What do we do about teachers who resist coaching?

What do we do about teachers who resist coaching?

February 2018

All of us who work as literacy coaches have, at some point, encountered resistance among the teachers with whom we work. This issue seems to persist and is hard to overcome, making teacher resistance one of the ongoing challenges of coaching (Toll, 2005).  The source of this resistance often puzzles us. After all, aren’t we in this together?  Don’t we all want to strengthen our students’ learning (and improve those ubiquitous assessment outcomes)? Of course, like everything else in human nature, the issue is complex.  

Resistance can come from a variety of sources. Sometimes teachers are resistant to new instructional ideas or curricular changes (e.g., Dole & Donaldson, 2006; Lyons & Pinnell, 2001).  These teachers are content with the status quo and have developed a comfortable routine, so resist efforts to bring curricular or instructional innovations or to move them outside their “comfort zones.”   In other situations, teachers over-rely on their own experience and “local knowledge,” i.e., teaching within their unique settings and particular school environments (e.g., Little, 2002).  Of course experience matters a lot for good teaching, but it can also cause idiosyncratic instruction or ideas that simply fly in the face of the most effective, or “best” practice.  In all of these cases, it is often up to the coach to support teachers in  developing more productive approaches; and this sometimes causes teachers to resist new ideas that seem to call into question familiar instructional patterns and ways of teaching (Cohen, 2000; Little, 2002).

A coach’s efforts to modify or re-route teachers’ instruction may also raise teachers’ fears of judgment and evaluation or concerns about change; this, in turn, affects their willingness to actively participate in the coaching process (Jay, 2009).  

Teachers’ feelings of self-efficacy, philosophical differences with the coach, or differing expectations and beliefs about student learning may also lead teachers to resist coaching interactions (Guskey, 1988; McKenna & Walpole, 2008). In a study of the relationship between teachers’ feelings of self-efficacy and their attitudes about implementing new mastery-learning instructional approaches, Guskey (1988) identified a strong relationship between teachers’ self-efficacy and their receptivity to new practices. That is, teachers with greater self-efficacy were more open to new approaches; and this sense of competence, combined with their attitudes toward the innovation, strongly influenced their willingness to consider and modify their practices.

Sometimes resistance is warranted. When teachers are asked to implement a seeming revolving door of new programs or curricula or to engage in more “test prep” that cuts into valuable instructional time, teachers have legitimate concerns. In these situations, coaches can exert important influence by helping teachers integrate programmatic and curricular changes while keeping an eye on the larger instructional principles that should guide all instructional decisions, regardless of curricular or district demands.  In these situations, coaches and teachers work together as a team to figure out how to balance new pressures and demands with the approaches and practices that best meet their students’ needs.

Hull, Balka, & Miles (2010) argue that the important question to pose is not whether coaching works, but rather, under what conditions can coaches be effective? In response to this question, they point to teachers’ professional isolation, lack of common planning time, and systemic characteristics like scheduling and limited resources as problems that can interfere with productive coaching initiatives (p. 40).  In this view, teachers’ resistance to coaching may reside less in the individual teacher than in the larger system where change is difficult or even opposed, thus necessitating support that addresses not just individual teachers, but also more global, school- or district-wide issues through collaborative networks, sufficient support for programmatic and curricular initiatives, resource availability, and productive data analysis.


Effective coaching must reside within a framework of trust and rapport and maintain a focus on student work and progress, not on teacher “problems.” Such a focus supports the central goal of coaching – to increase student learning, and helps to shift instructional decision-making and practices toward ideas that will strengthen the learning environment and students’ interactions with content.   Moreover, “coaches must remember that change takes positive pressure and support and that it occurs over time. Without positive pressure, time, and support, teachers will quickly forget or ignore new strategies in the hectic pace of day-to-day teaching” (Hull, Balka, & Miles, 2010, p. 42).


In addition, to the extent possible, devoting time to relationship-building with teachers and emphasizing a shared focus on improving student learning and solving problems of practice can help equalize the coaching relationship and may reduce resistance (e.g., Denton, Swanson & Mathes, 2007; Lynch & Ferguson, 2010).  In our experience, a strong partnership between a teacher and coach, including trust and shared goals, often leads to greater gains in students learning.

References cited in this month’s blog:

Cohen, D. K. (1990).  A revolution in one classroom: The case of Mrs. Oublier.
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12, 311-329.

Denton, C.A., Swanson, E.A. & Mathes, P.G. (2007).  Assessment-based instructional
coaching provided to reading intervention teachers. Reading and Writing, 20, 569-590. doi: 10.1007/s11145-007-9055-0

Dole, J., & Donaldson, R. (2006). “What am I supposed to do all day?”: Three big
ideas for literacy coaches. The Reading Teacher, 59(5), 486‐488.

Guskey, T.R. (1988). Teacher efficacy, self-concept, and attitudes toward the
implementation of instructional innovation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(1), 63-69.

Hull, T.H., Balka, D., & Miles, R.H. (2010). Overcoming resistance to change. Principal
Leadership, 10(8), 36-7, 40-2.

Jay, A.B. (2009). Tackling resistance. Journal of Staff Development, 30(5), 56-58.

Little, J.W. (2002). Locating learning in teachers’ communities of practice:  Opening
up problems of analysis in records of everyday work. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 917-946.

Lynch, J. & Ferguson, K. (2010). Reflections of elementary school literacy coaches on
practice:  Roles and perspectives. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(1), 199-227.

Lyons, C., & Pinnell, G. (2001). Systems for change in literacy education: A guide to
professional development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McKenna, M.C. & Walpole, S. (2008). The literacy coaching challenge: Models and
methods for grades K-8. New York: Guilford Press.

Toll, C. (2005). The literacy coach’s survival guide: Essential questions and practical
answers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


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