, but the one quality I see consistently in the working groups that have become teams is that the contributions of each member are valued, and that value is actively communicated and felt by all teammates. Coaching expert Elena Aguilar (2013) says it best: “If you don’t have a powerful community around you, build one. Find one. Look and keep looking until you find one.”

A foundation for progress

Approaching those we serve in an understanding, mindful, and non-judgmental way lays the foundation for progress. When we put relationships first, the people we coach come to trust us and are more likely to engage in an ongoing partnership with us. I was reminded of this recently when I visited my doctor for a wellness visit. I’d been dreading the appointment because I’d missed many years of wellness visits, and I waited for my doctor’s questions about why I’d been gone and a series of reminders about necessary health measures. But what I got instead was the warmest smile, questions about my family, and an earnest “I’m so happy to see you.” That day, I did something I never do: I made an appointment on the spot for next year’s wellness visit, because talking to an expert who only wants the best for me felt really good. She stayed in the present, left no judgment, and helped me with what I needed. As a coach, that’s exactly what I aim to do.

''When we put relationships first, the people we coach come to trust us and are more likely to engage in an ongoing partnership.'' Share on X


Aguilar, E. (2013). A like-minded community: Key for sustaining our work as educators. Edutopia.