The Promise of Proximity

Good Coach Adjusted Size

I have just walked in for an initial meeting with a teacher. She gestures to a seat across the table from her. I smile and say, “If you don’t mind I’ll sit next to you at the corner of the table. That way it will be easier when we look at student work.” I scoot the chair over and without invading her space, I set myself up for a better coaching conversation.

While the across-the-table position is perfect for playing Chess or Battleship, it’s not a good seat for a coach. Opposing seating suggests both a defensive and competitive positioning whereas adjacent seating allows for good eye contact and mirroring. Mirroring refers to our natural tendency to “mirror” body language with another person in conversation from crossed legs to hand gestures. The more trust between two people, the more their movements are in sync. Sitting side by side with a colleague also allows them to view the notes you are taking. I want teachers to see that I’m noting their thoughts, concerns, descriptions and questions in their words, not judgements of my own.

Good Coach #2 Adjusted Size

In the same way when I’m observing another teacher, I move in. There are three important reasons to adjust proximity during classroom coaching that take into account roles, perspective and interaction. Most teachers associate back-of-the-room or off-to-the-side seating with supervisors. When a supervisor is evaluating they move off to the side so as not to disrupt the learning. My role is very different; I am an ongoing part of the learning community. Also from the back or side of the room I get a very different perspective from the teacher’s. Because I’m going to have a learning-focused and reflective conversation with the teacher, I want to see and hear the students similarly. Finally, when I am in close proximity to a teacher they are more comfortable turning to me for a nod of encouragement, a question or even a quick hand-off of part of the lesson. I get many more “Am I on the right track here?” or “I’m thinking I’ll stop and reteach the expectation” or “Do you have a different way to say that?” when I am just a couple feet away.

You might be thinking that it will disrupt students if you are close to the teacher up front, but it’s much less intrusive than you imagine. Once students get over the initial curiosity of who you are, they will focus on the learning at hand. As soon as the minilesson is over students will be working independently or cooperatively anyway and the teacher and I will both be moving around.

I also don’t walk in and assume this position during coaching without communicating first. Often I’ll explain it like this, “Now when I’m observing during the minilesson, I’ll pull up a chair close to you by the anchor chart. Because we’ll debrief after, I want to see what you are hearing and seeing. I will also be there if you want to collaborate during the lesson.  In my experience students get very comfortable with teachers having a learning conversation in front of them. Since so much about teaching is the in-the-moment decision making, I’ll just be a lean away if you want to briefly confer.”

Whether I’m choosing a seat for a plan or debrief session or selecting my spot during the lesson, I always respect that I am a guest in the classroom. I use proximity to show my focus is all about student learning.

How do you use proximity in teaching and coaching?

Special thanks to my daughter Maya for the wonderful comics she designed!

2 thoughts on “The Promise of Proximity

  1. Communicating how the coaching will look before co-teaching or observing is very important! The teacher and the coach need to be clear on what their role will be and how they will be “positioned” in the classroom during observations and for conversations so that their roles can be best fulfilled. Thanks for these reminders, Heather! Hope you and your family are doing well!

  2. I am currently a classroom teacher working towards my reading endorsement. As a classroom teacher I value your coaching style. When other adults come in my classroom I can feel some insecurity especially when they stand in the back of the classroom. Lately I have found that when adults come in and walk around I am more comfortable. I don’t feel like I am being as observed but they want to see what my students are learning.

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