If You Build It (Relationships) Then They (Teachers) Will Come To You

It’s All About Relationships

My principal, Gregory Kroll, is one of my personal and professional heroes.  Now, I no longer teach at Martin Sortun Elementary, but, at 8 years, he was my longest running principal.  The man gave more than I knew was possible and had a heart to match.  Whatever you needed, whatever it took, he was there for you.  One of the things he used to tell me is that teaching, coaching, and working in a school “are all about relationships” at the end of the day.  What your relationship is with a person (colleague, parent, student, etc.) will affect every aspect of the interactions and outcomes.  His insight shed light on the need to be aware of relationships as will as the need to grow and cultivate positive relationships with everyone (not taking anything for granted).  This leads me directly into the first component ISTE Coaching Standard.  Without 3a, components 3b-3d are difficult at best.  Establishing trusting relationships is the foundation to any form of instructional coaching. 

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

  • 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.
  • 3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.
  • 3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.
  • 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

As a professional development provider and instructional coach, based on my experiences and expertise how do I establish trusting and respectful relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies?

My Time as a Teacher: True confessions time…

True confession, as a classroom teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I did.  While I sought out and grew under mentors, I was not generally open to working with instructional coaches on a 1:1 basis.  I think part of this extends from the fact that I spent my first six years in a building that did not have an instructional coach and thought I was doing fine growing through other professional development opportunities.  It helped that my principal, Cathy Lendosky, was extremely skilled at delivering effective professional development so our teacher workshop days were high quality experiences.  So when I arrived at Martin Sortun going into my seventh year of teaching, I didn’t see the need.  It also didn’t help that the instructional coaches were both in my peer group and so had the exact same amount of instructional experience.  Knowing what I know now, I was definitely wrong.  I still participated in every PD opportunity provided by the instructional coaches outside of 1:1 coaching, but I only engaged in that when requested and wasn’t an active, growth-minded customer interested in continuing the practice over time.  I think in part, it’s because of relationship.  They were my friends and colleagues, so there was something there but there wasn’t an established professional development relationship with my instructional coaches.

Instructional Coaching: Lessons Learned…

The tables had certainly turned when the opportunity presented itself for me to become an instructional coach.  Very quickly, I realized that I needed to learn and grow a lot if I was to be an effective instructional coach.  My (now fellow) instructional coaches were probably delighted at my newfound interest and both readily coached me.  I was trying to make up for lost time.  On the flip side of things, having been a reticent classroom teacher when it came to coaching, I knew how to engage the other teachers like me.  It was all about relationship.  I made sure that they felt “invited” but not pressured so that there would be no hard feelings but they’d also feel free to say “no thank you” to opportunities that I provided.  Conversely, I went out of my way to make sure that they’d be curious about whatever little tidbit from the training did make it their way and to profusely thank any of them that did show up.  I sincerely believe that teacher planning time is far more precious than gold.  My follow-up touch points would also be quick, to the point, and hopefully meaningful which I’d do via a quick in-person interaction or short email.  Mostly, I’d just see how it was going and if there was anymore that I could do to support following the training or activity.  Would they like me to come in and co-teach a lesson?  I’d be happy to do all of the planning and teaching if they’d just like to present alongside me.  This approach usually worked and each co-teaching experience looked different depending on the teacher’s experience.  As time and interactions progressed, I focused on building the relationship.  What did they need help with?  What worked?  What could I offer that helped them accomplish one of their goals?  Relationship, relationship, relationship.

Professional Development Provider: The More You Know…

Relationship as a professional development provider is definitely much harder.  It’s hard to have relationships with 50 or more of your “closest friends” from across the country that you just met.  And yet, relationships are just as important in this context.  So building relational capacity from the moment those educators walk through that door is key.  And, as a designer of these professional development opportunities, it’s really important that those relational capacity building activities are built into the course syllabus design.

This is all much easier said than done. Designing in time for developing relational capacity takes discipline because it is so tempting to either view this as “fluff” or cut this time in the interest of other content. Additionally, building relationship is work. Hard work. You have to care. People can sense a lack of authenticity so this means being vulnerable because you have to be your real self and invest emotionally. Passion for the topic can help but there’s no substitute for legitimate relational connection.

The More You Know, The More You Realize How Little You Know

The more you know, the less you know seems to have been a theme for my career.  Every time a professional opportunity expands my horizons and helps me to grow and learn more as an educator, the more I realize that the percentage of what I actually know is really much smaller than I thought.  It’s almost like professional knowledge pie chart where my personal piece grows at a much slower rate than the total knowledge I’m aware of and therefore appears to always be shrinking over time.  The realization can be a bit overwhelming, but there is also comfort in knowing that no one person can possibly have all of the answers.

Ultimately, you don’t know what you don’t know and so need to be open to learning along the way.  Relationships were a constantly recurring theme for me when it came to my professional growth.  Either it was there or it wasn’t there and I often grew in my practice in direct proportion to the type of relationship I had with my professional development providers.  In turn, the same was true for participants that I supported.  Relationships are a two-way street and so both people need to invest in order for there to be a relational benefit.  When they do, then relatable learning can happen and level of relational capacity developed forms the foundation for broader and deeper levels of professional learning and shared throughout all of ISTE Coaching Standard 3.

Interestingly enough, there was a video that I participated in as part of my instructional coaching work when I was bridging over to the role of professional development provider.  It’s a snapshot of where I was at during that point in time as well as a representation of the many different kinds of amazing educators that I had the opportunity to work with and support.  If you’re curious, you can watch this video as it highlights one of my final projects as an instruction coach focused on STEM integration at a K-6 STEM Lighthouse School.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28th). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-06-28-5-things-teachers-want-from-pd-and-how-coaching-and-collaboration-can-deliver-them-if-implementation-improves
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2336&filename=Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
  4. Dorr, E. (2015, November). How Administrators Can Design the Best Learning Experiences for Teachers. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-11-04-how-administrators-can-design-the-best-learning-experiences-for-teachers
  5. Gilliam, J. & Ferguson D. (2018, September). GUEST VIDEO: STEM TEACHING AND LEARNING AT MARTIN SORTUN ELEMENTARY. Washington STEM. Retrieved from https://washingtonstem.org/martin-sortun/

4 Replies to “If You Build It (Relationships) Then They (Teachers) Will Come To You”

  1. Doug, thanks for being so open about your experiences. It was fun to hear more about your background and I appreciated your vulnerability. I too moved from a teaching position to being an instructional coach for my friends and colleagues- it’s tough! I agree that relationships are essential. I’d love to hear more about those “relational capacity building activities” you use in the group PD sessions you design.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing that video and for your honesty. I completely agree with you that the more I learn the less I feel like I know. There is just so much out there and I am constantly growing in my knowledge but it doesn’t always feel like it. I appreciate your take on how important relationships are and that it takes time and authenticity.

  3. Doug, thank you for sharing your experiences with coaches and coaching yourself! I have found myself in a similar experience with 1:1 coaching, so I appreciate your insights that you took away from your experiences. I could tell from the video that your school has such good working relationships. I too would love to hear more about how you use relational capacity building activities in PD.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences as a teacher and professional development presenter! There is truth to the mantra you state, and sometimes coaches and teachers need to be encouraged and open to taking a risk out of their comfort zone or zone of knowledge. Great insights here!

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